The Presidency revealed that South Africa’s security agencies had met on Wednesday to discuss the terror warning issued by the US Embassy in Pretoria over the weekend.
President Jacob Zuma said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon that the security cluster had met “to discuss the matter further, with a view to ensuring the continued safety of all in the country”.
In contrast to an earlier government statements, which downplayed the seriousness of the information on which the US had based its security message, the Presidency said: “The South African government will continue to discuss the matter with the United States government as part of on-going co-operation on security issues between the two countries.”
“South Africa and the United States continue to enjoy strong and cordial relations in various areas of cooperation including political, economic, social and security matters,” the Presidency said.
Information behind terror alert ‘very sketchy’
On Monday, State Security Minister David Mahlobo downplayed the US government’s terror alert, giving assurances that his department was doing all it could to keep South Africa safe against attacks.
And in a statement issued earlier on Wednesday, prior to the Presidency’s statement, the South African government lashed out at the United States for the way it issued the terror alert. The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) and State Security Agency (SSA) earlier slammed the US for basing its warning on information that was “very sketchy”.
The government added that the terror warning was “dubious, unsubstantiated and provided by a ‘walk-in’ source based on questionable conclusions”.
In its statement, the government also said that it had formally protested to the relevant embassies for the way the matter was handled.
“South Africa, as a sovereign peace loving country, has always adopted a professional manner in engaging with other countries on these issues.
“We are, therefore, displeased with the manner in which some countries have reciprocated. Their actions have been disingenuous and a cause for serious concern to our government,” the government’s statement read.
Alleged terror information source ‘discredited’
News24 reported that state intelligence believed the information originated from a local East African businessman.
But source with access to South African intelligence said that the businessman was believed by South Africa to be a “discredited” informer who provided the information in exchange for payment.
Australia, UK update travel advisories
The US issued a terror alert for South Africa on Saturday, saying that it had received information that radical Islamic terror groups were planning to attack “places where US citizens congregate in South Africa, such as upscale shopping areas and malls in Johannesburg and Cape Town” ahead of Ramadan, which started on Tuesday.
The British and the Australian governments updated their travel advisories for South Africa following the US warning, but they did not advise their citizens against travelling to this country.
Isabel Potgieter, spokesperson for the United Kingdom High Commission in Pretoria, said they would be meeting with Dirco soon, but she could not say whether the terror warning would be discussed. The meeting “forms part of our ongoing, continuous discussions with the South African government”, she said.
US Embassy continues to work with SA
US Embassy spokesperson Cynthia Harvey on Wednesday afternoon said the embassy continued to work with the South African government on the matter.
She confirmed there was “no change in status of the security message issued on June 4, 2016. It was based on specific, credible, and non-counterable threat information”.
Harvey said the embassy has been, and continues to be, “pleased and impressed with the high level of professionalism and transparent co-operation with the government of South Africa throughout this period”.
Asked for comment on the statement by the South African government slamming the US for basing its warning “very sketchy” information, Harvey said: “We cannot comment on the internal communications process within the South African government, but we will continue to work with our counterparts in the South Africa government going forward.”
‘SA not immune from terror attacks’
In the meantime, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has warned that South Africa is not immune from terror attacks, and urged caution.
IRR CEO Dr Frans Cronje said it was misleading for South Africa’s security agencies to say there was no terror link or threat in the country.
Cronje said the IRR had been warning for years that South Africa should not see itself as immune from terror attacks.
“The type of attacks that played themselves out most recently in France and Belgium are very difficult to prevent and it is that type of attack – a relatively isolated incident carried out by a small group of extremists with simple weaponry against a prominent target – which South Africa is also vulnerable to.”
He said there were examples of terror suspects being in possession of SA passports.
“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,” said Cronje. – News24 (Edited by Michelle Solomon)