Fifteen unused South African passports, some containing pictures of South Africans on an international terrorist watch list, have been seized from an al-Shabab courier in Tanzania.
A police crime intelligence source told The Times that at least one of the passports, some of which had visas for European countries, contains a photograph that might be that of international terror fugitive Samantha Lewthwaite, also known as “the White Widow”.
The passports were seized from a man believed to have dual South African and Tanzanian citizenship. Officers from the Hawks’ crimes against the state unit and State Security Agency were dispatched to Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania.
The team returned last week after interviewing the alleged courier and examining the passports.
Hawks spokesman Hangwani Mulaudzi refused to comment on the circumstances of the arrest, the charges the man faced, and whether he would be brought back to South Africa.
He said the Hawks were alerted after the man was found in possession of a “number of our passports”. The matter was receiving “serious” attention in both countries and at Interpol.
“This is very worrying,” said Johan Kruger, head of the UN’s eastern Africa drugs, transnational crimes and terrorism programme. “We are focusing on strengthening our capacity in eastern Africa around terrorism prevention. This includes crimes related to terrorism such as the use of illicitly obtained travel documents, fraudulent travel documents and terrorism financing.”
The arrest is a major breakthrough in the fight against terrorism in Africa. According to Hawks sources, it will help in anti-terrorism operations under way in South Africa.
A Hawks source said the suspect had been under observation after Tanzanian authorities were tipped off about his arrival in Dar es Salaam. The officer, who cannot be named, said it was understood that he was due to deliver the passports to another al-Shabaab operative when he was arrested.
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“All of the recovered passports are legitimate. They contain the images of several South Africans on international terror watch lists. Among the photographs is one of a woman who might very well be Lewthwaite.”
Lewthwaite, a UK citizen, lived in South Africa between 2009 and 2011 under a false South African identity. She fled South Africa on a fake South African passport.
She has been linked to numerous terror attacks, including the Westgate Mall assault in Kenya in 2013.
Her husband, Germaine Lindsay, was one of the suicide bombers involved in the 2007 London bombings.
In 2015 it was reported that Lewthwaite had been killed in the Ukraine, but Hawks sources say the latest arrest suggests that she is still alive.
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Questions are now being asked about how the passports, which are not forgeries, came into the possessin of Islamic terrorist group al-Shabab. Applicants for a South African passport must submit biometric data, including fingerprints.
Home Affairs spokesman Thabo Mokgola refused to comment.
A police crime intelligence source said the 15 passports were issued recently. He said they contained pictures of terror suspects wanted in Europe and Africa who were believed to be linked to al-Shabab.
He said the courier had numerous links to Lewthwaite. He used the same networks as she while in South Africa to obtain passports.
“He is also believed to be linked to an al-Qaeda operative killed in Mali early last year. That man was also found with South African passports.”
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The source said the authorities, through Interpol, were investigating the suspect’s movements into, out of, and around South Africa.
“He has been placed in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. His travels from South Africa to Tanzania, and the people he met travelling to Dar es Salaam, are being investigated.”
Koffi Kouakou, of the Wits School of Governance, said the “wealth” a passport provided was immeasurable.
“It’s a powerful key. South Africans can travel to scores of countries without a visa.”
He said the fact that the suspect was arrested with so many passports called into question the security of South Africa’s passports.
‘White widow’ passport probe
“It shows South Africa’s security cluster systems are compromised. The only way such people can access our passports is through corrupt officials,” said Kouakou.
Terrorism expert Jasmine Opperman said members of al-Shabaab and Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram in South Africa all had access to genuine South African passports, for which they paid up to R60,000 each.
“It’s exactly how Lewthwaite travelled,” said Opperman.
SA probe into ‘White Widow’ passport ongoing
Opperman said interviews she had with Boko Haram and al-Shabab operatives showed that although South Africa was, for now, regarded as a base at which to recoup from, finance and plan terrorism attacks, the country was vulnerable to exploitation by extremists operating in Africa and the Middle East.
By Graeme Hosken for www.timeslive.co.za