*** Let's hope its just empty noise. MS ***
South African intelligence services have been accused of being slow to react to warnings of terror threats to the 2010 World Cup.
This week, the US Congress counter-terror caucus was briefed on threats to the tournament.
This corroborates what local intelligence sources have told the Sunday Times.
Ronald Sandee, director of the NEFA Foundation, warned the US Congress that:
* Pakistani and Somali militants are running terror training camps in northern Mozambique;
* Trainees from these camps may have crossed into South Africa to join or form cells planning World Cup attacks;
* Surveillance and strike teams planning attacks are well established in South Africa. Terror groups involved include al-Qaeda and their Somalian allies, al-Shahaab; and
* Simultaneous and random attacks are being planned during the World Cup.
Furious efforts are under way to recover lost ground, but some warn these may be too little, too late.
On Wednesday, the National Joint Operational Centre was activated at an undisclosed military base in Pretoria. It is co-ordinating the deployment of all South African security and intelligence structures to ensure a safe World Cup, including 24-hour protection of teams and officials.
According to two insiders, a watch-list of 40 terror suspects has been drawn up.
The Sunday Times has also received two separate accounts of at least one arrest linked to World Cup threats.
Police have neither confirmed nor denied the arrest or watch-list.
Intelligence chiefs contacted, including secret service and crime intelligence bosses Moe Shaik and Mark Hankel, declined to be interviewed. "If you comment too much about intelligence, you undermine it," said Hankel.
This month, a Saudi army colonel was arrested in Iraq for allegedly plotting with al-Qaeda to attack the World Cup, but, on Wednesday, Fifa secretary-general Jerome Valcke said an Interpol investigation had exposed the plot as a hoax. The day before, al-Qaeda posted a Web notice denying any involvement in the alleged plot.
But several intelligence sources - as well as briefing papers seen by the Sunday Times - and extensive interviews with security experts and counter-terror analysts suggest that local authorities may be instilling "a false sense of security", as one analyst put it.
The existence of operational militant training camps in several provinces in South Africa, and of established terror strike cells planning to target the World Cup, was confirmed independently by three sources with direct or indirect access to active intelligence operations.
Two sources separately confirmed the Mozambique camps and presence of both al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab operatives.
One conceded: "It's impossible to tell. It's simply unknown if capabilities for large-scale, orchestrated attacks exist."
But all agreed that concrete plans for attempted attacks exist. "There is no doubt about that."
Sandee is more forthright. He told the US congress that numerous references were made to World Cup attacks in closed-frequency radio broadcasts and telephone intercepts this month in Mauritania, Algeria, Mali, Pakistan and Yemen.
"Information confirms that several venues will be targeted, some simultaneously, others at random. Reference is also made to the possibility of a kamikaze-type attack."
NEFA bills itself as an apolitical, non-partisan institute whose researchers include investigative journalists, academics and former intelligence analysts who have worked for the FBI and US Defence Department. Sandee worked as a senior analyst for the Dutch Ministry of Defence's counter-intelligence section.
He said an al-Qaeda spokesman also warned in a communication intercepted in mid-April that "the South African people should get away, not only from the contest between the US and Britain, but also from those who mocked the prophet Muhammad - Denmark and the Netherlands".
His briefing notes, seen by the Sunday Times, contained details of three training camps in Nampula and Tete provinces in Mozambique run by Somalis, Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis.
He identifies a Pakistani national suspected of running an al-Qaeda co-ordinating cell that instructs trainees when to move across the border, using a seafood restaurant in South Africa as a front.
Sandee told the Sunday Times on Friday the information he had presented was derived from several intelligence agency sources, as well as NEFA's own informants on the ground. "I believe there is an 80% chance of an attack," he concluded.
He agrees with several analysts who believe that until recently South African intelligence bosses were in denial about the level of threat posed to the World Cup.
"Since late last week, there seems to be a change within the leadership of (SA intelligence services)," says Sandee. "But I am afraid that it is too late. How many terror cells can you pick up now, even if you work 25 hours a day?"
Intelligence operatives close to the investigation confirmed that the government started taking threats seriously only earlier this year, after an ad-hoc task team comprising dormant counter-terror experts, military and police intelligence officers and National Intelligence Agency operatives provided briefings on active terror cells.
These cells involved Somalians, granted refugee status, suspected of belonging to al-Shahaab, which the US has confirmed is funded by al-Qaeda.
But mid and lower-ranking operatives complain that their tip-offs and warnings are either being ignored or not being relayed to the top brass.
A source with links to police and crime intelligence said: "All leads by operatives and across agencies, SA and foreign, should be followed vigorously, if only to send the right message, along with much stronger visible security measures. None of this is happening right now, which makes the World Cup more vulnerable than it should be."
This view is supported by academics and terror analysts. "We will be excellent at reaction, but counter-intelligence is their Achilles' heal, because there are too many political appointees," says former naval officer and senior researcher at the SA Institute for International Affairs Frank van Rooyen.
"We are definitely vulnerable to suicide bombers and car bombs. All the signs are there that al-Qaeda is planning one of these attacks on the World Cup."