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.