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.

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:

  • Ihsan Garnaoui, a Tunisian al-Qa'eda suspect told German investigators that he had a number of South African passports. At the time of his arrest in January 2003, Garnaoui travelled on a forged Portuguese passport when he arrived in Germany, on a journey via South Africa and Belgium. He was accused of planning bombings on American and Jewish targets to coincide with the start of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
  • Ibrahim Tantoush, a wanted Libyan national, used a false South African passport while en route from Malaysia to Australia. After being arrested in Indonesia, Tantoush was deported to South Africa in November 2003.
  • Haroon Rashid Aswat, a UK citizen, was arrested in Zambia on 20 July 2005. Prior to his arrest had lived in Johannesburg for five months. What raised concern was that the four suicide bombers responsible for the 7/7 bombings in London called Aswat 20 times on his South African cell phone. Authorities in the United States also wanted Aswat for setting up an Oregon training camp in 1999. At the time of his arrest he was traveling on a South African passport.
  • Mohammed Gulzar, one of eight suspects on trial in connection with a plot to blow up flights between Britain, America and Canada using liquid explosives in 2006, entered Britain on a flight from South Africa via Mauritius under the name of Altaf Ravat on 18 July 2006 after he had lived in South Africa for a few years. His fake South African passport also showed a one-day trip to Swaziland on 13 July 2006.
  • Rashid Rauf, the mastermind of the transatlantic plot was arrested with a forged South African passport in Pakistan in August 2006. However, in December 2007 he managed to escape. Rauf had dual British and Pakistani citizenship and married to a relative of Maulana Masood Azhar, the head and founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed, an Islamist militant group in Pakistan that is also linked to al-Qa'eda. Rauf was reportedly killed by a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan in November 2008, but his family have denied his death and some sources believe he remains at large.

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:

  • Altered passports. Using stolen and lost passports, a counterfeiter inserts the false identity. Although some forgeries might be difficult to detect, trained border control officials should be able to detect these alterations. In the case of Fazul Abdullah Mahammad (originally from the Comoros), being in possession of a South African passport in the name of Daniel Robinson should have been suspicious, especially if he travelled through official border control points. This leaves the possibility that either a lost or stolen passport was being altered, or he managed to bribe border officials.
  • Blank passports or passports containing no personal details. Biometric passports contain a chip that replicates the data printed on the document. This measure was introduced to curb tampering. New South African passport was introduced on 9 April 2009. Although the passport is not biometric, it contains additional security features such as a seven-layer polycarbonate page where personal details and a photograph is laser engraved. Daniel Robinson's passport was issued on 13 April 2009, leaving the question if the passport was in its new format or not.
  • Legal passport obtained through corrupt means. These documents do not give any indication that it is a false document. Bribing officials to get hold of blank documents is one thing, but bribing officials at Home Affairs to issue a passport with incorrect information is far more serious. The implication would be that despite measures implemented to prevent tampering, corruption would make all of these initiatives and money spent to restore the integrity of the document irrelevant. In addition to passports, there is also a market for any identifying documents - from birth certificates, drivers' licenses to identity documents - all documents that could be used to obtain a 'legal' 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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