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Zambia Arrest Re-Focuses Attention on S. Africa as Potential Terrorist Hideaway

A man arrested in Zambia this week on suspicion of involvement in the attempted July 21 terror attacks in London, had earlier been sought by the U.S. in South Africa. The case highlights South Africa's as a potential haven for terrorists and international criminals.

Several weeks before the July 7 suicide bombings in London, a man believed to be Haroon Rashid Aswat, a British national, was in South Africa being tracked by the the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Reports say that at the time, the British government refused a request from South Africa to arrest Mr. Aswat and hand him over to the FBI. That organization wanted him in connection with an alleged attempt to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon.

Soon thereafter the man disappeared and, reports say, British police now want to talk to him because 20 calls were made from his mobile phone to two suspects in the July 21 attempted bombing in London prior to that attack. The same individual is now believed held in Zambia.

Richard Cornwell, a security analyst, tells VOA that it is not surprising that someone who wants to avoid the notice of international intelligence and police, would choose South Africa.

"Basically South Africa's ports and harbors, including the airports, are badly underpoliced, and the security is fairly easily penetrated and this is not lost on the people who would be inclined to come in to this country, either people who would be involved in organized crime or in terrorism for that matter," he said.

Mr. Cornwell, a senior research fellow at the independent Institute for Security Studies, said the widely held view that terrorist cells would choose to base themselves in failed states such as Somalia is fallacious. He said instead it is much easier for such groups to set up unnoticed in open societies which have large numbers of immigrants such as South Africa. He also said such groups prefer countries which have a good infrastructure, particularly in finance and communications.

"Also South Africa, of course, offers the sorts of infrastructure which would be useful in keeping these people in touch with whoever they need to carry out with what they want to do," Mr. Cornwell said. "And I emphasize the links with organized crime because very often they use the same sort of networks."

Mr. Cornwell says that in addition, corruption in government departments often enables individuals to obtain fraudulent identities.

"The local security apparatus is fair, but its once people are through the ports and harbors, they then find themselves able to access government departments, that as we know from prominent cases in the press, make it relatively easy for people to buy false identity documents - which are genuine identity documents but issued falsely so people can change their identities quickly, and that is also public knowledge," he said.

Senior South African officials have in the past told VOA that document fraud in this country is not widespread. However, this month police arrested dozens of officials from the Department of Home Affairs which issues citizenship and identity documents.