In what could change the face of a uniquely South African crime, a gang of white ATM bombers, thought to be responsible for a string of attacks in central KwaZulu-Natal, continue to wreak havoc as fears of their next strike mount.
The bombers were caught on CCTV cameras that clearly reveal their white skin colour.
The gang, thought to consist of between 10 and 15 men, has masterminded at least four attacks in small towns in recent weeks. The well-armed group operates with military precision.
The witness statement of a security guard held at gunpoint by the gang, and corroborated by CCTV footage of the bombers, indicates the changing face of South African crime.
Armed to the hilt with high calibre assault rifles, the men appear to target towns outside major urban hubs where police response would be minimal.
The technical nature of their bombings and the manner in which they ambushed police officers have fuelled speculation that the men have specialist police or military training.
Criminologist Nirmala Gopal said: “This shows that the colour of crime in our country is changing. It would appear that the type of crimes perpetrated by whites has changed and this is a very high-profile turn. Perhaps white people are getting more desperate, considering they are turning to such violent means,” she said.
She added that previous research into the composition of ATM gangs had shown that perpetrators had recruited experts from various relevant fields.
“These gangs fill their ranks with the likes of security guards, cash-in-transit personnel, those trained to work with explosives – for example in the mining industry – or even police officers. Suggesting one type of background distracts from apprehending the real criminals.
“Previous media reports on arrests of police personnel confirm that gangs ensure that expert members from the SAPS and other paramilitary structures are included as part of their ATM bombing syndicates,” she said.
A security expert, who would not be named as he consulted for banks, said that examining the manner in which the gang executed the bombings had led him to believe that they had a military background.
“It is my personal opinion that these men are either currently in the armed forces or have some military experience, especially with regard to demolition and explosives. This will obviously have to be confirmed if they are ever arrested.”
He added that it made sense that elite soldiers would choose to enrich themselves if they could.
“Imagine you are a soldier with specialised training in combat and in explosives as part of your trade, and despite this you are paid a pittance. It is not an outrageous notion that these men would turn to crime for personal enrichment – they certainly have the means. I don’t think this is the work of the right-wing,” he added.
In October last year, bombers struck an ATM in Nottingham Road in the early hours of the morning. A security guard posted at a hardware outlet across the road from the ATM had woken to go to the toilet and had stumbled upon the men as they were laying their charges.
The unarmed guard was critically injured when the bombers opened fire on him.
Two weeks later the gang struck again in Howick, destroying two ATMs at the Spar Centre in Main Road.
A security guard was assaulted and forced to lie down while robbers set the explosives in a heist he said was perpetrated in a matter of minutes.
The guard identified members of the gang as white men wearing balaclavas and black raincoats.
In early November, two ATMs at the Merrivale Spar Centre were blown up. Seemingly oblivious to CCTV cameras installed around the ATMs, the bombers were seen unfurling rolls of Cordtex, a specialist explosive.
The blast woke a woman in a house across the road from the centre, and when she opened her curtains to see what had happened, one of the gang opened fire, riddling her house with bullets.
They have also been linked to the killing of police dog handler Vidhur Jadoo, who was lured into an ambush by the bombers after the blast.
Jadoo and his partner, Warrant Officer Livingston Mpangase, 40, of the Pietermaritzburg SAPS K9 dog unit, pursued the gang into a suburban area where they were ambushed. Jadoo died while Mpangase survived despite being shot in the head and leg.
The gang’s latest attack came last week at an ATM in Greytown.
Police spokesman Captain Thulani Zwane said that the bombings were being investigated by the Hawks and that some arrests had been made.
Zwane added that while links could not be made to all the bombings, a project had been registered and investigators assumed that the same gang was responsible.
“These men also pay careful attention to their escape routes and they make sure they have easy passage away from the site.”
He said that thus far, men arrested had no formal police or military training.
“There is no evidence to support the claim that these men are soldiers or police officers. We have linked some of the suspects to other ATM bombings. Bombers have been using commercial explosives sourced from the mining industry.
“Not all of their attacks have been successful.”
Kevin Twiname, South African Banking Risk Information Centre’s general manger of violent crime, said that the agency was supporting the police in investigating the string of bombings.
“The industry’s concern with ATM bombing attacks is the violence and loss of life, as well as the infrastructural damages, that result from these attacks.
“The infrastructural damage that stems from these attacks usually results in notable financial losses as the costs of replacing a bombed ATM can be anything between R300 000 and R500 000, depending on the location of such an ATM,” he said.
When questioned on how much had been stolen in the isolated spate of bombings, Twiname said it was difficult to pinpoint a figure.
He said that Sabric had gathered information that explosives used in the blasts were generally sourced from industries that required them for day-to-day operation like the construction and mining sectors.
Last week a man was arrested at the Swaziland border when large amounts of commercial explosives were found in his car.