SA intelligence probe terror claim
Johannesburg - South Africa's intelligence authorities were still trying to verify the accuracy of reports that an al-Qaeda operative arrested in Iraq had been plotting an attack at next month's long-awaited World Cup, a spokesperson said on Wednesday.
"At this stage there is nothing new to report. We are still engaged in checking the veracity of this report in the media," said state security spokesperson Brian Dube.
"As soon as we have something we will issue a statement."
Security authorities appeared to be caught by surprise when Baghdad security spokesperson Major General Qassim Atta told journalists at a press conference about the arrest on Monday.
As the news came through from the Associated Press and the German agency Deutsche Presse Agentur, South Africa's security forces were wrapping up a display of readiness for the international event in Sandton, north of Johannesburg.
Police spokesperson Vishnu Naidoo said on Tuesday they were waiting to hear from the Iraqi authorities on the matter. A receptionist at the Iraqi embassy in Pretoria said they would not be saying anything, because they had no information.
Dube said they first got the information from the German report.
"That was the first time we heard about it."
Linked to prophet insults
According to subsequent reports, former Saudi Arabian defence force operative Abdullah Azzam Saleh Misfar al-Qahtani was arrested as far back as May 3.
He reportedly intended to target the match between Denmark and the Netherlands.
An AP reporter who was allowed to interview al-Qahtani, wrote that the alleged attack was linked to insults to the Prophet Muhammad.
"We discussed the possibility of taking revenge for the insults of the prophet by attacking Denmark and Holland," AP quoted al-Qahtani as saying.
"If we were not able to reach the teams, then we'd target the fans."
Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard drew a picture of the prophet wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb with a lit fuse in 2005. It was reprinted in 2006. Many Muslims took exception and there were violent protests at the time.
In January this year a Somali national broke into his home and tried to attack him.
The Dutch were thought to be targets because of a film critical of Islam made by Dutch politician Geert Wilders.
Taking threat seriously
Dube said they were taking the threat reports seriously and talking to a number of intelligence services around the world.
"We can't lower our guard. We have to always be vigilant because no country is immune."
SA Institute for Race Relations deputy chief executive officer Frans Cronje suggested South Africa may have been kept out of the intelligence loop because of its history of supporting the Palestinian cause and Hamas, an Islamic movement opposed to what it believes is Israel's occupation of their historic land.
"Under such circumstances, we cannot expect that western intelligence agencies are going to alert the South African agencies to high level, high value intelligence that they gather, because they can't trust us."
Cronje continued: "They (South Africa) also gave foreign intelligence to a drug peddler for a financial reward."
This was a reference to former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi allegedly giving convicted drug trafficker Glenn Agliotti, who Selebi said was a police informer, classified documents on an international investigation. Selebi is currently on trial for allegedly receiving money from Agliotti.
Dube disagreed that South Africa had deliberately not been told.
"We are liaising with a number of foreign intelligence services in the world, so we are kept in the loop, we are part of quite a big loop."
Institute for Security Studies researcher Anneli Botha said although the alleged threat should be taken seriously, she found the way it was announced "suspicious".
She said usually contact would be made with the threatened country and information shared.
"You don't just parade the person to the press."
Botha said it was strange he was allowed to be interviewed by a reporter as he would have been able to send messages to other operatives using code words.
Usually, such an arrest was kept under wraps while investigators sought out the other people involved.
"If you have a credible threat and you have made one arrest, you never give a press conference afterwards because there must be other people also involved and it would drive other members of the cell, of this network, underground."
She continued: "I'm very suspicious of the whole process. I personally feel as if it has more to do with the relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, than the World Cup."
She said al-Qahtani used to be a lieutenant in the Saudi defence force and was supposed to be one of the leading figures of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"Iraq has implicated Saudi Arabia and Iran as one of the primary instigators of instability in Iraq... If you now say this is going to be linked to the World Cup, with so many other countries also involved, you immediately have the interest, the attention."
"...Basically, it is showing fingers to Saudi Arabia: 'now we have a Saudi national, you trained him and he is now basically impacting on our security'."