Officials on Wednesday discounted news reports that al Qaeda was planning a series of attacks in South Africa, a country that terrorism experts said might be serving as a haven for terrorists plotting to strike elsewhere.
The reports appeared after Pakistani officials announced that two South African men in their custody had confessed to planning attacks at popular tourist spots in their home country. Pakistani police identified the suspects as Feroz Ibrahim and Zubair Ismail, who were arrested last week with Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a senior al Qaeda operative. Ghailani, a Tanzanian, is wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
A Pakistani police chief in the city of Gujrat, Raja Munawar Hussain, told the Associated Press that the South African suspects were "very well-trained terrorists" who had confessed their plans and had maps of several cities in their possession.
South African newspapers, citing unnamed sources, reported extensively on the plot. The Star in Johannesburg published pictures of sites it said were targeted, including the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and the Parliament building in Cape Town. The newspaper said the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria was among possible targets.
South African authorities moved quickly to discredit the reports. President Thabo Mbeki's cabinet issued a statement expressing "outrage at the manner in which these matters have been aired, without any credible substantiation from security agencies in our country and in Pakistan."
Greg Mills, director of the South African Institute of International Affairs, said the alleged plot "is not a wake-up call to the government, but it may be something of a wake-up call to South African citizens."
"This is certainly going to make people's eyes open a little wider that this is a global war on terror, and not just in Europe and America," Mills said.
Al Qaeda and similar groups are showing signs of increased activity in South Africa. Officials have said they had uncovered a plot to disrupt national elections in April and deported several suspects. Officials have also said boxes of South African passports were recently seized in London, according to news reports. And U.S. officials are investigating whether a woman carrying a South African passport who was detained in Texas last month has ties to terrorists in Pakistan.
Analysts said South Africa was an unlikely target for al Qaeda because the government had opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The greater danger, they said, is that South Africa is becoming a haven for terrorists preparing to attack other countries. South Africa may appeal to terrorists because of its extensive air links, porous borders and a large Muslim community, they said.
"I would classify South Africa as possibly a place to hide or cool down or regroup, but not attack," said Anneli Botha, a researcher on terrorism for the Institute for Security Studies, a research organization with offices in Pretoria and Cape Town.
Botha said the news reports, even if they prove to have been overstated, help South Africans recognize that they are not immune to international terrorism.
"Sometimes you need to shake people," she said. "You'd rather wake up to a rumor than a bombing."