WASHINGTON — Fearing al-Qaida may try to sneak operatives into the U.S. using South African passports, the Department of Homeland Security has put inspectors at major airports and seaports across the nation on high alert for suspicious travelers from that nation, which U.S. officials say has become a breeding ground for terrorists.
The order to “increase scrutiny” of South African travelers, contained in a closely held bulletin obtained by WorldNetDaily, comes on the heels of the arrest of four South Africans with alleged links to terrorism.
In just the past three weeks, two South Africans tied to al-Qaida were captured in Pakistan, while two others suspected of having terror ties were detained after traveling through Mexico. One entered the U.S. by foot at the Texas border.
Recent intelligence reports indicate al-Qaida is finalizing plans to carry out another major terrorist attack within the U.S. before the Nov. 2 presidential election.
“Al-Qaida and other terrorists may be utilizing South African passports to
facilitate travel” to the U.S., warns the four-page bulletin issued by U.S.
Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, a bureau of Homeland Security.
Suspicious routes of entry, it advises, include passage through Britain,
Canada or Mexico. Britain and Mexico do not require any type of visa for
Dated July 30 and marked “For Official Use Only,” the bulletin was sent to field operations directors at four major international airports and two seaports on both coasts. WorldNetDaily has elected to withhold the names of the cities for security reasons.
The document directs inspectors at the ports to “increase scrutiny of air and sea passengers/crew members who are citizens of South Africa, or other residents who are carrying passports/documents/visas from South Africa.”
Both male and female passengers and crew members “should be targeted,” it says.
U.S. authorities on July 19 arrested a South African woman, Farida Goolam Mohamed Ahmed, for trying to enter the U.S. illegally from Mexico. Several pages had been torn out of her passport. The government is investigating possible ties she may have to terrorist activities in Pakistan, an al-Qaida hotbed.
U.S. intelligence officials say al-Qaida is trying to lower its profile by using female agents.
“One recurring concern are female operatives using Europe as transit points en route to the United States,” said William Roy Surrett, director of CBP intelligence, in a recent advisory to field directors, a copy of which was also obtained by WND.
And on Wednesday, Mexican authorities detained a 29-year-old South African, with a Muslim name, on suspected terror links.
On July 25, moreover, two South African suspects – Feroz Ibrahim and Zubair Ismail – were arrested in Pakistan with Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, an al-Qaida operative wanted by the FBI for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.
U.S. authorities also are on alert for passengers exhibiting signs of
training at Pakistani terrorist camps, such as rope burns and bruises, as WorldNetDaily first reported
June 28. DHS did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
But a senior CBP official said al-Qaida is increasingly active in South Africa, where passport fraud is on the rise.
“It’s become a breeding ground for terrorists,” he said, speaking on the condition he not be identified.
A South African official in Washington strenuously denied the country has an al-Qaida problem, even in Cape Town, which has a large and growing Muslim population and has spawned an extremist group accused of bombing a local Planet Hollywood restaurant several years ago. The group, PAGAD, is on the U.S. terror blacklist.
“Our security agents who frequently do security analysis have not yet come up with anything that says that there is al-Qaida activity in South Africa,” said South African Embassy spokesman Tshepo Mazibuko.
He cautions that it is not yet clear the captured South African terror suspects are in fact citizens. He says they may have obtained their passports fraudulently, while noting the South African government on Wednesday nonetheless publicly denounced any home-grown terrorism, and vowed to help fight al-Qaida.
South African police last month said that “boxes and boxes” of illegal South
African passports were discovered in London, and that some had fallen in the
hands of al-Qaida militants in Europe. Ahmed, the woman nabbed at the Texas
border with a tattered South African passport, had flown to Mexico via
London. The bulletin allows that “it is possible” South African passports
could be fraudulently obtained or doctored, and it advises border officers
to inspect them carefully.
The recently released 9-11 commission report, however, suggests al-Qaida may have at least one agent in position in South Africa.
Buried deep in the report, in a footnote, the commission reveals that in late 1999 or early 2000 an al-Qaida operative named Issa al Britani gave al-Qaida’s Southeast Asia coordinator, Riduan Isamuddin — better known as Hambali — an address of an unidentified al-Qaida contact in South Africa. He then told Hambali to contact the source if he “needed help.”
The CBP bulletin, titled “Intelligence Driven Special Operation,” also warns that South African al-Qaida suspects may use Britain as an easy transit point to enter the U.S., since South African passports allow for visa-free travel to Britain.
“Due to the visa-free entry these passport holders have into the United Kingdom, individuals traveling to the United States from the United Kingdom on South African passports should be considered highly suspect,” it says.
In addition, it advises CBP officers that South African suspects may also possess passports from Britain, and may attempt to use them to gain admission to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program. Britain, which does a steady tourist business with Commonwealth state South Africa, is among 27 mostly European nations whose citizens can travel to the U.S. without a visa, thereby avoiding any consular background checks.
A British Embassy official said it would work with the U.S. to help thwart would-be terrorists using South African visas.
“All of our security measures at airports are constantly under review,” said embassy spokesman Steve Atkins in Washington.