JOHANNESBURG — The World Cup faces no terror threat at the moment, according to South Africa's police minister, who dismissed speculation less than two weeks before the tournament opens about plots by groups ranging from al-Qaida to homegrown white militants.
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said Monday that if a threat were to emerge, his forces would be ready. He said preparations since 2004, when South Africa won the bid to be the first African country to host soccer's premier event, have included working closely with security and intelligence agents from the United States, Britain and the 29 other countries sending teams to South Africa. The monthlong tournament begins June 11.
Mthethwa dismissed concerns that while South African security forces were prepared to respond, its intelligence agencies would be stretched to prevent an attack.
"I don't think that South African intelligence is weak," said Mthethwa, adding that if so, it would have been pointed out by the foreign governments with whom it has been working to prepare for the World Cup.
South African investigators went to Iraq after security forces there announced they had arrested an alleged al-Qaida militant who had talked to friends about attacking the Denmark and Netherlands squads at the World Cup. Mthethwa said investigators dismissed that threat.
STRATFOR, a private security think tank based in Austin, Texas, said in a pre-World Cup review of South Africa that it was unlikely that groups like al-Qaida had the capacity to carry out a major attack here.
Mthethwa also said there was nothing to substantiate a report in a South African newspaper Sunday of terror cells and training camps in the region, and at least one arrest in South Africa linked to the World Cup.
Mthethwa added that white South African extremists arrested in recent weeks for stockpiling weapons are a "lunatic fringe" and no threat to the tournament.
"It would be folly for any country to grandstand and proclaim that it is immune to terror attacks," Mthethwa told reporters in Johannesburg. But "there is no threat to South Africa as we speak now."
The U.S. State Department made a similar point last week when it issued a warning to Americans living in South Africa or traveling here for the World Cup.
"While a number of terrorist threats against the World Cup in South Africa have appeared in the media in recent weeks and months, the U.S. government has no information on any specific, credible threat of attack that any individual or group is planning to coincide with the tournament," the State Department said.
The State Department nonetheless said there was a "heightened risk that extremist groups will conduct terrorist acts within South Africa in the near future."
Asked about the U.S. warning at Monday's news conference, Mthethwa said: "Each country has the right to say whatever they want to say to their citizens.
"All we are saying in South Africa is that together with the security forces of U.S., U.K. and others, we have prepared ourselves for any eventuality."
In what could be read as a vote of U.S. confidence in South Africa's security preparations, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to attend the first U.S. game in the tournament, against England on June 12 in Rustenburg.
When the U.S. squad arrived late Monday at Johannesburg's airport, security appeared no more muscular than it has been for teams that had arrived earlier.
Mthethwa was repeatedly asked Monday whether his forces were preparing for the U.S.-England game as a high-risk event. Mthethwa refused to answer, saying discussing which events, teams or people were considered at higher risk could compromise security.
Terrorists have attacked huge sports events like the World Cup in the past — including the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Palestinian gunmen took hostage athletes and coaches from Israel's Olympic team, killing 11.
Mthethwa said: "Our approach stems from an attitude that says: it is best to over-prepare than be found wanting."
At least 40,000 officers out of a force of more than 190,000 would be devoted to World Cup security. Stations near stadiums, investigation teams and special courts operating 24 hours a day will be dedicated to the event.
Last week, a joint operations center led by police and including military, intelligence and other government agencies took over supervising World Cup security. The center will operate 24 hours a day from an undisclosed location in the capital until the World Cup ends.
The police arsenal has been boosted by $90 million worth of new equipment, including water cannon, helicopters, speed boats, jet skis, new high-performance police cars and heavy-duty emergency rescue vehicles.
In addition to terrorism, Mthethwa highlighted police determination to crack down on soccer hooliganism. He said his officers were working with counterparts in other countries, particularly Britain, to identify potential troublemakers.
Britain has identified some 3,000 hooligans who will not be allowed to travel to South Africa, Mthethwa said Monday. Those that slip through can expect a cool welcome.
"Those people present themselves as tough," Mthethwa said. "We want to show them there are even tougher people out there." – AP