Has Iraq uncovered a real World Cup threat?

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Iraq says it has uncovered an al-Qaeda conspiracy to attack next month’s FIFA soccer World Cup. South African officials say they are checking the veracity and seriousness of the allegation.

Iranian television and the German Deutsche Presse Agentur news agency (dpa) both report Iraqi security spokesman Major General Qassim Atta yesterday said that they had arrested a former Saudi Arabian Army officer, Colonel Abdullah al-Qahtani, also known as Sanan al-Saudi.

Atta said Qahtani, arrested two weeks ago, had participated in the planning of a terrorist act in South Africa, allegedly with Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s global second-in-command, in planning attacks on the World Cup events in South Africa, which begins in June, the agency reported. Qahtani apparently entered Iraq in 2004 and was involved in militant operations in the northern towns of al-Qaim and Husayba. In 2007, Qahtani was detained by the US military under the false name Muzawar al-Shammari and was released last year, Iranian TV adds. At the time of his arrest Qahtani was in charge of security for an insurgent network in Baghdad, Atta said. He also took part in the planning of a series of attacks on Baghdad hotels in January, which killed 36 people, and in the organisation of blasts in December that killed 127 people in the Iraqi capital, the report added. He declined to give more details on the plot, French news agency AFP says.

South Africa’s police say they are checking the reports. “I know absolutely nothing about that, I am making inquiries,” said police spokesman Colonel Vishnu Naidoo. He added Iraqi security officials had not yet contacted their South African counterparts about the suspected plot. Naidoo said the report from Baghdad would not affect World Cup security planning because terrorism had always been part of the calculations. Musa Zondi, spokesman for national police commissioner General Bheki Cele was also not aware of the arrest.

SA ready: Mthethwa, Cele

The report comes on the day South African security forces paraded in the north of Johannesburg in a show of readiness ahead of the games, The Times newspaper reports this morning. On Thursday Cele said South African police knew of no security threat to the event. In a speech prepared for delivery at Monday’s parade, Cele said the security plan “looks at the smallest of issues, whether it be the protection of a soccer ball to the biggest form of criminality such as terrorism. “While no country can stand boldly and pronounce that it is immune from terrorism, what becomes critical is, should such an act occur, how do we respond? What makes us even more alert in our security planning is that, South Africa will be hosting the whole world and therefore we will take no chances.”

Cele continued that the country would spare “neither strength nor effort in ensuring the safety of all citizens and visitors”. Criminals who wanted to test the security forces should expect “wrath and real umlilo wamaphoyisa (police fire)” from 190 000 policemen, he said.

Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said “South Africa will host the safest and most secure FIFA World Cup. The force is ready. That is the message we shared with South Africans over the past year and that we will be articulating to our 2010 visitors. Police will be everywhere, ready to respond to any eventuality.” Mthethwa said his forces were ready for everything from petty criminals to terrorists.
“South Africa will be hosting the whole world, and therefore will take no chances.”

Cele told Parliament two weeks ago that police had investigated a threat by al-Shabaab, a Somali al-Qaeda affiliate, and decided it was not credible. There is now a sizeable Somali expatriate community in SA. Last month, Mthethwa said officials were aware of al-Qaeda-linked threats against the World Cup, and in particular against the United States-England group game in Rustenburg, posted on Jihadist forums.

But some disagree

China’s state news agency, Xinhua, adds the Baghdad arrest follows a warning by an expert last week that al-Qaeda was targeting the football tournament. Professor Hussein Solomon, head of the International Institute for Islamic Studies at Pretoria University, told The Citizen newspaper in Johannesburg on Thursday last week that he believed al-Qaeda had every intention of committing wholesale slaughter during the World Cup.

He said al-Qaeda suspects in many parts of the world had been found to have South African passports. But Mark Schroeder, the Sub-Saharan Africa expert for US private intelligence company Strategic Forecasting (STRATFOR), disagreed with Solomon’s assessment of an al-Qaeda threat to the World Cup in South Africa. Schroeder told The Citizen newspaper: “Any attack will hurt them (al-Qaeda) more than it could benefit them.”

He also pointed out that South African intelligence services had recently been “waking up” to the real threats posed by al-Qaeda offshoots. Schroeder said that, prior to threats being made against the US Embassy in South Africa last year, the South African Secret Service and National Intelligence Agency had very little or no idea of what al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab was up to in Somalia. Schroeder said that al-Shabaab – who threatened to blow up the FIFA World Cup – was active and established in the Cape Flats near Cape Town and was also using the Somali diaspora across Africa to raise funds for terror activities. Schroeder said he was adamant that crime, not al-Qaeda terrorism, should be the major concern for tourists and the South African security services.

However, last week Solomon told The Citizen that, contrary to some opinions, he was convinced that the terror group intended biting the hand that has fed it, attacking the country where crooked officials had for years allowed them access to false passports and identity documents with which to carry out their terror schemes. Solomon told The Citizen that he did not agree with assessments that al-Qaeda would ignore the World Cup because South Africa was too valuable as a logistics hub for them. Said Solomon: “We have a terrible rot in our Department of Home Affairs (DHA), which in many ways is the root of all evil. South African passports and documents routinely turn up in the hands of criminals as well as Islamic terror cells.”

He said that after the London bombings several years ago vast numbers of South African passports were recovered by the UK police. SA has been deeply infiltrated by organised crime syndicates, and the DHA has been very heavily infiltrated, Xinhua and the official Chinese Peopl’e Daily newspapers quoted him as saying. The Citizen reported that in early 2008 a series of raids by British police saw dozens of men being arrested as part of an organised human trafficking scheme. The suspects were jailed after courts there found that they had obtained false SA African passports for Indian and Pakistani citizen who wanted to enter Britain illegally. After the July 7, 2005 London bus bombings dozens of South African passports were found by police investigating the attacks, Solomon told The Citizen.
“Years before the 2008 arrests it was known there was a problem with Home Affairs. Haroon Aswat, the mastermind of the July 7 London bus bombings, and a former bodyguard of Osama Bin Laden’s, lived in South Africa for years, and traveled to the UK two weeks before those bombings.” He told The Citizen: “It is fair to presume he may have been the source of the fake South African passports. It is also fair to presume he planned the attacks from Gauteng (province in South Africa).” Solomon said Aswat was by far the most senior al-Qaeda operative linked to the London bombings. He continued: “Let’s not forget that false South African passports do not only turn up in the hands of serious international criminals. They are so easy to obtain that even (US actor) Wesley Snipes apparently bought himself a South African passport off a crooked Home Affairs official.”

Solomon said that the widespread use of South African passports had led many experts to believe that al-Qaeda would not risk losing such a resource – however he believed that this was not the case: “That argument presumes that al-Qaeda is a homogenous entity with a central command – which it is not. al-Qaeda has already made its intentions clear.” He continued that a few weeks ago a Jamaican born cleric was deported from Botswana after that country caught him red-handed attempting to recruit suicide bombers to target the World Cup. “al-Qaeda have had seven years to plan an operation and plant their people here (in South Africa). For seven years they have had time to prepare their plans and obtain the weapons, passports and identity documents they need”. He added that weapons and chemicals are in plentiful supply in South Africa.
“They will have billions of people watching television and they will have no limit of targets. The only way to take on al-Qaeda is an operation that needs to be driven by intelligence, and our intelligence services have been gutted.”



Pic: Police commissioner General Bheki Cele inspecting his forces at a recent World Cup equipment display. The police have spent over R600 billion acquiring new kit for the June 11-July 11 event.