PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — When an alleged mastermind of al-Qaida attacks on U.S. embassies was killed in East Africa, officials said he was carrying a fake South African passport — refocusing attention on warnings that corruption in South Africa is being exploited by terrorists.
Security experts have been warning for years that corruption in South Africa is allowing terrorists to get documents to hide their identities and make it easier to travel.
The top civil servant responsible for issuing South African passports told reporters Wednesday there have been improvements, but said more needs to be done. The official, Mkuseli Apleni, said the passport found with terror suspect Fazul Abdullah Mohammed is a copy of the easily forged passport South Africa no longer produces, but which many South Africans still carry. Apleni and a security aide who appeared with him at a news conference Wednesday said it was unclear where the fake passport was produced, or whether Mohammed had ever been in South Africa.
Mohammed, a native of the Comoros islands, was killed last week in Somalia. U.S. officials had offered a $5 million reward for his capture, accusing him of planning the Aug. 7, 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.
Scott Stewart, a former intelligence agent with the U.S. State Department, said South Africa is a place where "you could show up, give the right guy several hundred dollars, and walk away with ... a passport.
"Terrorists will take advantage of the corruption," Stewart said in a telephone interview.
Stewart, now with the U.S.-based global intelligence company STRATFOR, said terrorists who plotted in 2006 to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners leaving London's Heathrow airport used fake South African passports to enter Britain from Pakistan, even though they were British. The fake passports allowed them to hide visits to Pakistan that could have raised suspicions, Stewart said. In 2009, three Britons were sentenced to at least 30 years in prison in the Heathrow plot.
Also in 2009, Britain started requiring visas from South Africans, saying terrorists and criminals were exploiting the easy availability of stolen or forged South African passports.
Apleni said Britain's visa decision led to changes in South Africa, including a switch to passports implanted with electronic chips and other hard-to-fake features.
"Our new passport has never been faked," Apleni said.
He said as a barrier against corruption, officials who issue passports have not been told all of its new features. He said officials have not seen "our people selling our new passports."
But Apleni said it will be two to three years before all South Africans are issued with new passports. He also said steps to ensure the authenticity of birth certificates and other documents used to apply for the new passport are still in their early stages.
Anneli Botha, a counterterrorism researcher with South Africa's independent Institute for Security Studies, said corruption, not sympathy for terrorists, was behind the problem in South Africa.
"You can have the most sophisticated measures in place, but you're only as strong as your weakest link," she said in an interview. "And corruption is our weakest link."
Botha commended the home affairs minister appointed in early 2009 for making clear corruption would not be tolerated. The minister, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, has suspended dozens of officials accused of issuing fake documents and staged surprise raids on passport offices.
STRATFOR's Stewart recommended conducting background checks on people with the authority to issue passports, and following up on any suspicions.
"What kind of assets do they have? Do they have unexplained wealth?" Stewart said. "It's almost like taking a counterintelligence approach."