‘White widow’ not the first militant with SA passport

2013-09-25 16:52

What do a member of al-Qaeda’s Tunisian branch, a wanted Libyan citizen believed to be a member of the fundamentalist group, a Briton who received calls from a suicide bomber and al-Qaeda’s slain east African leader have in common?

A South African passport.

Revelations this week that “white widow” Samantha Lewthwaite allegedly entered Kenya last year using a South African passport under the name Natalie Faye Webb do not surprise security analyst Ryan Cummings.

After all, it’s happened before:

» Ihsan Garnaoui, a member of the Tunisian branch of al-Qaeda, told German investigators in 2003 that he had several South African passports. He was accused of planning to blow up American and Jewish targets in Germany;

» Also in 2003, wanted Libyan citizen Ibrahim Tantoush, a suspected al-Qaeda member, used a fake South African passport to travel from Malaysia to Australia. Indonesian authorities deported him to South Africa;

» British citizen Haroon Rashid Aswat was arrested in Zambia in 2005 while travelling on a South African passport. He had lived in Johannesburg for a few months prior to his arrest, and he had received calls on his South African cellphone from a suicide bomber linked to the London 7/7 bombings;

» Wanted suspect Mohammed Gulzar lived in South Africa under a pseudonym and had a fake South African passport. He was wanted in connection with a plot to blow up international flights in 2006; and

» In June 2011, the Somalia Report reported that east African al-Qaeda leader Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, who was killed in a shoot-out in Mogadishu, was found with a South African passport. He had been linked to the 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania – and at the time of his death, there was a $5 million (R49.77 million) bounty on his head, courtesy of the FBI.

At the time, then minister Nkoszana Dlamini-Zuma ordered an investigation following the Mogadishu incident.

After receiving the copy of the passport the dead suspect had used, the department searched the population register for the ID number and the movement control system to see when he had entered South Africa.

The investigation found that the passport was fake and that Muhammad had not travelled in and out of South Africa, said Home Affairs Director-General Mkhuseli Apleni.

Apleni said the department introduced the new passports in 2009 because it was too easy to fake the old passports because of their poor security features.

He said there had been no problem so far with the new passport.

Although there is no confirmation that Lewthwaite, the widow of 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay, has been directly involved, the Kenyan Westgate mall massacre, her name has come up in numerous international reports about this week’s attack carried out by al-Shabaab militants.

Read: Who is the ‘white widow’?

Cummings, a chief analyst at crisis-management firm Red24, says it’s the perception of South Africa as a neutral country that makes our passports so attractive to suspects linked to fundamentalist organisations.

Our passports, he said, were not easily flagged compared with a country like Pakistan.

He said there was a need to find out whether the people in possession of these documents forge them or work in cahoots with corrupt government officials.

Cummings said serious questions needed to be asked about the accessibility of these documents.

“Are terrorists entering the country on fake documents and then using networks within RSA to access legitimate documents that can then be used to aid them in entering their end destination?” he said.

Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor is due to hold a press conference around this and other issues this afternoon.

The department’s spokesperson, Lunga Ngqengelele, said Pandor would deal with the matter during the press conference, and declined to answer further questions.

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