June 15th, 2011
02:42 PM ET

Terrorists drawn to South African passports

By Emily Smith

When Fazul Abdullah Mohammed was killed in Somalia last week, one of the clues that tipped authorities off to the al Qaeda operative’s true identity was the fraudulent South African passport he was carrying.

This isn’t the first time a terrorist has counterfeited the otherwise innocuous green and gold document. Corrupt government officials, a lack of enhanced security measures for the longest time, and the relative ease of forgery have led to an alarming number of faked passports landing up in militant hands, experts say.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the International Civil Aviation Organization revamped its standards for passport technology and security, and countries have had to step up their game on passport security. Adding biometrics to passports has been implemented with some success. South Africa, along with other developing nations, has struggled to complete the enhancements. Cost and bureaucracy have led to a delay in implementation, according to security experts. A few false starts and reportedly R500 million ($73 million) later, the country is finally issuing passports that include the updated security measures. According to Modiri Matthews with the Department of Home Affairs, the new passports include a micro-chip that stores fingerprint and other biometric information. The back page of the new passport is made of 7 layers of polycarbonate, making it about the thickness of a credit card, and each layer has its own security feature. While in the old passports a photo was laminated onto a page, now that photo is laser-engraved into the back page. The passport number is also etched into the top of every page within the passport, and each page has its own unique makeup using micro threads.

The Dept. of Home Affairs has stopped issuing the old passports and hopes to have only new passports in use by the end of the year. It’s more realistic however that the old passports will remain in circulation until they expire or until the holder runs out of pages.

Anneli Botha, senior researcher on terrorism at the International Crime in Africa Program, argues that while the enhanced security measures are a step in the right direction, a bigger problem lies with other identity documents. South Africans can use a driver’s license, an identity book (similar to a passport but with less information) or a birth certificate as official forms of identification, which can also be used to apply for a passport. While the passports are now harder to forge, the others are still vulnerable. Botha notes that it’s still relatively easy to buy a fake South African birth certificate on the black market, which can then be used to apply for a legitimate passport later on.

The problem of fraudulent passports got so bad that two years ago Britain stopped allowing South African passport holders to enter the country without a visa because, according to the UK Border Agency, the country “fell short of the required standard” of passport security.

South African passports have also been obtained through corrupt officials. Botha points out that in 2002 a Dept. of Home Affairs employee was arrested in connection with 4,000 stolen passports. Since then the government has clamped down on corruption. Last year the Dept. closed an entire Home Affairs office because, according to spokeswoman Siobhan McCarthy, “It was found that an official in that office was providing fraudulent identity documents.” Also last year, the Dept. broke up a ring of Pakistanis who were selling South African passports on the black market. Home Affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said the raid was “a sign of the unflinching determination of the government to root out corruption in our society.”

Still, a number of suspected militants have taken advantage of the security lapses in the old South African passports. In her recent article called Why al-Qaeda Seems to Prefer South African Passports, Botha lists a number of al Qaeda terrorists who’ve been caught using South African passports fraudulently.

Among them are Mohammed Gulzar and Rashid Rauf. Gulzar was one of three people charged in 2006 with conspiracy to commit murder and plotting to smuggle explosives onto an aircraft in connection with an alleged airline bomb plot using liquid explosives hidden in soft drink bottles. It was this plot that led to enhanced screening measures at airports and the ‘3 ounces of liquid in a clear quart bag’ rule. Gulzar and the others were found guilty of conspiracy to murder, but not of the explosives charges. He also pleaded guilty to charges relating to ‘martyrdom’ videos found by police.

The mastermind of the same plot, Rashid Rauf, was arrested with a fake South African passport in Pakistan in 2006. Late 2007 he managed to escape police custody while awaiting extradition to Britain. Rauf, who had dual British and Pakistani citizenship, was reportedly killed by a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan in November 2008, a senior Pakistani intelligence official said.

The Department of Home Affairs has said it’s investigated the Fazul Abdullah Mohammed matter and found that the passport he used was “not issued by any lawful South African authority.” They also found that there was “no record of any movement in or out of [South Africa]” by Mohammed using the fake passport and hope that the matter is now put to rest.

Filed under: Al Qaeda • Homeland Security
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. sara

    None of the comments or news articles or actions by the U.S. or allied peoples, or innocent bystanders in other countries ever offer a solution to the whole blow yourself up to create terror situation. Finding them and killing them or jailing them does what? Sends them further underground as they recruit younger and younger people into the folds. What is the psychology behind this behavior and how do we create a solution? And simply saying, "you can't fight religious zealots or violent people," doesn't get it done. Nor does saying the U.S. is causing all of the problems just because it is the richest country and you want some of that. We need real worldwide SOLUTIONS. Put money into improving economics in countries that have high poverty instead of sending in arms? Didn't work in Pakistan. Leave them alone? Isn't working in Somalia. Where are all of the brilliant educated people who have been studying international relations and multicultural sociology? Let's have some bold new plans on how to create a balance that doesn't including suicide bombers and terrorist threats. The brains are out there–they just need a bigger voice and the rest of us have to listen.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Reply
  2. C.Cantu

    The Devil tempted Jesus by offering Him the kingdoms, their wealth and all the pleasures of the world as long as Jesus worshiped him. Precisely that is what Islam offers to Muslim monarchs and leaders as long as they worship the Anti-Christ and do whatever it takes to keep Him above all things. Islamic monarchs owe their wealth, absolute power, their hundreds of concubines and pleasures to Satan, it is logical to maintain, glorify and expand Satan' rule over the world providing all the necessary means to his followers to execute their evil commands.

    June 26, 2011 at 11:02 am | Reply
  3. joelle esther benyayer

    the way for fauss document amsterdam and now south of france the var the turkish and maroco from drugs trafiqaunts robbe and make fauss documents why south african the connexion with dutch in south africa was dutch like apartheid we got some of this africaners n var south of france watch out to the american authorities the french police and mayors because money reasons sometimes involds with joelle esther benyayer been to holland unfortunately the police are in drugs sometimes now the french police asweell and yes help the criminals need they help back to kills people dangerous for uor they trafic joelle esther benyayer no borders very dangerous become this two countries also weapons trafic liquid explosif holland always got mercenaires like france joelle esther benyayer

    June 26, 2011 at 6:38 am | Reply
  4. capnmike

    The US would be well-advised to see who Hugo Chavez is giving Venezuelan ID and passports to. I have family there who work at the airport and have seen some mighty funny stuff going on there with fellows arriving from the middle east.

    June 17, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Reply
    • sara

      No doubt. And I'm sure that's being watched.

      June 28, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Reply
  5. marc Raymond

    zwahiri is very crafty and very intelligent this guy definantly has a good command of the arabic language he is like churchill ever see one of his translated speeches translated into english the way he talks and makes suggestion sounds like someone very adept in poetry and his use of words another thing that the intelligence community should take note is that unlike osama who did everything his pakistani bosses told him to do this guy 's attitude is srew you and will do his own program trust me when I tell you this

    June 16, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Reply
  6. marc Raymond

    the us better keep a good eye on this guy sometimes I ask myself as to how a man like osama ever became head of a terrorist organization like that in my opinion he was just to commical but this guy zwahiri is not to be taken likely he kills simply for the sake of killing

    June 16, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Reply

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