SA not safe from al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab

The leaked secret cables also revealed a foiled plot to assassinate South Africas Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in Addis Ababa in October 2012, soon after she became chairperson of the AU Commission.


The spy cables’ revelations should finally dispel any illusions that SA is safe from attack, says Peter Fabricius.

The revelations in the secret State Security Agency (SSA) reports leaked to Al Jazeera should finally dispel any illusions that might still remain that South Africa is safe from attack by groups such as al-Qaeda because our government has the correct international stance.

Documents written in 2012 reveal that the SSA, working with secret services of other countries, foiled at least two al-Qaeda/al-Shabaab suicide bomb attacks in South Africa between 2007 and 2010. One target was a Jewish centre in Cape Town.

Another of the attacks was also aimed at a conference it seems, though whether that was also a Jewish event is not clear.

The SSA linked the terrorists who were planning these attacks both with al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, the Somali militant group which is fighting to topple the precarious government of that failed state.

The so-called “white bomber” Samantha Lewthwaite (aka Natalie Faye Webb), a British citizen who is suspected of involvement in al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya, figures prominently in the SSA reports.

As we already knew, she lived in South Africa between 2009 and 2011 under a stolen South African identity. She is still believed to be working for al-Shabaab.

Although the reports don’t mention this, intelligence agencies suspected at the time that al-Shabaab intended to carry out an attack against the US embassy in South Africa in 2009. All embassy buildings were shut for several days.

The plans for an attack had apparently been intercepted in calls between an al-Shabaab operative in Somalia and Somalis in South Africa. So it seems that the al-Qaeda/al-Shabaab operatives are at least ready to target Jewish and US interests in South Africa. This illustrates the problem with the thesis that South Africa will be spared because it is not considered politically hostile – or not as much as others.

That might mean that these people would not target, say, the Union Buildings. But they would be quite happy to attack US embassy buildings in South Africa, regardless of the large “collateral damage”, if you want to call it that, to South Africans.

We saw that in the al-Qaeda bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 that killed far more locals than Americans. And, of course, the Jewish people who were supposedly the targets of at least one of the foiled attacks mentioned in this week’s leaked reports would, of course, have been South African citizens.

Incidentally, the leaked secret cables also revealed another foiled plot, this time to assassinate South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in Addis Ababa in October 2012, soon after she became chairperson of the AU Commission.

The rather cryptic cables suggest that Ethiopian intelligence pointed a finger at Sudan, which did not make a lot of sense.

Elsewhere, though, there is a hint it might have been al-Shabaab, which makes more sense because the AU is fighting al-Shabaab tooth and nail with its Amisom force that is propping up the Somali government. One can imagine al-Shabaab targeting Dlamini-Zuma ex-officio, as it were, in her capacity as the head of the AU, completely disregarding the fact that they would also, incidentally, have killed a South African.

One could debate endlessly about the merits or otherwise of these leaks. State Security Minister David Mahlobo obviously condemned them and said the exposure would damage the country’s security and diplomatic relations.

Perhaps, but the leaking of the cables is also exposing the reality behind the political rhetoric of the South African and other governments.

They have embarrassed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the eve of a vital election by revealing that Mossad intelligence belied his claim that Iran was about to produce nuclear weapons. And they have also, let us say, qualified South Africa’s public anti-Israeli stance by revealing that it is working quite closely with Mossad in countering terrorism from different quarters – including, it seems, Iran.

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