The State Security ministry says its confident next year’s FIFA Soccer World Cup, the opening ceremony of which will be attended by US President Barack Obama, will be safe and secure, despite a reported threat over the weekend that it maybe targetted by al-Qaeda terrorists.
Independent group newspapers yesterday reported last month’s unprecedented two-day closure of the US Embassy in Pretoria and of consulates elsewhere was the result of intercepted cellphone communication detailing planned attacks on American interests in South Africa.
“Intelligence officers, according to two sources, intercepted a call made in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, to a group based in Somalia, and the conversation confirmed a plot to blow up American interests in South Africa last month,” the Sunday Tribune, Weekend Argus and Sunday Independent reported.
The papers, carrying the same article, said it was “unclear whether American interests necessarily include a possible visit by US President Barack Obama for the official opening of the World Cup.”
al-Shabaab in South Africa
The Cape Argus today identifies the group as al-Shabaab, the extremist group fighting the United Nations-recognised Somali government as well as African Union peacekeepers. The group has known links to al-Qaeda.
The paper says the alleged attacks would apparently be in retaliation for the US military killing al-Shabaab commander Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in southern Somalia last month. The US suspected him of having played a role in the fatal bombing of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-el-Salaam in 1998.
State Security spokeswoman Lorna Daniels said SA has successfully hosted major events before and had a blueprint for doing so.
She added that SA’s security services were already working with counterparts world-wide to secure the event. “we are confident we’ll host a secure 2010,” she said.
The Independent group newspapers said US intelligence agents, SA National Intelligence Agency and police crime intelligence operatives conducted surveillance on the Cape-based group for an undisclosed time, “gathering crucial information before the operation was thrown into disarray” in late September when the Us closed its facilities and National Police Commissioner Bheki Cele went on TV to say the country’s intelligence structures were on top of the situation.
“This, it was established, led to the group discarding the SIM cards and the phones they had used, to cover their tracks,” the papers said.
The source said: “What has been established is that the Cape guys are linked to al-Qaeda cells in Somalia, who are connected to the group in Afghanistan. We have established that most al-Qaeda operatives are relocating from Afghanistan to Pakistan, attracted by increased lawlessness in Pakistan.
“Our information is that there is a trail that links Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and, most interestingly, Mozambique, where Somalis have formed an anti-US cell already.
“The interception revealed that these people plan to move en masse from Mozambique to here (South Africa) in 2010 to attack American interests. Their point is that South Africa is not a target, but if South Africans are caught in the crossfire, then that would be unfortunate.”.
The Cape Argus continued that other “sources said that Somali terrorists devised the strategy to take on the US in South Africa because it was easier than fighting the superpower in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.”
US embassy spokeswoman Sharon Hudson-Dean told the reporters the US did not comment on intelligence matters.
A NIA official warned the reports Saturday that if published the report would “jeopardise an operation already under way”.
The source told the Independent group this was untrue because Cele had already said publicly that intelligence officers were on the trail of the extremists – which is why they changed phones and went to ground without arrests.
“The US was right to take these people seriously because we now know that these people have links with shady characters who have access to old military hardware in Eastern Europe,” said the source.
SA intelligence services “inadequately prepared”
The Cape Argus this afternoon reports that an “expert on Islamic militancy” has warned it that SA’s intelligence services are “woefully inadequately prepared” for the potential threat of terrorism during the World Cup next year.
Hussein Solomon, head of the International Institute of Islamic Studies in Pretoria, said militants had already established cells in South Africa.
Solomon told the paper he had been trying to warn authorities for some time about the threat of terrorist action during the World Cup.
He said international policing agency Interpol had already warned of such a threat but the South African intelligence services did not seem to be listening.
“Our intelligence services are extremely politicised,” Solomon said, adding that they would rather spy on investigative journalists to discover their sources than spy on potential terrorists.
“When I interact with our counter-intelligence people, they are more concerned about the Boeremag [a right wing, white extremist group now behind bars] than al-Qaeda… But they are acting from an ideological perspective which is fundamentally out of sync with reality.”
Solomon pointed to several instances where he said the local intelligence and security leadership had ignored potential terrorist threats for ideological reasons.
He said the Pakistan government was convinced that two South Africans arrested in Pakistan after a gunfight between security forces and al-Qaeda elements a few years ago were linked to al-Qaeda.
But they had simply been released on their return to South Africa. This also happened to two South Africans arrested in Uganda more recently, the Cape Argus quoted him as saying.
Pic: The US Embassy in Pretoria.