Spy cables: Here are the documents you need to read

2015-02-24 14:08

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Leaked intelligence documents – which have been dubbed the Spy Cables – from agencies all over the world have caused international diplomats to spring into serious damage-control mode.

Al Jazeera’s investigative unit, in collaboration with City Press, is publishing a selection of the documents and the stories contained within them.

South Africa, and its links to the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, South Korea and North Korea are mentioned in the leaked documents, which cover topics from secret uranium shipments, a seizure of arms delivered from North Korea to Iran, and Iran’s efforts to use official and unofficial channels in South Africa to beat western-imposed sanction

According to the documents obtained by Al Jazeera, the Spy Cables provide a detailed account of Tehran allegedly using secret front companies, as well as open diplomatic channels, in its efforts to work around trade restrictions in order to obtain materials for both arms manufacture and other industries.

A 128-page “Operational Target Analysis”, written by South African spies, profiles dozens of alleged Iranian operatives, listing their names, cover stories, families, addresses and phone numbers.

Another South African intelligence document reveals Iranian officials carried out “a clean-up” of several diplomats at the Iranian embassy whose loyalty to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was questioned.

Iran’s image

Another South African intelligence document reveals that Iranian officials carried out “a clean-up” of several diplomats at the Iranian embassy whose loyalty to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was questioned.

It also noted that one Iranian diplomat had “a gambling problem and is closely watched”. The official in charge of the “clean-up” also planned to send this diplomat home “but because of [his] political contacts, he could not.”

Talks were also under way between the South African and Iran governments on how to improve the image of Iran, including how to use various media groups – the Independent group and the SABC were named – to do this.

Foreign espionage

A secret security assessment by South African intelligence says foreign espionage is booming, with more than 140 foreign spies estimated to be operating in South Africa – and that the country is doing a poor job of protecting itself.

They are thought to have gained access to government departments, ministries and “even the presidency” and are suspected of breaking into nuclear power plants, stealing military blueprints and hacking computers.

The report slams poor security awareness among civil servants, who regularly fail to observe the most basic procedures, leaving classified information unlocked and failing to adequately vet new recruits.

In some cases South African citizens, diplomats and civil servants are helping foreign spies “by unwittingly providing them with classified information or by allowing them access to restricted areas”.

The secret assessment of the nation’s security vulnerabilities, written in October 2009 by South African intelligence, concludes information security is at “serious risk” and says it will remain so in the “long-term”.

Arms deal surfaces

Another secret document from 2009, titled “Counter Espionage Input for the State Security Project”, proposes details of how to merge South Africa’s five foreign and domestic intelligence agencies into one State Security Agency. That centralisation took place from 2009.

The document says foreign spies played “an active role” in persuading decision makers as they finalised the controversial multibillion-rand arms deal in 1999.

The deal was signed to modernise South Africa’s National Defence Force, buying naval craft, submarines, fighter aircraft, helicopters and other equipment. Since then multiple allegations of corruption have emerged.


The cables also allege that African Union Commission chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma faced an assassination threat in October 2012 soon after she took office at the Commission’s high-rise headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

According to the cables, the threat may have come from Sudan.

After learning of it, a crack team that included top members of the South African Secret Service and South African Police Service jetted to Ethiopia where they held high-level meetings with local security to discuss the threats.

In addition to the plot threat the cables also lay bare how difficult Dlamini-Zuma’s ascension to the top seat was.

In addition, the spy cables reveal that relations between Ethiopia and South Africa were “damaged” and needed to be rebuilt when Dlamini-Zuma took the chairpersonship.

Front companies

South African intelligence reports also identify various and seemingly unrelated organisations they believe are being used to facilitate Iranian intelligence activities.

“Influential Iranian individuals” especially those “in religious cultural affairs and the Persian carpet trade” are used as “deep cover for intelligence activities,” the agents claim.

“Non-official covers include Iran Air (the official airline of Iran), the Islamic Republic News Agency, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines,” the January 2010 document disclosed.

The agents also profile a number of carpet shops, publishers and other small businesses they believe have links to Iran’s intelligence agencies.

Presidents’ nuclear discussions

The intelligence profile also reveals that Iran approached South Africa’s leadership in search of a workaround for international sanctions imposed by Western powers. It cites “a covert source” who claims that on two occasions, then-President Thabo Mbeki had met with senior Iranian officials requesting help with their nuclear programme.

A month after an initial September 2005 meeting, an Iranian delegation headed by a “Mr Rowhani” – likely to be current Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani who had stepped down as head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council in August of that year – met Mbeki, according to the source.

“The nature of the discussions was a request from the Iranian government to the South African government to assist Iran with their nuclear programme and to provide technical advice and technology,” the document says.

“The advanced level of South Africa’s technologies in the aerospace industry, especially in the missile guidance field has increasingly become a focal point” of Iran, a South African spy commented.

“It is foreseen that these industries will be targeted for procurement processes.”

South African intelligence agents reported that the Iranians were also interested in technology used for satellite interception, online surveillance and hacking.

UK and SA

British agents had also been monitoring Iran’s activities in South Africa, according to another leaked document, trying to police trade restrictions that the United Kingdom had been instrumental in establishing.

A cable from the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6, warned its South African counterparts that a South African company was involved in “advanced” business dealings with an Iranian “front company”.

The 2009 cable, marked for “UK/SA eyes only”, warns the South Africans that the Iranian company was secretly “responsible for the production of missile launchers” and “the development of rocket bodies”, but had “gone to great lengths to pretend” that it was a legitimate firm and “hide the fact that it is related to the missile industry”.


The agents also allege Iranian links to local vigilante group People Against Gangsterism and Drugs and Ahl ul-Bait Foundation of South Africa – a Shia Islam religious institute. Both groups strongly deny this.

Pagad national coordinator Abdusalam Ebrahim says the group has never received any support.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Iran or Iraq or Saudi Arabia.” Ebrahim told Al Jazeera.

“Pagad never got support from anybody”.

The SSA characterises Iranian spies as individuals who are “highly motivated and difficult to recruit”. They appear “courteous,” “tolerant” and “persuasive” but apply “counter-surveillance measures constantly”.

Their responsibilities are “much broader than only espionage,” according to the SSA. Among its findings are “confirmed” links between Iranian spies and what South Africa identifies as “extremists” and “terrorists”.

Despite all the details presented in the SSA’s “Operational Target Analysis”, the agency concludes that it needs more information in order to make “a comprehensive threat assessment” on Iranian espionage activity.

It concludes by saying “the extent of Iranian intelligence involvement in South Africa [...] needs to be established” and urges further investigation.

Al Jazeera has redacted the papers to protect individual identities. Click on the documents to read them:

» The South African State Security Agency’s assessment of Iran’s interests and activities, June 2009

» The South African State Security Agency’s thematic assessment of security vulnerabilities in government, October 2009

» The South African State Security Agency’s counter espionage input to the State Security Project, December 2009

» First South African State Security Agency correspondence on Ethiopia, October 2012

» Second South African State Security Agency correspondence on Ethiopia, October 2012

» The draft report of a meeting held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, between South African and Ethiopian security establishments over Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s safety, October 2012

» South African State Security Agency correspondence regarding the possible assassination attempt on Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, October 2012

» Israel Mossad warns of Uranium shipment September 2010

» South Africa SSA and UK MI6 on Iran October 2009

» South Africa SSA meets Iran May 2012

» South Korea on UAE seizure of arms delivered from North Korea to Iran

» UK MI6 writes to South Africa SSA on Iran profileration November 2009

» South Africa operational target analysis of Iran January 2010

» South Africa SSA meets Iran intelligence May 2012

» South Africa SSA on Iran intelligence in Africa October 2012

» SSA assessment of Iran’s interests and activities in South Africa 2009

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