/ 4 August 2008

ATM bombers: the pros move in

What began back in 2004 as a desperate, disorganised attempt on the part of petty criminals to get their hands on some loot has turned into a new type of organised-crime headache: ATM bombings.

So futile and low-tech was the exercise back in 2004 that just five attacks using explosives took place countrywide in that year.

The modus operandi then would involve small groups of two or three people who would pounce on a remote ATM site in the early hours of the morning, subdue the lonely security guard and proceed to blow the front of the ATM to smithereens.

These early attacks usually failed: the would-be robbers mostly succeeded in destroying the ATM machine, but seldom got their hands on the money. In other cases they burned the money in the process. Attacks were so arbitrary and haphazard that mishaps often took place and robbers would be caught in the firing line of their own explosives.

Fast-forward to 2008 and the number of attacks nationwide this year so far totals 333 and rising. Experts predict that the figure will reach at least 500 by year-end. Unsurprisingly the majority of these attacks — 196 to be precise — took place in Gauteng. Recent attacks have been carried out with such military precision and technical know-how that when the South African Police’s elite National Intervention Unit pounced on would-be bombers last Monday in Soweto, they resembled a miniature army unit.

The unit arrested five suspects before they could blow up another ATM and found in their possession 16 tubes of explosives, an AK-47 rifle, a shot gun and a pistol.

The odds are growing in the criminals’ favour. According to South African Banking Risk Information Centre (Sabric) chief executive Kalyani Pillay, the ATM-busters stand at least a 50% chance of retrieving the money.

As the head of Sabric, Pillay is responsible for advising South Africa’s major banks on security concerns — including the growing phenomenon of precision ATM heists. The ATM attacks, Pillay says, have become highly organised.

”They bring in people who will be of value. They have strategies in place. They have implementation plans in place — I do not doubt that they have done their risk assessments,” says Pillay.

Through a process of trial and error it seems robbers have learned a few tricks about perfecting their art.

”Never underestimate criminals,” says Alan Townsend who advises the global ATM industry on security matters. They have, he says, the ability to learn and adapt as various authorities clamp down on their activities.

Police remain cagey about releasing more details in the wake of Monday’s raid in Soweto for fear, says police spokesperson director Phuti Setati, of jeopardising investigations.

Authorities are battling to respond to the new ”rules” of the ATM heist game — not least as it is now confirmed that bomb squad specialists are involved.

Last week two police officers and a South African Defence Force (SANDF) member — later released for lack of evidence — were arrested in connection with a blast in Mofolo, Soweto. Superintendent Eugene Opperman confirmed this week that one of the police officers arrested is a member of the Vaal Rand explosives unit.

Setati told the Mail & Guardian that to date seven police officers have been arrested on suspicion of being ”in one way or another linked to explosions and or being in possession of explosives”.

He declined to elaborate on their modus operandi but confirmed that the police are starting to see large groups — usually of five or more people — carrying out these attacks.

Just last week, Setati says, five suspects, including two women, were arrested in KwaZulu-Natal in a single incident.

”To date more than 300 suspects have been arrested and more arrests are expected,” says Setati.

The Institute of Security Studies’ Dr Johan Burger confirms that the nature and composition of these groups indicate a high level of organisation, with members of the police service and military, usually with explosives expertise, ”jumping on the bandwagon”.

Burger says that organised groups have been known to employ miners trained in the use of explosives as their ”experts”. This is in contrast to the ATM robbers’ early forays which were usually spontaneous and disorganised.

The authorities’ biggest concern is that these new, militarised groups are much more daring, being prepared to attack ATMs in densely populated areas and not shy of confrontations with police.

Cooperation by all ”stakeholders”, says global adviser Townsend, is the only way to curb the phenomenon. He points to Australia, where the New South Wales police launched operation Piccadilly to deal with a gang of robbers who conducted ”ram-raids”, driving trucks into ATMs.

”The SAPS is conducting coordinated operations with members of different specialised units within the South African Police Service. With the involvement of the business, government and local communities, victory is certain,” says Setati.

Victory — in the short term — might be a big ask. As Townsend says, it can be won. But it’s a long haul and depends on police being properly resourced and having the stamina to see it through.