NATJOINTS deny terror threat claims

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The National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NATJOINTS) that coordinates all security operations for the 2010 FIFA soccer World Cup is strongly disputing a Sunday Times lead article that “incorrectly claims that there is a terrorism threat against the tournament.”

The Sunday paper said the intelligence services have been accused of being slow to react to warnings of terror threats to the 2010 World Cup. Quoting a “Nine Eleven Finding Answers Foundation (NEFA)” briefing to the US Congress counter-terror caucus last Wednesday, that simultaneous and random attacks were being planned during the World Cup. “This corroborates what local intelligence sources have told the Sunday Times,” the paper said.

NEFA director Ronald Sandee told US lawmakers Pakistani and Somali militants were running terror training camps in northern Mozambique; trainees from these camps may have crossed into South Africa to join or form cells planning World Cup attacks; and surveillance as well as strike teams planning attacks were “well established” in South Africa. Terror groups involved include al-Qaeda and their Somalian allies, al-Shahaab, the Sunday Times added, saying “furious efforts are under way to recover lost ground, but some warn these may be too little, too late.”

The NATJOINTS said the article in question “is riddled with inaccuracies and most comments are from anonymous sources.”

According to the Sunday Times, “two insiders” had told it a watch-list of 40 terror suspects had been drawn up. “The Sunday Times has also received two separate accounts of at least one arrest linked to World Cup threats. Police have neither confirmed nor denied the arrest or watch-list,” the paper said.
“The NATJOINTS has now denied the alleged watch list. “Although the NATJOINTS is not prepared to discuss intelligence matters for obvious reasons, we can categorically deny the existence of a “watch-list of 40 terror suspects”or the arrest of any person directly targeting the World Cup,” spokeswoman Brigadier Sally de Beer said.

The Sunday Times also alleged the existence of operational militant training camps in several provinces in South Africa, “and of established terror strike cells planning to target the World Cup, was confirmed independently by three sources with direct or indirect access to active intelligence operations. Two sources separately confirmed the Mozambique camps and presence of both al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab operatives.”

One source conceded to the paper “It’s impossible to tell. It’s simply unknown if capabilities for large-scale, orchestrated attacks exist.” But all agreed that concrete plans for attempted attacks exist. “There is no doubt about that,” the paper quoted them as saying. Sandee was reportedly more forthright. He told the US congress that numerous references were made to World Cup attacks in closed-frequency radio broadcasts and telephone intercepts this month in Mauritania, Algeria, Mali, Pakistan and Yemen. “Information confirms that several venues will be targeted, some simultaneously, others at random. Reference is also made to the possibility of a kamikaze-type attack.”

But De Beer says the NATJOINTS dispute the existence of “operational militant training camps in several provinces in South Africa”. She says the “security forces can firmly state that there is no known specific terror threat against the 2010 FIFA World Cup. All operational plans are on track, teams already in their base camps are moving around and police deployments are increasing.”

Sandee told the Sunday Times on Friday the information he had presented was derived from several intelligence agency sources, as well as NEFA’s own informants on the ground. “I believe there is an 80% chance of an attack,” he concluded. He agreed with several analysts who believe that until recently South African intelligence bosses were in denial about the level of threat posed to the World Cup. “Since late last week, there seems to be a change within the leadership of (SA intelligence services),” says Sandee. “But I am afraid that it is too late. How many terror cells can you pick up now, even if you work 25 hours a day?”

Intelligence operatives close to the investigation confirmed that the government started taking threats seriously only earlier this year, after an ad-hoc task team comprising dormant counter-terror experts, military and police intelligence officers and National Intelligence Agency operatives provided briefings on active terror cells. But mid and lower-ranking operatives complain that their tip-offs and warnings are either being ignored or not being relayed to the top brass. A source with links to police and crime intelligence said: “All leads by operatives and across agencies, SA and foreign, should be followed vigorously, if only to send the right message, along with much stronger visible security measures. None of this is happening right now, which makes the World Cup more vulnerable than it should be.”

This view is supported by academics and terror analysts. “We will be excellent at reaction, but counter-intelligence is their Achilles’ heal, because there are too many political appointees,” says former naval officer and senior researcher at the SA Institute for International Affairs Frank van Rooyen. “We are definitely vulnerable to suicide bombers and car bombs. All the signs are there that al-Qaeda is planning one of these attacks on the World Cup.”

De Beer’s colleague, Colonel Vishnu Naidoo was equally dismissive: “I don’t know where they got their information from. We have all our strategies and plans in place. We have intelligence briefings every day and there is nothing even suggesting what has been suggested by the Sunday Times.”

But the Sunday Times is not the only paper carrying the NEFA report. The Mail & Guardian reported in similar vain on Friday, saying the recent arrest of Saudi national Abdullah Azzam Saleh Misfar al-Qahtani in Iraq – allegedly after plotting attacks on the Dutch or Danish teams and/or supporters – followed by last week’s denial by al-Qaeda that it planned attacks on the World Cup “appears to have heightened tensions between the United States and local security agencies.”

The M&G says FIFA general secretary Jérôme Valcke dismissed as a “bluff” the alleged al-Qahtani plot after an Interpol investigation. It says a police source close to the security planning for the tournament questioned the nature of al-Qahtani’s arrest and subsequent televised interview with an international news agency: “Usually, this is not how terror suspects are treated — being paraded around like that to the media. There is a feeling [among the South Africans] that this has been stage-managed by the Americans to apply pressure on us to further increase our World Cup security around them.”

The source also noted that neither the US nor Iraq had contacted South African security agencies at the time of going to press about al-Qahtani’s arrest. The US state department refused to comment on the alleged uneasy relationship between South African and American security agencies, saying that there is “close cooperation between our two governments”.

Threat of a terror attack – especially by Islamic jihadists – has loomed over the build-up to the World Cup, with the American and England teams, in particular, considered “high-risk” nations. Earlier this year, alleged al-Qaeda threats to bomb the match between the USA and England — which will be watched by US Vice-President Joe Biden – on June 12 at Rustenburg’s Royal Bafokeng stadium were posted on the Al Mushtaquh Illa Al-Jannah (Those Yearning for Heaven) website, the M&G said.

In its report NEFA’s Sandee painted a scenario in which the Rustenburg match would be targeted through a car-bomb attack on one of the team buses, followed by a second attack “on the scene to create havoc and create more panic”. Nefa’s scenario includes other simultaneously coordinated attacks on fans and in “Europe in a pub”.

It adds though that in the “murky world of intelligence-gathering and political interest it is sometimes difficult to discern paranoia from authentic research.” It quotes private intelligence-gathering company STRATFOR as downplaying the possibility of a jihadist terror attack during the World Cup. The report, titled “Security and Africa’s World Cup”, noted that “despite thinly veiled threats from regional jihadists, none of the major groups (either global or regional) possesses the capability or the strategic intention to carry out a spectacular attack against a World Cup venue”.

The STRATFOR report found that al-Qaeda’s core in Afghanistan and Pakistan had “not demonstrated an ability to strike outside South Asia for years”. But it did warn of a possible terror cell linked to the Somali al-Shabaab organisation on the Cape Flats. High-risk participating countries, such as England and the Netherlands, have confirmed to the M&G that extra measures have been put in place of late – especially after the arrest of al-Qahtani. The British government confirmed that rapid-response “resilience teams” had been set up in countries surrounding South Africa to “ensure the safety of its citizens” in the event of any catastrophe, including natural disasters and terror attacks. According to the source, the teams have been set up in all South Africa’s neighbours, including Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Judith Sluiter of the Netherlands’ National Coordinator for Counterterrorism said that country’s intelligence reports had confirmed there were constant “behind-the-scenes discussions” between the Dutch government, football associations and intelligence agencies that had intensified following al-Qahtani’s arrest, but she refused to divulge details.

The US government has contributed $300 000 (R2.3-million) towards training and providing explosives-detection equipment for local police as part of the US state department’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance Programme. Sixty South African police officers have been trained in explosive, nuclear, chemical, radiological and biological weapons detection and defusion, the M&G added.

Meanwhile, the Independent newspapers this morning reports the US government last week issued a travel alert for South Africa until the end of July saying: “There is a heightened risk that extremist groups will conduct terrorist acts within South Africa in the near future”. They failed to add that in it the warning officials added that they had “no information on any specific, credible threat of attack that any individual or group is planning”.

The Times newspaper, the daily sister of the Sunday Times today adds the conjecture has caused international anxiety. It says US Attorney-General Eric Holder has discussed the possibility with the interior ministers of Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Poland and Britain at a security conference at the weekend. Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said: “We proposed that, if a European team is knocked out of the competition, the agents who accompanied it to provide security will remain in South Africa to help their colleagues from other countries.” The SA police have invite most participating nations to send police contingents to provide local authorities advice, especially on football hooligans.

The British foreign office has also warned travellers that: “Attacks, though unlikely, could be indiscriminate.” De Beer, meanwhile, again made “an appeal to all media to report responsibly in order to avoid alarming the community needlessly.”