Continent emerges as the focus of international spying, with South Africa becoming a regional powerhouse and communications hub
• Read the leaked document here
Africa emerges as the 21st century theatre of espionage, with South Africa as its gateway, in the cache of secret intelligence documents and cables seen by the Guardian. “Africa is now the El Dorado of espionage,” said one serving foreign intelligence officer.
The continent has increasingly become the focus of international spying as the battle for its resources has intensified, China’s economic role has grown dramatically, and the US and other western states have rapidly expanded their military presence and operations in a new international struggle for Africa.
With South Africa a regional powerhouse and communications hub, Pretoria has become a centre of the continent’s new Great Game, intelligence officials say, and a target of global espionage. The leaked documents obtained by al-Jazeera and shared with the Guardian contain the names of 78 foreign spies working in Pretoria, along with their photographs, addresses and mobile phone numbers – as well as 65 foreign intelligence agents identified by the South Africans as working undercover. Among the countries sending spies are the US, India, Britain and Senegal.
The United States, along with its French and British allies, is the major military and diplomatic power on the continent. South Africa spends a disproportionate amount of time focused on Iran and jihadi groups, in spite of internal documents showing its intelligence service does not regard either as a major threat to South Africa. “The Americans get what they want,” an intelligence source said.
The targets of foreign intelligence are myriad, ranging from jihadi groups to economic or technological theft. China has emerged as one of the biggest economic players on the continent, investing heavily in infrastructure, building a strong presence in many countries, in large part motivated by its huge appetite for fuel and resources.
Chinese intelligence is identified in one secret South African cable as the suspect in a nuclear break-in. A file dating from December 2009 on South Africa’s counter-intelligence effort says that foreign agencies had been “working frantically to influence” the country’s nuclear energy expansion programme, identifying US and French intelligence as the main players. But due to the “sophistication of their covert operations”, it had not been possible to “neutralise” their activities.
However, a 2007 break-in at the Pelindaba nuclear research centre – where apartheid South Africa developed nuclear weapons in the 1970s – by four armed and “technologically sophisticated criminals” was attributed by South African intelligence to an act of state espionage. At the time officials publicly dismissed the break-in as a burglary.
Several espionage agencies were reported to have shown interest in the progress of South Africa’s Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. According to the file, thefts and break-ins at the PBMR site were suspected to have been carried out to “advance China’s rival project”. It added that China was “now one year ahead … though they started several years after PBMR launch”.
In an October 2009 report by South Africa’s intelligence service, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), on operations in Africa, Israel is said to be “working assiduously to encircle and isolate Sudan from the outside, and to fuel insurrection inside Sudan”. Israel “has long been keen to capitalise on Africa’s mineral wealth”, the South African spying agency says, and “plans to appropriate African diamonds and process them in Israel, which is already the world’s second largest processor of diamonds”.
The document reports that members of a delegation led by then foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman had been “facilitating contracts for Israelis to train various militias” in Africa.
The NIA’s relationship with its highly active Israeli counterpart, Mossad, has been mixed: close during the apartheid era, distant in the early years of the rule of the pro-Palestinian African National Congress, and more ambiguous in recent years.
One factor in South Africa’s attraction for rival spy agencies is the porous nature of its security services. A South African intelligence document, Security Vulnerabilities in Government, dated October 2009, offers an uncompromising look at the weakness of its security, a point rammed home by the fact it is marked secret but ended up among the leaked files.
The document says: “Foreign governments and their intelligence services strive to weaken the state and undermine South Africa’s sovereignty. Continuing lack of an acceptable standard of security … increases the risk.” It lists theft of laptop computers, insufficient lock-up facilities, limited vetting of senior officials in sensitive institutions, no approved encryption on landlines or mobiles, total disregard by foreign diplomats for existing regulations, ease of access to government departments allowed to foreign diplomats, and the lack of proper screening for foreigners applying for sensitive jobs.
According to one intelligence officer with extensive experience in South Africa, the NIA is politically factionalised and “totally penetrated” by foreign agencies: “Everyone is working for someone else.” The former head of the South African secret service, Mo Shaik, a close ally of the president, Jacob Zuma, was described as a US confidant and key source of information on “the Zuma camp” in a leaked 2008 Wikileaks cable from the American embassy in Pretoria.
The cables disclose an apparent assassination plot in Ethiopia against the South African politician Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, days after she became the new chair of the African Union Commission in 2012, giving a flavour of the day-to-day tribulations of intelligence operations in Africa.
South Africa’s head of station in Addis Ababa was warned of the plot, but instructed not to give details to the Ethiopians. Eventually, the Ethiopians were tipped off but the bodyguards assigned to Dlamini-Zuma’s hotel to protect her left their positions to get food and water.
In a frantic series of cables to Pretoria and in meetings with Ethiopian officials, South African intelligence officials are shown struggling to protect Dlamini-Zuma’s security without creating an impression of no confidence in Ethiopian security. When South Africa hands over a list of suspects, Ethiopian intelligence blames Sudan but is unable to link the names with Khartoum.