The so-called spy cables leaked this week show that South African intelligence agents were closely monitoring Samantha Lewthwaite – AKA the White Widow – for more than a year before she allegedly orchestrated the Westgate mall attack in Kenya.
The cables released by Al Jazeera include a 2012 report by the counterterrorism unit of the State Security Agency (SSA) detailing how Lewthwaite was able to move in and out of South Africa using three separate identities.
The SSA refused to comment on whether it had shared this intelligence with Kenyan authorities before the September 2013 attack and siege in Nairobi in which 67 people were killed.
“We will not be in a position to discuss or comment on the purported leaked documents,” said SSA spokesperson Brian Dube. “We are in a process of investigation.”
The week of the Westgate attack, City Press reported that Lewthwaite was recorded on CCTV footage in early 2013 conducting surveillance on foreign embassies in Pretoria.
The report says Lewthwaite entered South Africa on July 18 2008, but was deported less than a year later. Three months after the deportation, she was back – this time using a passport in the name of Asmaa Shahidah Bint-Andrews.
“She got into the country fraudulently,” department of home affairs spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete said yesterday. “We discovered later that she had come to the country using a different identity to the one she used before.”
Tshwete said this would never have happened had the department’s new regulations – requiring applicants to apply in person and submit biometric data such as their fingerprints – been in place in 2009.
“When you apply in person – which is the argument we have been pushing through for new regulations – you have to go to an embassy and get interviewed by an adjudicator?...?they take your biometrics. If we had those systems in place, I definitely think this person would have been blocked from coming into South Africa,” he said.
Tshwete said he did not know if British authorities knew Lewthwaite had changed her name and whether the South Africans had been notified.
Once in South Africa, Lewthwaite assumed a third identity – that of Natalie Faye Webb.
The 2012 counterterrorism unit report suggests the SSA received information from a foreign intelligence service that Lewthwaite was “suspected to be involved in al-Shabaab operations [in charge of logistics, especially housing and transport in a planned attack in 2011 targeting Kenya]”.
“She is an example of the type of abuses that were happening under the old regulations,” Tshwete said.
“We have got to make sure we are not caught napping. We at least have to make it more difficult for people who want to come into the country for nefarious purposes.”
Lewthwaite is one of several examples from the spy cables that point to a South African connection to al-Qaeda’s activities in Africa.
Crisis management company red24’s report on the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab, obtained by City Press on Friday, identifies two instances in which South African operatives were believed to have been involved in planning terror attacks in Kenya.
This included the 2011 plot involving Lewthwaite, which would have targeted Kenya’s Parliament, the UN office in Nairobi and senior politicians.
The report claims the plot involved “financial and logistical support from a South African facilitation network”.
But this week, commentators said the threat of an al-Qaeda attack in South Africa remained questionable, since none of the rumoured attacks actually occurred.
Although the names of suspects have been redacted from the counterterrorism unit’s reports, details of other alleged secret meetings and planned attacks include:
.?A 2008 meeting in Dubai between an al-Qaeda member and a South African at which a terrorist attack in South Africa was discussed. The attack, planned since 2007, involved five suicide bombers attacking unknown targets in South Africa and $1?million (R11.6?million) was needed for the job. The report says: “[Name redacted] asked [name redacted] to find a way to send a message to UBL and ask him for support.” UBL was a commonly used acronym for Osama bin Laden;
.?A 2010 meeting in Dubai involving at least one South African in which plans to attack a “Jewish conference in Cape Town” were discussed;
.?In 2011, a close associate of Lewthwaite, Jermaine Grant, was arrested in Kenya. Grant claimed the South African authorities had “foiled a planned attack in 2010”; and
.?A laptop containing SA Police Service identity cards was found when Harun Fazul, an al-Qaeda leader in east Africa, was killed in 2011. The report says Fazul also had a South African passport with him bearing his photo, but the name displayed was Daniel Robinson.
One of the most recent cables, dated August 2014, is a “top secret” warning from Israeli foreign intelligence agency Mossad to South African authorities about possible planned attacks by al-Qaeda on local synagogues in September 2014, over Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Zev Krengel, the president of the Jewish Board of Deputies, said the South African intelligence services passed on the warning and increased security at synagogues countrywide, erecting concrete barricades outside. In the case of the Sandton synagogue, they warned congregants to “not accept and bring parcels (gifts, food, etc) to the shul from anyone other than your immediate family”.
David Jacobson, executive director of the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies, said: “Our understanding was it was Jewish installations. This could be anything from a synagogue to a school to a kosher counter. That obviously is difficult to protect because they are many and vast.
“There were certain upgrades done to installations around the country?...?physical security upgrades,” he said.