As I stood behind a family of two men, three women and a young child, a hypothetical situation came to mind. It was apparent that the immigration officer carried out his responsibilities according to a set structure that includes transferring data from passports onto a system, which naturally takes some time. After five minutes, the family went through passport control and I wondered, considering the vast amount of people who pass through everyday, how the immigration officer who checks the passports quickly could be sure that the woman wearing the niqab (face veil) is the real holder of that passport? Is it not possible that the veiled woman could actually be Ayman Al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s second in command? Could she not be one of the twenty ex-prisoners who escaped a Yemeni jail? Or any of the countless terrorists wanted by security?
We know that the most employed method of disguise is the abaya (loose, black robe worn by Arab women) and veil, which many terrorists use to evade security authorities. It was reported that seven terrorists wore abayas last week to successfully escape from a prison in Riyadh. Terrorists used the disguise to infiltrate areas for visitors knowing that guards would be too embarrassed to ask a veiled woman to prove her identity and reveal her face or hair. This “woman” however, was in fact a man with a thick moustache.
Terrorists have used all possible methods including the inside of a copy of the Holy Quran to transfer explosives; however, the screening machines in the airport were able to differentiate between ink and gunpowder.
Due to these sensitive security circumstances, we are obliged to call for a modification of checkpoints and airports. Passport officers are required to perform an impossible task. They are responsible for identifying whether passports are authentic or not, and whether the picture in the passport corresponds with the passport holder. Furthermore, they are obliged to know whether the veiled woman is really the wife of the man who is standing in front of them. Such a task is extremely difficult to carry out especially that the number of travelers entering and leaving one airport in one year, such as Jeddah airport, is close to ten million.
I believe that by examining fingerprints, the use of disguises will be reduced drastically, as fingerprints would be enough to identify the passport holder.
Is it now time, especially for countries that enjoy economic affluence but suffer from weakness in security such as the Gulf States, to introduce a new identification system by using fingerprints and biometric electronic passports or even digitally identify the passport holder to reduce the burdening responsibility on immigration officers? Passports, like national identity cards, are the most important document that could save any country from unwanted characters. The responsibility cannot be left to personal efforts or at the mercy of local traditions, especially considering that there is substantial evidence that women, as well as their dress codes, are used within terrorist networks to conceal identities.