Russian intelligence claimed in February 2011 that al-Qaeda had established a “marine unit” based in North Africa and planned to use speedboats as “floating bombs”, according to documents leaked to Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit.
That was just one of dozens of alarmist cables sent by foreign intelligence agencies to their South African counterparts, who declined to embrace the claim that al-Qaeda presented a direct threat on South African soil.
The Spy Cables include numerous documents detailing the hunt for al-Qaeda by intelligence agencies including Britain’s MI6, Israel’s Mossad and South Africa’s State Security Agency (SSA). These documents profile the group’s activities, singling out suspicious individuals and warning of possible plots.
What also emerges is an attempt by the most powerful states to create a common narrative based on fear of terrorism by bombarding the intelligence services of smaller countries with warnings, in order to shape their priorities. Western intelligence agencies appear largely oblivious to the SSA’s assessment that al-Qaeda activity in the country is limited to a handful of individuals, mostly transiting to other African nations.
The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) cable was among the more alarming. Besides outlining a speedboat-bombing plan, it also wrote that al-Qaeda had experimented with biological warfare, trying “isolate the pathogenic culture of the pneumonic plague” – with disastrous consequences.
The FSB wrote that an al-Qaeda base reportedly became contaminated, leading to the deaths of 40 fighters and the abandonment of a site in eastern Algeria.
The FSB cable warned that al-Qaeda’s “prospective plans” in Africa included “expanding the scope of operational activity” to carry out attacks in the Mediterranean. It described a “Marine Unit” of around 60 men, “comprising suicide operatives trained in underwater sabotage techniques (such as planting improvised limpet mines under the hull of a ship) and use of small vessels (schooners or fast crafts) as strike-weapons (‘floating bombs’) against seaborne targets”.
Russian spies also claimed al-Qaeda had tried unsuccessfully to develop biological weapons “for terrorist purposes” at a base in eastern Algeria.
“Terrorists tried to isolate the pathogenic culture of the pneumonic plague (Yersinia pestis). However, in 2009, after the contamination and death of around 40 militants caused by the improper hermetic conditions at the laboratory, the base was abandoned.”
The FSB warned the South Africans that leaders of “the core al-Qaeda” were trying to boost their influence on the continent by “undermining the economic infrastructure of African countries and foreign companies, including critical pipeline networks, petrochemical and mining industries, R&D institutions and life support systems”.
The Russian analysis came just under two years before al-Qaeda-linked fighters launched an attack on the In Amenas gas field in Algeria, killing at least 40 people. They sustained a further 29 casualties, with three fighters captured in that attack.
In the confidential document, Russian spies “express interest in the joint operational targeting of the African-based” groups linked to al-Qaeda, as well as exchanging “any information that could possibly link them to the bandit militants still active in the North Caucasus”.
The file also says that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) worked with drug-smugglers and Latin American cartels “as an alternate source of income,” while also carrying out other crimes “such as robberies, racketeering, car thefts, burglaries”.
The Somali armed group al-Shabab also figures prominently in warnings received by the South Africans. Three weeks after the group’s August 2010 attack on Mogadishu’s Muna Hotel, where a suicide bomber and gunmen in military uniforms killed at least 32 people, Israel’s Mossad secret service warned that “al-Shabab is also looking to use small arms in terrorist operations patterned after the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India”.
That analysis proved prescient, with al-Shabab claiming responsibility for the September 2013 attack of the Israeli-owned Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The attackers were armed with grenades and assault rifles, and wore civilian clothes. They killed at least 67 people and wounded a further 175.
Terrorists tried to isolate the pathogenic culture of the pneumonic plague
Tensions on al-Qaeda
Despite the barrage of warnings, the Spy Cables reveal tensions between South Africa’s spy chiefs and allied foreign agencies in assessing the extent of al-Qaeda activity in their country.
The documents reveal that the SSA maintained that South Africa was simply a transit point for al-Qaeda operatives, but foreign agencies repeatedly warned of a greater threat.
In one secret document, Israel’s Mossad warns South Africa that “al-Qaeda may be seeking to leverage operatives on the African continent for attacks in the United States or Europe or against Western interests abroad”.
The documents include offers from, among others, India, Israel and Russia to assist South African spies in quelling an al-Qaeda threat.
In a top-secret August 2014 cable, Mossad warned that “a source of unclear reliability” had warned of a car bomb attack targeting South African synagogues and set for the following month, but could offer “no additional information confirming this report”. No such attack materialised.
That cable is but one of a series that warn of attacks that did not occur.
In a number of documents, the SSA identified several individuals they suspected were al-Qaeda operatives who had transited through South Africa, or had lived in the country. Among those mentioned was Samantha Louise Lewthwaite, known in the media as “The White Widow”, amid speculation that she had played a support role to the group that had attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
The South African report acknowledges that she used the name Natalie Faye Webb – an identity stolen from a British national – and had lived in South Africa, working at a pie-shop.
PowerPoint presentations included among the Spy Cables reveal how South African spies worked to track Lewthwaite’s movements, building a picture of her associates and analysing their travels. The resulting picture shows al-Qaeda suspects passing through South Africa rather than targeting the country for attacks or recruitment or using it as a training base.
“Is there a decided and clear-cut al-Qaeda threat in South Africa? You know, this is a speculation,” said Ronnie Kasrils, South Africa’s Minister of Intelligence from 2004 to 2008 in an earlier interview with Al Jazeera, unaware of its acquisition of the Spy Cables.
He added that he believed the warnings of al-Qaeda threats in South Africa were “hype”.
“We’re in a hall of mirrors in relation to this kind of thing, and this is where one needs a very cool head and a well-balanced view,” said Kasrils.
Former spy chief Barry Gilder agreed. “At the time I was in government,” he told Al Jazeera, “our assessment was that we didn’t see al-Qaeda as a particular threat in South Africa, although we kept a watching brief”.
Muslim groups monitored
A secret 2009 slide presentation reveals that the SSA also monitored indigenous Muslim groups such as Tabligh Jamaat (TJ), an apolitical religious movement that has a major presence in South Africa since the 1950s.
Spies found no evidence of any al-Qaeda links, but still concluded that TJ has a “perceived vulnerability” to being “infiltrated and manipulated by extremist elements”. The SSA also warned that organisations such as TJ can be used as an “assessment tool” by armed groups to evaluate potential recruits.
Despite the SSA’s suspicion, the report concludes “available information does not implicate any member of the TJ in South Africa in activity related to ‘radicalisation’ or terrorism”.
Ebrahim Bham, a South African Islamic Scholar told Al Jazeera it is “absurd” to suggest that TJ has links to al-Qaeda, and that the group is entirely apolitical: “It has got northing to do with terrorist activities. It has absolutely got nothing to do with affiliation to another group”.