Two British botanists kidnapped by a violent gang with links to terror group ISIS were ‘hunted’ as ‘good targets’ in a remote forest to ‘strike fear into the heart’ of those opposed to an Islamic caliphate, text messages from their attackers reveal.
Rod and Rachel Saunders were stalked as they searched for rare plants and seeds in a remote South African beauty spot, unaware of the chilling plan to snatch them.
Messages retrieved from the phones of two of three suspects arrested in the wake of the couple’s disappearance reveal the innocent pair were victims of a terror plot targeting the ‘kuffar’ –non-believers in Islam – whose bodies are ‘never found’.
Rachel Saunders and her husband Rodney went missing on February 12 near the Bivane dam, near the town of Verulam in the north of KwaZulu-Natal province
The couple were filming in a remote are near the town of Vryheid
The couple emigrated in the 1970s and lived in Cape Town. They were searching for a rare plant in mountains outside the city when they disappeared
New police documents presented in court today, opposing the suspects’ applications for bail, set out details of the gang’s plot to target victims whose plight would cause maximum outrage in the West.
Mr and Mrs Saunders, who live in Cape Town, were last seen hiking in the Drakensberg mountains almost a month ago after guiding a crew from a BBC gardening programme. Their Land Cruiser was found 150 miles from their final sighting, some days later, with its boot heavily stained with blood.
Hopes that the popular pair may still be found alive faded further as detective warrant officer Anuresh Lutchman, from South Africa’s anti-terror unit, revealed the chilling text messages which were exchanged between the couple’s alleged kidnappers.
Big Banana Films producer Robin Matthews, who posted the photograph of the couple being filmed in the mountains, was one of the last to see them alive
There were discussions to prepare to kill the kuffar and abduct their allies, to destroy infrastructure and to put fear into the heart of the kuffar,’ his statement to the court in Durban revealed.
In one exchange, suspect Sayfydeen Aslam Del Vecchio texted his wife and co-accused Fatima Patel on 10 February to announce he had found an ideal target for their terror plan – ‘an elderly couple in the forest’. To which she responded that ‘the target’ offered the gang a ‘good hunt’.
In another phone message to an unknown contact, Del Vecchio urged the importance of the victims’ bodies never being found.
‘When the brothers in Kenya go out and do this work, it is very important that the body of the victim is never found and it remains a missing person case,’ he texted.
It is understood that after beating and snatching the quiet pair, the gang went on a spending sprew with their credit cards and drew substantial sums of money from their bank account, acquiring electronic devices, a drone and other paraphernalia.
Big Banana Films producer Robin Matthews, who was part of the Gardeners’ World crew, was one of the last to see them alive and blames himself for their abduction.
Mr Matthews who spent three days filming with Mr Saunders, 73, and his 64 year-old wife, told the Weekend Argus: ‘I feel incredibly guilty because I told them to go down to Ngoye Forest which is a birders’ and botanists’ paradise.
Mr Matthews wrapped up shooting for the BBC special late in the morning on February 8 at the top of Oliviershoek Pass and said the pair headed towards Bivane Dam where it was thought they were taken.
On February 9, Mrs Saunders sent him a WhatsApp photo of a rare gladiolus the couple had found at Bivane Dam. A day later, they are thought to have fallen prey to Del Vecchio and Patel who lived on a remote hillside not far from where the Saunders were camping and foraging for seeds.
When police swooped on the suspects’ modest, hand-built hut some days after the Saunders’ disappearance, they found an ISIS flag flying and recordings made by Del Vecchio in which he is allegedly giving instructions on how to build a bomb.
On February 26 they arrested Themba Xulu, 19, a neighbour.
The trio appeared in the Verulam magistrate’s court on kidnapping and aggravated robbery charges and various counts under anti-terror legislation.
British security officials have upped calls for vigilance since the kidnap and warn on the Foreign Office official website of ‘likely’ attacks by Islamists on foreigners on holiday in South Africa.