To intelligence and beyond!
17 December 2017 06:20 (South Africa)
Opinionista De Wet Potgieter

My world, turned upside down

  • De Wet Potgieter
    john smith.jpg
    De Wet Potgieter
The story that South African intelligence operatives were monitoring suspected al-Qaeda terrorists in a deep cover operation was published in Daily Maverick last month. The author of the story explains how he came across the information, the intentions of his investigation and the consequences of it being published.

It was in 2011 – a few months after the Soccer World Cup was held in South Africa – when I met with a good friend of mine. Over coffee, he told me that a friend of his, an intelligence agent, was furious that a top-secret operation on the activities of a group of suspected Muslim extremists had been abruptly called off.

Having spent the last 35 years in investigative journalism, I recognised that this was a potentially important story that needed to be made public.

The initial information was vague and mention was only made of a long-term surveillance operation of a remote farm somewhere close to Uniondale in the Little Karoo. At that stage, I was still trying to get as much information about the location of the farm and finally managed to locate it.

I only learned later on that this operation was part of a bigger intelligence operation called Operation Kanu, which was established by the South African government shortly after the 9/11 attacks to monitor any activities of suspected Muslim extremists in the country.

Towards the end of 2012, I travelled to the area and interviewed the local community and the neighbouring farmers of the Little Karoo. It turned out that surveillance units from the intelligence gathering agencies had been active in the area since the middle of 2007.

The farmers and people from the local community at the nearby Haarlem settlement provided me with the information regarding the activities. They told me about - and showed me - sophisticated surveillance equipment that had been installed around the farm.

At this stage of my investigation I had no contact whatsoever with any police officials or intelligence operatives – locally or internationally – in this regard. My information came from the local people on the ground. The surveillance was real.

Back in Gauteng I started talking to my intelligence sources to try find out why the operation was aborted. They denied that the operation was stopped. Other, unofficial, sources insisted that the surveillance had been interrupted by a state agency. The spokesperson for the Hawks – who also handles investigations for Crimes Against the State unit, Captain Paul Ramaloko, told me that they do not comment on “ongoing investigations”.

After this phase of my investigation, I felt it was a good time to start publishing what I considered a strong story.

Without going into the details, the sources for the next part of my investigation had discovered that rightwing extremists and certain elements of Muslim extremists, were allegedly sharing deadly expertise.

Could have the information I gathered so far, be the work of agents provocateurs as has been alleged in the current hearing within a hearing at the Boeremag trial in the Gauteng North High Court? Possibly. Could I have been manipulated by my sources for their own purposes? Again, quite conceivable.

What is clear from the Boeremag trial is that there were police informers working among the plotters. There was a similar infiltration into the Muslim extremists groups. I have seen a fair amount of evidence gathered in the course of this multi-agency investigation. But I have not seen all of it, and there lies the rub. The maelstrom that followed the publishing of the original story, made further engagement difficult. I believe there is still a lot of evidence to be unearthed, besides that which was provided to me but deemed too sensitive to publish.

The world of investigative journalism sometimes requires a reporter to immerse himself in the murky world of espionage, counter espionage and disinformation. In order to serve the public interest, journalists often have to sift through truths, half-truths and lies, relying on information given by people with their own agendas. While some of the people operating in the chimera of the spy world are heroes, others do not have the nation’s best interests at heart. Determining what is the truth, and not just half of the truth, is complicated and treacherous.

During the research for this story, I have been immersed in claims and counter-claims and believed I had managed to successfully extricate the truths from the disinformation. I was under immense pressure from some of my sources to publish my findings, being led to believe that this would force the hand of the authorities to act on the evidence the operatives said they had provided. These undercover operatives would then be in a stronger position to provide me with more direct evidence.

As five weeks have passed since we published the story, there has been no action from the authorities, and the promised second wave of evidence has not been delivered. With a benefit of hindsight, should I have submitted the story at this stage of investigation? Definitely not. I was caught up in the twilight realm of a power play in the intelligence world, and I have paid the price.

For the past month I had been the target of personal abuse and veiled death threats as a result of my story. I would like to categorically state that there was no malice in my intentions to investigate this matter and I never had anything against any religion or race whatsoever. I am a practising Christian and believe in the principle of live and let live.

As an investigative journalist I have a duty to inform the public and believe the truth needs to be told. I had no ulterior motives and am convinced that once the whole story has been understood, a clearer picture will emerge.

I believe South Africa needs to know the full story of the strange saga in this grey world of deceit and espionage. And I am terribly sorry that the story we published did not help that cause. DM

  • De Wet Potgieter
    john smith.jpg
    De Wet Potgieter

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