The Scramble for Africa II: secret cables

Diamond Mine Sierra Leone, image from wikipedia

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…. 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…

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…

[According to leaked documents]: “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.

Excerpts Seumas Milne and Ewen MacAskill Africa is new ‘El Dorado of espionage’, leaked intelligence files , Guardian, Feb. 23, 2015

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