Why al-Qa'eda Seems to Prefer South African Passports


The integrity of South African passports is again in the spotlight. On 8 June 2011 Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, al-Qa'eda's east African leader, was killed in Mogadishu, Somalia - allegedly with a South African passport in his possession. He is not the first suspected terrorist to be caught with a South African passport. This news will not please law-abiding South Africans who are finding it increasingly restrictive to travel on their national passports. It also raises serious security concerns for local and international law enforcement officials.

Indeed, South African passports have been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent years. Most notable instances include:

Why do the world's most dangerous terrorists prefer South African passports, and how do they obtain them so readily? South African officials, as early as 2004, have acknowledged that al-Qa'eda militants and other terrorists travelling through Europe have obtained South African passports. Barry Gilder, the then Director General of the Department of Home Affairs, and also a former Deputy Director in the National Intelligence Agency, in July 2004 confirmed that authorities came across a number of instances in which South African passports were found in the hands of al-Qa'eda suspects or their associates in Europe. At that time crime syndicates sold South African identity documents and passports for as little as R500. To make matters worse, authorities in the United Kingdom found boxes of authentic South African passports in a raid during that same period. In addition to above, a number of international security experts also raised concern that South Africa is being used as a transit to Somalia. While authorities might scrutinize the flight arrangements of young men travelling into Kenya, similar questions will not be raised when transiting through South Africa. The value of the South African passport to terrorist operatives is easy to understand.

Although there are no official figures to indicate how many corruptly obtained or fake South African passports are in circulation, all indications are that there are many. For example, in January 2002 a Home Affairs employee was arrested in connection with the theft of 4,000 passports. Eight years later, in January 2010 Home Affairs officers stationed at the Mozambique and Zimbabwe borders reportedly confiscated approximately 80 questionable South African passports daily.

There are three possible ways to acquire an illegal South African passport:

South Africa recognizes the importance of securing its passport processing and dissemination procedures. Since the appointment of Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as the new Minister of Home Affairs on 10 May 2009, a number of initiatives have been introduced to address weaknesses in the Department. While introducing a zero-tolerance policy against corruption, a counter-corruption unit works in partnership with the South African Police Service and National Intelligence Agency to identify those within the department involved in corruption and fraud. This led to the department closing its Market Street Offices in February 2010 after several officials were found to be corrupt. At the end of that same year thee Home Affairs employees at Arcadia and Soshanguve, who allegedly facilitated the illegal sale of South African passports to Pakistanis, were arrested.

Although government is prepared to spend millions on new passports and cutting-edge equipment at airports, it is corruption, not the lack of technology, that remains the weakest link.

Anneli Botha, International Crime in Africa Programme, ISS Pretoria Office

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