Terror Alert

More diplomatic noise than security certainty

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
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The US embassy’s alert on possible terror attacks on South African soil, repeated by Britain and Australia, led to a diplomatic tiff while leaving South Africans less the wiser and more insecure.

Background

On 4 June the US embassy informed its citizens that the US Government has received information about near-term plans by terrorist groups to carry out attacks against places in South Africa where US citizens congregate. Upscale shopping areas and malls in Johannesburg and Cape Town were specifically mentioned.

The alert came against the backdrop of the public call for attacks globally during the month of Ramadan by Islamic State (IS) of Iraq and the Levant.

The US statement was a cat among the pigeons, triggering a heated debate.

An embassy spokesperson said the “protection of US citizens overseas are among our top priorities,” and when “specific, credible, non-counterable threat information” is received US embassies and consulates “share the information”.

In response both the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia issued warnings.

The British elaborated that there “is considered to be a heightened threat of terrorist attacks globally against UK interests and British nationals …”

American paranoia

The concern, even paranoia as some would argue, of the Americans should be understood against the backdrop of 9/11.

Subsequent investigations into the Twin Towers attack revealed that there was enough prior information to hint that a terror attack was evident. However, the cardinal sin of non-sharing of information between the different security and intelligence arms of government, and wanting to avoid causing unnecessary panic, led to an avoidable tragedy.

Since then the US prefers to err on the side of caution. And since an attack in 2012 on the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, the US and its missions abroad have been playing it safe with public warnings at the slightest suggestion of a terror threat.

For example, the Obama Administration in December last year announced a new terror alert system, the third since 9/11, to “better inform the public about threats to the United States”.

According to a counter-terrorism expert at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), the possibility of a terror attack drops to about 20% after an alert has been issued, as security and contingency measures following on an alert scare off would be-attacker(s).

The downside is that too many alerts and warnings turning out to be false alarms could eventually blunt the intended watchfulness of both law enforcement authorities and the public, opening the door for committed terrorists to continue with their plans.  

Consequences

But to ignore warnings, dismissing them as causing unnecessary panic, is a dangerous and irresponsible approach.

Contemplate the consequences of an ignored warning leading to something in South Africa similar to the attack in 2012 on the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, which claimed 69 lives.     

Consider the repercussions if the US or any other government withheld intelligence of such a possible terror attack for fear of causing “undue panic”.  

No explanation afterwards could justify the withholding of such information. There is just no room for error.

It is a hard reality that those planning terror have the advantage and initiative. In terms of the where, when and how of terror attacks a failed attack is only a temporary setback.

Security and intelligence services are mostly on the back foot, with reliable information hard to come by, and are forced to second guess terrorists.

South African response

State Security Minister David Mahlobo responded some days after the US alert, downplaying it and giving assurances that the State Security Agency (SSA) was doing all it could to keep South Africa safe against such attacks.

He described the alert as part of the US government’s “standard precautionary recommendation to its residents” and gave the assurance that, “We (SA) remain a strong and stable democratic country and there is no immediate danger posed by the alert”.

A tiff also ensued between International Relations and Co-operation Department (Dirco) spokesperson Clayson Monyela and US Ambassador Patrick Gaspard.

Monyela in a tweet criticised the US embassy in Pretoria, saying its alerts caused “panic”.

Monyela tweeted: “The last advisory by @USEmbassySA to US citizens in SA (referring to a September 2015 alert) warning … proved to be a false alarm. I see there’s another 1.”

The US ambassador responded with: “The price of freedom is eternal diligence, and through Grace we are all made safe. The only false note is arrogance.”

Minister Mahlobo’s downplaying the alert from three foreign embassies is a ploy often adopted by other governments under similar circumstances.

Those responsible for state security and the safety of the civil population must project an image of calm and of “being in control” even if it requires “bending the truth”, otherwise panic and confusion could follow.

The problem for many South Africans is whether the minister’s statements are to be trusted, considering his department’s less than flattering record in the last couple of years as exposed by investigative journalists and articles including The Intelligence Bulletin.  

Joint statement   

A controversial joint statement by Dirco and the SSA castigated the three foreign embassies and claimed those responsible for security are, “fully capable of securing our country, protecting our people and taking care of the safety of foreign citizens on our soil”.

The many foreigners that became helpless victims of xenophobia attacks in the past will most probably disagree. 

The SA Institute or Relations CEO Dr Frans Cronjé also warned: “There is also no security agency anywhere in the world that could provide an assurance that a specific country faces no terror threat. Terror is a global threat and as security measures in Western democracies are strengthened, scenarios that see Western-aligned targets being attacked in third party countries become more likely.” 

Similar comments came from other analysts who pointed out that terrorism does not respect borders.

And reassurance that the SSA was in consultation with US officials and that the ministries involved in the government’s security cluster were to meet on the issue was short-lived and nullified by a Dirco-SSA statement, which scathingly dismissed the warnings and severely criticised the way in which the matter was handled by the foreign embassies.

Discrediting US information

The statement also lambasted the information on which the warnings were based as “unreliable” and “very sketchy”.

According to media reports “a source with access to South African intelligence” claimed the information came from a discredited East African businessman living in South Africa and “trying to make a fast buck”.

The US embassy maintains the information is credible and has kept its warning in place.          

The credibility of the information has now become a bone of contention which could have wider repercussions for future US-SA relations.

If the information turns out to be true, the South African government has every right to feel aggrieved and is justified to demand that, “We expect foreign embassies on our soil to follow the correct channels when communicating matters of such nature”.

But instead of being diplomatic and keeping the matter out of the public eye, the South African government, or at least Dirco and the SSA, opted to be publically confrontational.

The statement, which Dirco spokesperson Clayton Monyela claims was approved “at the highest level”, and “the strongest statement I have done in a while”, declares: “It is within this context that the South African government rejects attempts by foreign countries to influence, manipulate or control our country’s counterterrorism work. We reject attempts to generate perceptions of government ineptitude, alarmist impressions and public hysteria on the basis of a questionable single source.”

Seemingly not satisfied, it was also decided to deliver a demarche, in diplomatic terms a serious reprimand, to the three embassies.

Since then, in an apparent attempt to take some of the sting out the Dirco-SSA statement the presidency released a much more conciliatory statement. The Minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, added it was the “official statement on the matter endorsed by cabinet”.

Treading dangerously     

An intelligence service is treading dangerously if it summarily rejects as untrustworthy information provided from ”a questionable source”. There is always the possibility it might be correct, but by the same token credibility becomes an issue if information of a proven “questionable source” is treated as holy writ.

The question, as one expert wrote, “of how ‘credible’ the threat was (or is) is also vexing because for the public it is unanswerable”.

The more immediate issue is safety and the dispute makes it hard for South African residents to know what to believe. They have been assured by those responsible for their security that any threat is taken seriously and communication with foreign intelligence services are on-going.

Assurance has also been given that the security establishment has the capability to deal with any risk.

In a country depleted of trust, this is of little comfort, but there is hope in the belief that this incident might refocus the minds of those responsible for our security.  

by Garth Cilliers

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