South African and Israeli spies deeply dislike and distrust one another, according to leaked intelligence files in which South African agents describe a Mossad operative as “extremely arrogant” and “prone to be manipulated”.
Secret cables obtained by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit reveal that South Africa’s State Security Agency (SSA) considers its Israeli counterpart, Mossad, to be a “difficult and insistent service”. The South Africans even accuse Mossad of staging a bombing “to attract more attention to safety at the Israeli Embassy and other Israeli Companies”.
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Tensions between the two countries at a governmental level are hardly surprising, given the longstanding support by the South Africa’s ruling party for the Palestinian cause, and the history of collaboration between the Israeli state and South Africa’s erstwhile white-minority regime. The papers provide further evidence that the apartheid regime had collaborated in Israel’s development of nuclear weapons.
But the leaked documents show sharp differences emerging in the espionage relationship in the post-apartheid years, describing numerous tense encounters between the spies of the two nations’ secret services.
In one meeting, an Israeli agent reportedly stormed out after being told he would not receive the information he wants on a suspected al-Qaeda operative.
In another, a Mossad agent phoned the acting head of South Africa’s State Security Agency (SSA) and demanded a meeting, with no prior arrangements. The SSA did not know the caller was in South Africa, or that he was the head of Mossad’s Africa service.
Later a liaison officer met with this Mossad agent and wrote that the Israeli was “extremely arrogant”, showed “no respect for the SSA’s way of doing things”, and that “a liaison relationship on this basis is doomed before it even started”.
The Spy Cables show that intelligence relations between the South African and Israeli agencies appear to have deteriorated considerably from the close cooperation they enjoyed during the apartheid era. One South African document complains of the “personal likes and dislikes, selective memory and personal antagonism” of some agents towards Israel’s secret service, which “interfere with the professional approach required in the intricate game of liaison.”
‘Disrespect and bad faith’
The Spy Cables tell how the head of Mossad’s Africa service had previously “managed to see the Director General” of South Africa’s intelligence agency “under false pretenses” by claiming that he was the head of Mossad and was passing through South Africa, “which proved not to be true.”
However, later on 5 September 2012, the Mossad Africa chief called the acting Director General of the SSA and again demanded a meeting.
The liaison officer was dispatched to meet him at the Burgerspark Hotel in Pretoria, under orders to deliver the message that he was, “under no circumstances” to contact the Director General of the SSA directly ever again.
The Mossad agent was informed that he and his colleague must formally present their credentials to the SSA, and that any future meeting “will be scheduled where the details and boundaries of the liaison relationship will be clearly defined”.
A later memo records a meeting in which SSA personnel explained the relevant protocols to the Mossad representative, and explained what was expected of the Israeli agents while they are in South Africa.
The memo was written “in order to bring some order” to what is “an unraveling situation”, and it concludes by looking forward to “sharing thoughts and idea on how best to deal with a difficult and insistent service” such as Mossad.
The liaison officer then prepared a memo detailing the September 5 meeting. Although riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, it highlights that the SSA “felt that it was inappropriate behaviour by the Mossad and that no respect was shown and protocol was not followed”.
The South African officer wrote that the Mossad agent “boasted he is in daily contact with President and Heads of Services in Africa”. She noted that the Israeli was prone to boasting, and that “it was very easy to get him to talk about himself”.
“When it seemed he had nothing more to boast about, she indicated to him that he should now allow her some time to respond,” the liaison officer wrote, referring to herself in the third person.
The Mossad spy also handed over a letter from his service’s Director General, Tamir Pardo, who seemed unaware of the strained relations on the ground. His letter congratulates the SSA on the “outstanding cooperation we enjoyed from you.”
The liaison agent noted that Israel had issued a press release stating that a 2012 bomb attack on a busload of tourists in Bulgaria that killed five Israelis had originally been planned for South Africa.
“None of the details were shared with the SSA to be prepared in future,” she noted. “This reflected more disrespect and bad faith.”
The South African agent concluded her memo by writing that the head of Mossad’s Africa service “comes across as extremely arrogant and self assured”, and that her report is “a verbal reflection of what was said in the meeting and does not reflect the disposition of the liaison officer.”
She writes that the Israeli operative’s “remarks that he deals with President’s and DG’s all over Africa confirm his need to be very important,” deducing that these characteristics leave him “prone to be manipulated and exploited”.
She also questions his discretion, saying “he hammered on [about] being security conscious but broke the rule himself on numerous occasions in the meeting by boasting about information”.
The Mossad agent also delivered the gift of a crystal sculpture depicting Joshua and Caleb, “the first two spies” who according to the Bible’s Book of Numbers were dispatched by Moses to scout out the Land of Canaan.
A different cable reveals a South African agent suggesting that Israel may have staged false flag operations in order to make the case for greater protection of its embassy and Israeli companies by South African authorities.
A briefing on relations between South African and Israeli intelligence discussed a petrol-bomb attack at an Israeli company in South Africa in June 2001, saying another “pipe bomb” had also been found and disabled.
It also highlights a number of bomb threats made to the Israeli embassy, which culminated in a man walking in to the embassy to make the same threat in person.
The South African agent authoring the report questions whether the event was all that is seemed, asking “did he actually walk-in at the Israeli Embassy or was this staged to ensure more protection,” and, “was the bombing incident also staged to attract more attention to safety at the Israeli Embassy and other Israeli Companies?”
There is no indication in the documents of whether the South Africans were able to answer their own questions.
Another secret assessment of Israel’s intelligence outlines an angry meeting in 2007, which ended abruptly when a Mossad agent “stormed out.”
The Israeli secret service had tipped off South African intelligence to the activities of someone they believed was an al-Qaeda operative, “with the hope that the information would benefit South Africa.”
“They expected that [South African intelligence] would share information with them on what are finding of their monitoring and investigation.”
However the South African spy “bluntly told” his Israeli counterpart “that he was prevented by management to share information”.
The Israeli agent, the report says, “could not understand” why South Africa would not reveal the details of their investigation, grew angry and “stormed out of the meeting.”
The same secret assessment shows that at the time, then-Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils had ordered an audit of “information liaised” between his agencies and the Israeli secret service.
“The political stance from Minister Kasrils contributed to the perception that [South African intelligence] was not willing to cooperate with Mossad because the adversaries of Israel are allies of South Africa,” wrote the author of the secret assessment.
“Of course Mr Kasrils has openly demonstrated political differences with Israel and supported the cause of the Palestinian.”
Al Jazeera asked Kasrils, who is Jewish and a high-profile supporter of the Palestinian struggle, about the audit. The former minister responded that he “didn’t want anything to do with the Mossad” when he was in government, but that he was not willing to go into operational details.
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