Newly released documents seized during the operation in which Osama bin Laden was killed in May last year show the al-Qaeda leader might have been keen to see terrorist attacks on targets associated with the United States on South African soil.
The so-called Abbottabad documents, parts of which were released last week, paint a fascinating picture of internal al-Qaeda discourse and politics – and also show that South Africa could still be under threat from terrorist attacks.
One of the 17 newly declassified documents advises against the duplication of effort and geographic overlap, saying “each Mujahidin group must be certain that it is the only al-Qaeda group operating in a country where it intends to target Americans”.
Apparently, South Africa was high on the list of open territories. “You may find it suitable to target Americans in South Africa, because it is located outside the Islamic Maghreb. Also, South Africa is not covered by the brothers who are located outside that region. The same can be said about other African countries,” states the document, as translated from Arabic in the version released by the Combating Terrorism Centre of the US Military Academy. No specific targets or methods of attack are mentioned and it is unclear when it was written.
Who the advice was aimed at is also not clear; the document consists of sometimes unrelated paragraphs. And if it contained any detail about the recipient of the correspondence, it was withheld in the released form. The author is also not identified, although US analysts believe it was probably Bin Laden himself.
From the documents it cannot be determined whether they were ever delivered to their intended recipients. If intelligence agencies know, they are not sharing.
Another set of documents seized almost exactly a year ago gives some sense of what South Africa could have expected had an attack been carried out. When Austrian citizen Maqsood Lodin was detained in Berlin, police found memory units hidden in his underwear. They contained, among other things, a pornographic video inside of which were encrypted documents outlining ideas for future attacks in Europe.
Enhancing security in SA
Although the documents have not been released, media organisations such as CNN that have viewed copies said they showed a preference for cheap but high-profile attacks using guns, in imitation of the attacks in Mumbai in late 2008, or seizing the passengers of cruise ships.
Asked whether the US believed South Africa was capable of protecting its local interests, Brian Denver, the acting spokesperson for the US diplomatic mission, said: “We are proud to have collaborated on many training and exchange programmes with the South African law enforcement community. We also share information and best-practice models with other countries and continually look for ways to further improve such sharing and to enhance security for all citizens.”
There have been no terrorist attacks on US citizens or assets in South Africa since the bombing of the locally owned but US-themed Planet Hollywood in Cape Town in August 1998. It occurred during a period in which attacks by People against Gangsterism and Drugs included a wide range of targets, such as synagogues and moderate Muslims. But in September 2009, the US embassy in Pretoria and various government offices countrywide were closed for nearly a week after the receipt of what the US state department described only as a “credible threat” that warranted precautionary measures.