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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

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