Iraqi army spokesman Maj.Gen. Qassim Atta announced May 17 that Iraqi security forces arrested two foreign members of the al Qaeda franchise in Iraq, Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), two weeks ago on charges of staging the Jan. 25 suicide attacks against Baghdad hotels
as well as planning attacks during the upcoming World Cup in South Africa. Atta said one of the men, Abdullah Azzam Saleh al-Qahtani, a former Saudi army officer, was in charge of security for ISI in Baghdad and was in contact with Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's second in command, who Atta said helped him plan the purported World Cup attack. The language Atta used during the announcement, however, did not indicate whether this meant the Iraqis had uncovered a plot targeting South Africa or, rather, a target in Iraq linked to the World Cup, such as crowds of Iraqis that typically gather at public venues such as cafes to watch games. That ISI almost never conducts attacks outside of Iraq (the only foreign country known to have experienced an ISI attack is Jordan, birthplace of former ISI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) makes it unclear whether al-Qahtani and al-Zawahiri were plotting to attack the tournament itself. Though the World Cup is clearly an appealing target for a jihadist plot, it presents immense logistical difficulties for a weakened organization such as ISI. Few details about the alleged plot against the World Cup are available at this time, making it difficult to assess the credibility of the threat, but it would not be unexpected for a jihadist actor to discuss targeting the tournament. Militant groups often look to carry out attacks during high-profile international events, and threats against these events invariably emerge leading up to their opening, (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has already warned of an attack against the World Cup
). However, possessing the intent to stage an attack does not necessarily mean the group has the capability to do so in terms of operatives and materiel. ISI recently sustained serious losses with the deaths of two key leaders April 18
, and while the group has proven its ability to conduct attacks in Iraq, an operation thousands of miles away in South Africa is an entirely different matter. Additionally, considering the pressures on al Qaeda prime right now, it is difficult to imagine Ayman al-Zawahiri was able to communicate with a commander in Iraq without being intercepted. If this link is true, however, it may indicate that authorities learned of the threat through communication intercepts. From the details available thus far, there is no indication that the suspected militants had progressed past the target-selection phase
of the attack cycle
. If they had done nothing more than talk about staging an attack, the threat they posed obviously must be considered very low — such groups frequently brainstorm and discuss a number of plots that are never pursued further. Typically, when actionable intelligence (which would be present in any specific plans to attack a target) is discovered, governments share information on the threat to address it in their respective jurisdictions. Following Atta's press conference announcing the arrests, a South African police spokesman said he was not aware of the threat and was making inquiries. That the Iraqi army apparently did not share any information with the South Africans before publicizing the arrests could indicate another anomaly. Either there was a threat involving South Africa and the Iraqis committed a serious divergence from protocol by not alerting them, or there was no actionable intelligence to share with the South Africans, which would indicate that the threat had not progressed very far in the attack cycle. Another possibility is that the threat targeted Iraq, not South Africa (Atta's language did not clarify this), which obviously would not require South African involvement. Currently, there are no indications that South African authorities have made any arrests or investigated any individuals in connection with this threat; as recently as May 13, South African Police Commissioner Gen. Bheki Cele stated there was no credible intelligence on terrorist threats facing the World Cup. These facts taken together seem to indicate that the alleged World Cup plot — if the suspects were even targeting South Africa in the first place — do not pose a serious threat to the tournament.