South Africa’s intelligence agencies have reportedly stepped up their surveillance of possible terrorist threats to the country and June’s World Cup, with specific attention to that emanating from Somalia.
But the Mail & Guardian Friday reported that Mark Schroeder, director of sub-Saharan Africa for the US commercial intelligence company Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor) insists that crime, rather than terrorism, remains the major threat for tourists travelling to South Africa for the soccer tourney.
Schroeder says that although an al-Qaeda-linked Somali militant group, al-Shabaab, (pictured) has allegedly established a network in the Cape Flats that has led to South African intelligence operatives visiting Somalia and Kenya, it is unlikely that Muslim extremists would launch attacks in South Africa, as it is their “logistical hub”.
He was interviewed in the wake of a deadly terrorist attack on the Togolese national football team in Angola that left three people dead and eight injured.
In September last year the US government closed its embassy in Pretoria and all other US government offices for two days after intelligence reports that al-Shabaab was planning to bomb American interests in South Africa. The Weekend Argus reported in October that undisclosed intelligence agencies intercepted a call from Khayelitsha to members of al-Shabaab in Somalia, discussing a plot to attack US interests.
Al-Shabaab controls most of southern Somalia, excluding the capital, Mogadishu. It has been fighting the United Nations-recognised transitional government and its Ethiopian supporters since 2006 and its insurgency techniques includes suicide bombings, shootings and targeted assassinations”.
The attacks target the Somali government and its perceived supporters, including African Union peacekeepers.
The US claimed in February 2008 al-Shabaab was linked to al-Qaeda, after placing the movement on its list of foreign terrorist organisations. According to the US Council for Foreign Relations think tank it has been claimed that senior al-Shabaab leaders trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but organisational links between the two groups were weak. But Stratfor earlier this month noted that the Somali movement in September last year declared itself adherent to al-Qaeda.
“It was always going to be a question of whether al-Qaeda will try something during the World Cup,” Schroeder told the M&G. “But any attack will hurt them more than it could benefit them.”
He pointed out that South Africa was an “important logistics hub” for both al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, and both organisations would be careful not to trigger a backlash by launching attacks in South Africa.
But he also said that after the September threats against US facilities in South Africa, the South African Secret Service (SASS) sent agents to Kenya and Somalia to gather their own intelligence.
“Prior to the threat they [SASS and the National Intelligence Agency] had no idea about al-Shabaab and what was happening in Somalia … they [al-Shabaab] are established in the Cape Flats and are using the Somali diaspora for fundraising.” South Africa’s intelligence agencies were “on the back foot” because of the transition from former president Thabo Mbeki to President Jacob Zuma and it is only since September that the SASS and NIA “have been waking up to some real threats”.
But crime is the “primary concern” for tourists — “not just making them aware of the problem, but explaining the dos and don’ts of travelling in South Africa, where they should go and where they shouldn’t”.
The SASS visit to Somalia and Kenya may be the source of a garbled report in SA’s Sunday Times of December 26.
The paper reported that a Somali news site was saying at least two officials were under investigation for passing on “sensitive information” to the SASS and the United States’s Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA).
The Sunday broadsheet said the site claimed that the African Union was probing the activities of an intelligence analyst from an East African country and a Somali-Tanzanian who worked for the United Nations Support Office for Amisom (UNSOA) in Nairobi.
“(They) have reportedly been recruited separately to spy both on Amisom (African Union Mission to Somalia) and Somalis with the view of undermining the Djibouti Process and assisting the West in the War on Terror in East Africa,” the news site mareeg.com reported under the headline “Somali Spy Network Exposed”.
It is claimed that the two men involved in the spy ring had been promised foreign citizenship, money and a long-term UN contract “by the Western agency”.
Confidential e-mail communications and pictures of the DIA and SASS handlers had been shown to the news site.
Mo Shaik, head of the South African Secret Service told the Sunday Times: “All I can say is that we will neither confirm nor deny any of these allegations.”
The Sunday Times added US secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned SA “five months ago” that Somali extremists were on a recruitment drive in the country.
After meeting South African foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Clinton said: “The minister and I are well aware that al-Shabaab is recruiting young Somalis from South Africa, Australia and the United States to become suicide bombers, to participate in their efforts to turn Somalia into a safe haven for terrorism, which the United States believes would not just threaten the Horn of Africa, but all of Africa and beyond.”
In late December national police World Cup spokesman Senior Superintendent Vishnu Naidoo told the Independent group newspapers that despite South Africa’s not being a direct target for terrorism, “in view of the 31 other countries participating in the games there is the potential for the threat of a terror attack”.
“To counter this we have launched proactive and reactive plans which include the intervention and the assistance of Interpol in the creation of databases of dangerous and disruptive persons.
“These databases will include all persons involved in all forms of organised crime, ranging from terrorism to gun smuggling and hooliganism. No one whose name is on the database will be allowed into the country.”
Naidoo said that added to the database, the numerous and various terrorist-simulation exercises which had been conducted, and more than 50 000 security force personnel to be deployed during the competition, the government had also entered into bilateral and multilateral talks with participating countries, “to assist in terms of our overall security plans”.
Naidoo declined to say which countries or security, intelligence or law enforcement agencies the government had entered into agreements with. Nor would he elaborate on safety plans. “Since we learnt in 2004 that we were hosting the World Cup, we have been preparing and if anyone asks us to host the competition tomorrow, from a security perspective, we are more than ready.
“South Africa has delivered more than 150 international events successfully and we always plan for any eventuality and don’t need a wake-up call,” Naidoo said, adding that those protecting the games had more than enough experience.
Commenting on the terrorist simulation exercises, Naidoo said they had practised for various scenarios, including chemical, biological and radioactive attacks.
“While we do not foresee these attacks happening, we have to plan for any eventuality and have specialised teams comprising police, military and other government departments to deal with these or any other threats,” he said.