JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Al-Qaida militants and other terrorists traveling through Europe have obtained South African passports, and authorities believe they got them from crime syndicates operating inside the government agency that issues the documents.
The illicit acquisition of the passports, which allow travel through many African countries and Britain without visas, sent shock waves through South Africa after one top police official said "boxes and boxes" of the documents were discovered in London.
Barry Gilder, director general of the Department of Home Affairs, told The Associated Press he has come across a number of instances in which South African passports were found in the hands of al-Qaida suspects or their associates in Europe -- both in his current capacity and as a former deputy director in the National Intelligence Agency.
Gilder gave no specifics, and he described these as "isolated" cases. But he said his department is moving aggressively to counter the threat, dedicating more senior officials to fight corruption and introducing identity cards and passports containing microchips with the owner's fingerprints.
"We do not want our country to be used either as a staging post or haven for terrorists," Gilder said.
South African officials say crime syndicates selling the country's identity documents and passports for as little as $77 have operated inside Home Affairs for years.
Economic migrantsThey sell mostly to economic migrants, who find it easier to enter Europe or the United States on a South African passport than ones from their own countries. But terrorists now appear to be tapping into these networks, Gilder acknowledged.
In one instance, a Tunisian al-Qaida suspect, Ihsan Garnaoui, told German investigators he had a number of South African passports, it is not clear how he got them.
Garnaoui was traveling on a forged Portuguese passport when he arrived in Germany in January 2003, on a journey via South Africa and Belgium. He is accused of planning bombings on American and Jewish targets to coincide with the start of the U.S.-led war on Iraq.
South African police commissioner Jackie Selebi called attention to the illegal acquisition of passports when he told the National Assembly's safety and security committee that a number of people with "evil intentions against this country" were arrested here and sent home shortly before April 14 elections. This prompted the arrests of suspected al-Qaida members in Jordan, Syria and Britain, he said.
"In part of this operation, in London, the British police found boxes and boxes of South African passports in the home of one of these people, or an associate of these people," Selebi said, according to local news reports. A transcript of his remarks was unavailable, and Selebi's office did not respond to requests for details.
The fact that these were genuine South African passports, not forgeries, was of particular concern, Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said.
"They [al-Qaida members] certainly did not pick up those passports out there in their countries," she told Parliament's Home Affairs committee in June. "A member of the department must have sold those passports to them."
The press office at Britain's Scotland Yard said it had no information on the matter, and officials at the Metropolitan Police and Home Office declined to comment.
Porous bordersSouth Africa's notoriously porous borders have repeatedly been exploited by international fugitives, including Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, a suspect in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula said as recently as March that there were no al-Qaida cells in the country.
Selebi did not specify who was arrested in South Africa in April, or what action they allegedly planned. But two suspects who were later released -- a South African and a Jordanian married to a South African -- told the AP they were questioned about an alleged al-Qaida plot to attack American and British targets during the election, which coincided with the 10th anniversary of the end of apartheid.
The South African, Shaid Hassim, and the Jordanian, Mohammed Hendi, strongly denied any such plot, or involvement in supplying passports to terrorists. They said four others were also arrested in a series of raids and deported -- two Egyptian brothers, one of them with asylum status in Britain, and two Jordanians.
Khaled Abdusalam was questioned for several hours upon his return to London and released, but his brother Mahmoud is believed to be in custody in Egypt, Hassim said. Jamal Odys and Walid Nassr were arrested after returning to Jordan, but Nassr was later released, according to Hendi. Officials in the three countries said they had no information on the suspects.
Hassim believes they were targeted because some of them belong to a British-based group founded by Jordanian exiles called Jama'ah Tul Muslimeen, which urged Muslims not to vote in South Africa's election.
On April 1, the day before the raids, all those arrested attended a dinner to which Odys brought four DVDs containing material he had downloaded from an al-Qaida Web site, Hassim said. Interrogators accused the group of being an al-Qaida sleeper cell, he said.
No charges have been announced against the men, and their group does not appear on any terrorist watch lists, according to officials in Britain and Jordan.
Local and international security analysts were skeptical that al-Qaida would target South Africa, which has been strongly critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians and the war in Iraq. But they said it would be no surprise if members had established a presence or links here to support attacks elsewhere.
"There is a sense that corruption in South African institutions has made the place particularly vulnerable because people are able to slip in and out so easily," said William Rosenau, a terrorism expert at the U.S.-based Rand Corp.
He noted Osama bin Laden's group has a history of cultivating individuals precisely because they have passports that do not immediately arouse suspicion.
Associated Press Writer David Rising contributed to this report from Berlin.