WHY SA DISSED TERROR ALERT
SA vents anger over US ‘terror alert’, saying it had already decided the information was unreliable, write Abram Mashego and Setumo Stone
ASomalian businessman who approached United States authorities with information about a terror plot, after he was rebuffed by South African intelligence operatives, is at the centre of the diplomatic tension between South Africa and the US.
South African government officials are furious with US authorities for allegedly giving credence to his information, which they had already told their US counterparts was false.
The Americans have not commented on who their source was. Last Saturday, the US issued an alert that it had received information that places such as upscale malls in Johannesburg and Cape Town were targeted by “radical Islamists” ahead of the start of Ramadan this past Tuesday. The British and Australian embassies responded by updating their travel information for South Africa.
Government this week summoned the ambassadors of the US, Britain and Australia to express their unhappiness with how they sent out the terror alert. In the diplomatic world, this summoning, called a démarche, is the strongest statement a country can send to its partners.
Government officials said the US authorities went ahead with the terror alert even after South African intelligence officials warned them that they were aware of the information and had determined that it was unreliable.
Three sources within the intelligence community told City Press that as early as November, a Somalian businessman approached the State Security Agency and claimed he had infiltrated a terror group.
“The agency did not take his claims lightly. All information was checked and nothing tangible came out of the so-called terror plot,” said a source within the intelligence community.
The source, who has been in the intelligence community for more than 10 years, said the security agency refused to pay for the information because there had been a trend of “information pedlars”, who tried to defraud the state while claiming to have information.
“We just do not pay for information. It has to be checked rigorously,” said another intelligence source.
City Press understands that the source of the alert then approached foreign agencies, including the US intelligence operatives based locally.
“It appears they paid and believed in the information without checking,” said another intelligence source, adding that the Somalian had fingered a group of Muslims who entered the country late last year.
Government officials told City Press, on condition of anonymity, that the US government was sabotaging South Africa as part of its campaign against the Brics grouping of countries, which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
“They want to bring Brics to its knees because, by having its own bank, Brics is now rivalling the International Monetary Fund, which is its tool to make countries beholden to them.”
The official said it was no coincidence that Russia was facing economic sanctions, Brazil was in turmoil with its president under suspension, and the Chinese economy was under pressure.
The South African government on Wednesday described the developments as “[an attempt] by foreign countries to influence, manipulate or control our country’s counterterrorism work. We reject attempts to generate perceptions of government ineptitude, alarmist impressions and public hysteria on the basis of a questionable single source,” said the department of international relations and the security agency.
But the presidency and the US embassy took a more conciliatory stance, saying relations between the two countries were cordial.
Professor maintains department of international relations and cooperation ‘is functioning in an ideological dream world’, writes Erica Gibson
United States security sources believe that South African extremists – rather than foreigners – are engaged in a “homemade” terrorist plan to launch attacks on shopping centres in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
In this regard, the American warning issued last weekend differs significantly from a previous warning in September. Last year’s warning was that foreign groups had identified South Africa as a target.
Highly placed foreign diplomats with access to intelligence reports told City Press’ sister paper Rapport this week that these local groups seemed to have links with the Islamic State (IS), rather than Boko Haram in Nigeria or al-Shabaab in Somalia.
According to Rapport’s sources, there are several possible explanations why there could be an increased threat from extremists. These include allegations that, during an official visit to Nigeria in March, President Jacob Zuma offered better military cooperation – and apparently even training – to counter the threat of Boko Haram in the country; and that several South Africans who are IS sympathisers are being prevented from leaving the country to join the organisation in Syria and Iraq because local intelligence services are watching them. This does not change their ideological desire to support the fundamentalist organisation’s goals. Therefore, they may now wish to express this in their immediate environment.
Professor Hussein Solomon, of the department of political science at the University of the Free State, said the problem is that no one really knows how competent the South African intelligence services are.
“We know they are engaged in political espionage and we know information supplied to them by foreign services leaks out in the wrong places,” he said.
He added that, for anyone in the government – especially the department of international relations and cooperation, which is in charge of diplomacy in the country – to maintain that the US warning was based on a “single dubious source” was a dangerous slap in the face to the US.
“In April last year, the US warned the Kenyan government about a planned attack by al-Shabaab in Garissa near the Somali border. Kenya ignored it, and the result was that 148 students were gunned down at Garissa University College.
“South Africa is not bulletproof. The department is functioning in an ideological dream world, without a clue about the complexity of changing threats worldwide and in the region,” said Solomon.
A diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the British and the Americans last year shared information about possible attacks with their South African counterparts.
“However, there was never any feedback by these services regarding what they did about it. Most likely, nothing happened.
“The latest information was again shared with these services in advance, without much interest.”
It was only after the possibility of such attacks was made public by the US that a diplomatic storm erupted. According to the US, the threat is specifically aimed at shopping centres and other public places, where tourists and foreigners like to meet, in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
While Britain and Australia this week intensified their travel warnings, the US warning to several other European embassies in South Africa came as a surprise. “We heard about it on the radio for the first time,” one diplomat said. “Our intelligence officers in South Africa then asked around to get proper answers for our governments in Europe.”
The South African government this week also responded with an initial blistering statement issued by the departments of international relations and cooperation and state security. This was soon followed by a more moderate statement from the presidency. After the Cabinet meeting on Thursday, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe said that in future, the president would be the only person who would comment on terrorist threats.
CARNAGE After the terror attack by al-Shabaab militants on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2013, it emerged that the country’s intelligence officials had received information that indicated the city would be targeted. The attack resulted in at least 67 deaths, and more than 175 people were reportedly wounded