Earlier this week, the French Interior Minister declared that “ISIS has created a whole ‘industry’ out of the production of fake passports”. His statement followed a European summit convened to consider forming a special task force to address the problem, coupled with an overriding concern that many Syrian refugees may not be who their identification documents say they are.
Apparently, DHS officials have been aware that at least since last summer, terrorist groups have the capability to print counterfeit Syrian passports, using them to gain improper entry into the U.S. Among recent examples are the terrorists who struck in Paris in November, killing over 130 people in multiple attacks and detonating explosives that killed one of their own suicide bombers at a soccer stadium. Investigation disclosed that the bomber’s passport was not genuine; further research revealed the existence of a burgeoning illicit passport industry. Authorities pointed out that while fraudulent, many of those passports were not in fact counterfeit—rather, they were legitimately printed as blank passports stolen from government offices during the Syrian anarchy that continues to plague that nation, and filled in with false identifying information later.
Overall, the problem of passport fraud tied to terrorism is not at all new. In the decades before 9/11 several government task forces prioritized the problem as seriously exacerbating an already widespread phenomenon of illegal immigration and government program fraud. Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, U.S. investigators discovered that many of the airport hijackers travelled on fraudulent documents. According to one think tank that has addressed immigration fraud:
"The terrorist can physically alter a valid passport - stolen or purchased from an accomplice - by changing the picture or biographical data….At least two of the Sept. 11 attackers used stolen Saudi Arabian passports. Saudi Arabia is a friend of the United States and so using their passport makes it easier to get in at the border."
Enforcement agencies realized that identity fraud came in many disguises, and passport fraud was but one popular mode. For years, fake drivers’ licenses were considered the point of entry into the identity fraud underworld. They were believed to constitute the foundation that enabled multiple scams - from Social Security, welfare, credit card, to various forms of financial institution fraud. Clearly, someone “armed” with a driver’s license, passport, or other form of personal authentication (such as a birth certificate), is in an excellent position to begin exploiting the full range of government benefits and services.
Because widespread document fraud represents the entry portal to an almost universal range of abuses, remediation has become an extreme challenge. Sting operations seem to be focusing on high level document printers and wholesalers in an effort to remove the leaders selling large quantities of contraband IDs to terrorists. Government R&D initiatives strive to identify cost-effective documents coupled with some form of foolproof validation (e.g. fingerprint and iris scans), but feasibility and cost remain overriding obstacles.
So far, enforcement agencies appear forced by the reality of unknown market parameters to target key links in the false document cottage industry chain, starting with organized printing of raw documents and the warehousing of counterfeit inventories. This would seem to mean that, for the near term, law enforcement and intelligence agencies will continue to concentrate on collecting raw intelligence and turning it around into high profile warnings, as the best available defense.