On terrorism and the world cup

Frans Cronje asks what is to stop Al Qaeda launching an attack on South African soil

The attack by Cabindan separatists on Togo's soccer team at the current Africa Cup of Nations tournament in Angola has created some controversy about safety surrounding the soccer World Cup to be staged in South Africa later this year. A number of analysts and newspaper editorials have dismissed concerns at terror attacks in South Africa. Soccer authorities have called the idea ‘stupid' and one newspaper even went as far as to suggest it was ‘racist'. However there is some evidence to suggest that a risk does exist.

Of course there is very little, if any risk, of those same Cabindan separatists launching a second attack in South Africa. Their dispute with Angola's government is too distant and too localised. Their attack was relatively amateur and involved nothing more sophisticated than the setting up of a machine-gun on the side of a road.

The terror risk facing South Africa's World Cup does not originate from such relatively small and isolated rebel and political groups. There are in any case no such groups operating in South Africa. Route and venue security and the saturation policing likely to be employed by the South African police during the World Cup will also leave very little scope for such a relatively small scale ‘machine-gun' assault to be carried out. South Africa's security forces have proven themselves to be very adept at securing major events from petty crimes or other amateur security threats.

The terror threat facing the tournament in South Africa is altogether more serious. It revolves around the possibility that an Al Qaeda aligned movement may use the tournament as a platform upon which to launch a massive strike against a Western target in South Africa.

South Africa is particularly vulnerable to such a threat with all the circumstances or pre-conditions to stage such an attack in place.

These include that South Africa's borders are porous and controls on entry and exit are easily circumvented. It is also relatively easy to obtain fraudulent documents to live and work in South Africa under an assumed name. It would provide little challenge to an Al Qaeda cell to infiltrate any weaponry or personnel into the country ahead of the World Cup. Indeed if a terror attack were on the cards Al Qaeda's track record in planning suggests that this may already have occurred.

Borders in Western countries and particularly the United States are altogether more difficult to penetrate. Over the past decade border and visa controls have been stepped up dramatically. The fact that there has not been a major terror attack on American soil in almost a decade suggests that these efforts may have frustrated Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda may therefore be particularly drawn to the lax border controls and security on offer on South Africa.

There should also be concern at the capacity of South Africa's intelligence services to accurately detect and act against such a threat. There is some evidence to suggest that the efforts of these agencies have been turned inwards to fight domestic political battles for factions within the ANC. They may not have their eye on the ball internationally to the extent that they should. Evidence led in the current Jackie Selebi trial also suggests that these agencies have been corrupted. Evidence from that trial includes that South African security agencies showed international intelligence reports to alleged drug smugglers in exchange for bribes. There must also be concerns about the simple ‘capacity' of these agencies to do intelligence work. On a number of occasions they have been embarrassed by having their operatives and operations publically identified in the media.

Threat detection and mitigation must therefore be left to foreign agencies, many of which probably operate quite freely in South Africa. In part their interest in the country may arise from the concept of an African ‘terror belt' that extends southwards from Yemen across the Gulf of Aden to Somalia and then down the east coast of Africa through Kenya and Tanzania before ending up in Cape Town. The strong Islamic influence that runs through this coastal belt probably provides ample opportunity for the concealment of terror cells. This is not to suggest that Muslim communities in Cape Town or elsewhere in Africa are actively complicit in such terrorist activities. Rather that terror cells are by their nature secretive and operate as clandestine minorities of the communities they penetrate.

Confidence in the abilities of these Western agencies should also not be exaggerated. American intelligence operatives failed to detect both the 9/11 attacks and the more recent Christmas Day airline bomb scare even though they appear to have had sufficient information to pre-empt these attacks. The recent killing in Afghanistan of several CIA agents by an Al Qaeda triple-agent is a further example of the challenges and miscalculations that beset Western agencies. While many successfully pre-empted attacks may never make newspaper headlines there appears to be a weakness in the ability of many agencies to properly penetrate terror networks and then draw correct conclusions from the information they do obtain. 

There is much evidence that the difficulty in attacking Westerners in Western countries has seen Al Qaeda adopt the strategy of rather attacking Westerners in ‘third party' countries. Other than the bombings of the London underground in 2005, and train bombings in Spain in 2004, most terror attacks of the past decade have been conducted on Western targets outside of western Europe and the United States. A selection of these include:

·         The 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings that killed over 200 people including 90 Australians.

·         Bombings in Morocco in 2003 that were targeted at Westerners and Jews and killed over 40 people

·          Suicide bomb attacks on a Western compound in Saudi Arabia in 2003 that killed over 30 people.

·         Bomb attacks on western occupied hotels in Jordan in 2005 that killed over 50 people.
Truck bomb attacks on the British Consulate and HSBC bank in Turkey in 2003 that killed over 60 people.

Africa too has a record of being a stage for Islamist terror networks to strike Western targets as testified to by attacks on embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, the failed 2002 effort to shoot down an Israeli Boeing 757 with Strela surface to air missiles in Kenya, and the 2002 bombing of a holiday resort also in Kenya. South Africans would be naïve to believe that the warm relations that their Government enjoys with many rogue states, proffers them any degree of extra security. 

The World Cup will also be a particularly attractive target for Al Qaeda. Estimates range at between 300 000 and 500 000 for the number of foreign tourists who will be in South Africa during the World Cup. This could make the tournament one of the largest gatherings of Westerners outside of western Europe and the United States.

With over 2 billion viewers the World Cup is also the world's biggest live televised event. It dwarfs any event previously hosted in South Africa. The fact that every global news and press agency will converge on South Africa will greatly magnify the impact of any attack. Such global news coverage is a further factor that would make a terror attack on the World Cup a very attractive proposition for Al Qaeda. 

Many of the circumstances that would make a terror attack possible and attractive to Al Qaeda therefore converge very neatly around the World Cup in South Africa in just six months' time.

That is not to say that such an attack will occur nor that it is even likely. However, if an attack is carried out the diagnosis of why it occurred will be fairly simple, revolving chiefly around the circumstances and factors that this paper has highlighted. Nor is it possible to point to the nature of such an attack except to warn that Al Qaeda has unfortunately demonstrated its capacity both for patience and for highly imaginative planning.

Three weeks ago the Institute told Reuters, in an interview later published in media ranging from the New York Times to, that the Soccer World Cup could come to be regarded as key milestone in changing attitudes about the African continent. It is also the Institute's view that the risks commonly associated with South Africa's World Cup, including crime, a shortage of accommodation, and weak transport infrastructure will not adversely affect the tournament. Planning around the tournament appears to have been very effective as demonstrated by the now complete stadiums which are hugely impressive sporting arenas.

On this score alone the sceptics about our ability to host the tournament appear to have got it wrong. The World Cup tourist experience of South Africa will be one of the best tourist experiences in the world. In almost every respect the factors that South Africa can control in arranging the World Cup appear to be well under control.

But international terrorism is not something over which we have the capacity to exercise much control. In addition one of the most effective assets that any terrorist group can possess is to convince its next target that they are no longer at risk. South Africans should therefore be a little less hasty to dismiss the risk of the World Cup being targeted and realise that the scourge of global terror applies to all societies and particularly under circumstances such as those pointed out above. 

* Frans Cronje is deputy CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations. This article first appeared in the Institute's weekly online newsletter, SAIRR Today.

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