In S. Africa, Cash Machines Prove a Big Hit With Bombers

Thieves blew up the ATM in this steel shed in Olievenhoutbosch township Dec. 31, the 53rd such attack in South Africa last year.
Thieves blew up the ATM in this steel shed in Olievenhoutbosch township Dec. 31, the 53rd such attack in South Africa last year. (By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 15, 2007

OLIEVENHOUTBOSCH, South Africa -- Hours before dawn on the last day of 2006, a gray van pulled up to the ATM housed in a steel shed just outside T.P.T. Supermarket in this run-down township. The store's security guard, posted about 30 feet away, said he saw four hooded men jump out of the van, stuff something into the front of the cash machine, then run away.

The blast that followed was so strong it jolted people awake in nearby homes, witnesses said. But before anyone could alert the police, the hooded men rushed back and pulled from the smoldering remains a box the size of a small file cabinet. Together they hoisted it into the van and sped off.

And so ended the 53rd and final cash machine bombing of 2006, the year a toxic stew of joblessness, criminal ingenuity and readily available mine explosives gave rise to a startling new trend in crime-weary South Africa.

"Eeesh," said T.P.T. Supermarket's night guard, Alpheus Nevhundogwa, 49, as he recalled the attack. "These people, dangerous."

With their allure of easy cash, ATMs have long been a target for criminals worldwide, industry officials say. One popular tactic is to ram a truck into a cash machine so it can be dislodged, loaded onto the truck and driven away. Criminals in Europe have destroyed machines by injecting compressed gas into them until they explode. A Japanese gang once used a backhoe to steal an ATM from a railroad station. When the machine's remains were found nearly 30 miles away, $400,000 was gone.

But blowing up cash machines, especially as often as it has been done here in recent months, is a peculiarly South African crime, say industry officials and security experts, who attribute it to the unusual juxtaposition of First World banking conveniences and the kind of desperate poverty rarely found in developed countries. In few places in the world, global analyses show, is income distributed so unequally.

The attacks on ATMs in South Africa have grown in tandem with a politically driven push to install more machines in downtrodden areas where, under apartheid, modern banking was almost unknown. There are now 15,000 ATMs in the country, and the free-standing, steel-shed variety, such as the one blown up in Olievenhoutbosch on Dec. 31, are both increasingly common and especially vulnerable to explosives. No injuries or deaths have resulted, police say.

Blowing up an ATM is relatively easy in a country where a vast mining industry offers an endless supply of powerful explosives to steal. Both putty and sticks of dynamite have been used in attacks, though getting the amount and positioning right has proved elusive; most ATM bombings, police and security experts say, fail because the blast is either too weak to break loose the safe inside or so strong that the bills are ripped to shreds.

"They relatively seldom get their hands on the money," said Ian Janse van Vuuren of the South African Banking Risk Information Center, a nonprofit group that advises the industry on security issues. "They're still in the experimental phase."

Here in Olievenhoutbosch -- despite its bucolic name, meaning "olive tree grove," it is little more than a trading post amid the grassy sprawl of shantytowns and suburbs between Johannesburg and Pretoria -- the attackers were either luckier or more skilled than most.

Police are reluctant to discuss details of the bombings, or how much gets stolen, for fear of encouraging copycats. But the box the men here took almost certainly contained large stacks of cash. As is often the case in ATM explosions, the machine was loaded just the day before, witnesses said.

The cash machine also looks as if it was the victim of precision attack: The screen and keypad are dusty and damaged but intact. The card slot, a favorite place for bombers to deposit explosives, is broken open but hardly gaping. But the machine's innards, visible from a door in the back of the shed, are a jumbled mess of paper, twisted metal and charred plastic. An acrid stench lingers.

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