By John Stapleton

Visitors to Thailand are not warned by travel agents, airlines or their own governments that their passports are highly prized in Thailand, and stand a very good chance of being stolen. Depending on the nationality, a passport can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market, several months pay for many Thais.

There are gangs stealing passports to order. European, American, Australian and Canadian passports are particularly prized. Foreign embassies, fearful the documents are ending up in the hands of Islamist militants and international criminal networks, have made repeated representations to the Thai government without affect.

INTERPOL Chief, Secretary General Ronald Noble describes passport fraud as the “biggest threat facing the world”. But for decades the Thai authorities have done little to stop their country’s blatant trade in stolen, doctored and forged documents. By inaction and complicity, Thailand has become an epicentre for the trade, a key link in international terrorist networks and a danger to the travelling public worldwide. Forged passports from Thailand are regarded as the highest quality of any in the world. Clients from the Middle East are one of the major buyers of fake passports in Thailand. In The Age of Terror, the failure of the Thai authorities to abolish the trade has set alarm bells ringing around the world. Here in its entirety is Chapter Two, called Passports, from my recent book Thailand: Deadly Destination.

There is an established practice across Thailand of bike, car, jet-ski and other rental services requiring passports as collateral. When punters return to claim their documents, they have disappeared. With jihadist networks one of the main purchasers of fake documents, a perfectly innocent peace-loving tourist can be associated with a terrorist act, simply by leaving their passport as collateral in a hire shop while they are on holiday in Thailand. By their choice of destination, by choosing a country notorious for its lax law enforcement they can find themselves inadvertently contributing to the deaths of others. No travel association explains this moral dilemma — for exactly the same reason that motivates the criminals on the other side of the ledger, the river of easy money tourists represent.

Not only is the trade in passports and fake documents fueling terrorism and international crime gangs, it is also facilitating false job applications through counterfeit academic qualifications, bank fraud through the establishment of false identities, and illegal access to restricted areas in various companies, not just at airports.

There are few official warnings to tourists that they can expect zero help from the hire company involved in the theft of their passports, from their hotel, from the local police or from the Thai Tourist police. Their money might be welcome, but they are not. No amount of protest will bring their documents back. The black money from the stolen passports makes the complaints or distress of a foreigner very easy to dismiss.

There has been no action taken by the police against the hire companies routinely stealing from tourists for one simple reason. The police benefit financially from the practice. Nor have Thailand’s dysfunctional series of governments done anything to stop businesses demanding passports as collateral, or initiated a crackdown on the police and criminal networks involved. The trade in forged documents is not seen as impacting on the welfare of the ultra-nationalistic Thais; and therefore not an issue worthy of action. Foreigners are forced to go through considerable inconvenience as they get their passports reissued.

Partly a result of the Thai authorities complicity in or failure to act against the trade, international embassies have seen a drain on resources as they assist their distressed and confused citizenry replace stolen passports and readjust travel schedules. In other words, it is the tax payers in the tourist’s country of origin who are ultimately paying for the well established racket of thieving passports from holidaymakers in Thailand. The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported more than 60,000 lost or stolen passports in the period from January, 2012 to June, 2013. According to the British Foreign Office, some 600 of their citizen’s passports were stolen in Thailand in 2012–13. Theft by hire companies is not the only way Thai criminals are procuring foreign passports. Every sex worker in Thailand knows the exact value of a foreigner’s passport. On the street, in hotel rooms, bars, clubs, massage parlours and shops, passports are lifted from travelers at any opportunity. Tourists should never make the mistake of thinking they are amongst friends.

Thai craftsmen are known as master copiers. There is, for instance, a healthy trade in fake war medals, the product being so close to the original that most collectors cannot tell the difference. For decades any foreigner in the know who wanted to masquerade as anything from a journalist to a policeman to an airline employee has simply taken themselves to the backpacker centre of Khao San Road in Bangkok. There fake IDs, despite an international outcry, are brazenly peddled as if they were tourist trinkets rather than threats to international security.

The false documents are almost impossible to differentiate from the genuine article. Their production is fast, cheap, and of remarkably high quality. And nobody has to look very far to find the pedlars. Credible identification cards for the international police agency INTERPOL, along with America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Agency, are readily available. Staff identification passes from multiple airlines, citizenship and driving licenses for numerous different countries, as well as diplomas and certificates from a number of prestigious universities in Australia, the UK and the US, are all on sale.

The United Nation’s International Civil Aviation Authority estimates that 3.1 billion people travelled by plane in 2013. INTERPOL’s record of lost or stolen passports exceeds 40 million on their database. That is 40 million possibilities of someone using a fake identity to board a plane with the sole intention of causing as much damage and loss of life as they possibly can.

And those documents are easily purchased on the streets of Bangkok.

By 2014, with the advent of the age of terror and airline security paramount, Thailand was one of the only countries in the world where counterfeit documents were openly displayed for sale in the street for anyone who wanted to buy. Malaysian Airways flight MH370 disappeared on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on 8 March, 2014. There were 227 passengers and 12 crew on-board. Malaysian officials failed to detect that a number of people boarded the plane with false documentation. Two passports were traced to Thailand, to the island resort of Phuket where there is a thriving trade in fake passports. In the wake of the disappearance of MH370 the world, if it had not been paying attention before, quickly learnt that Thailand was one of the world’s key sources of stolen and forged passports. Aviation expert Sylvia Wrigley, in her book The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, suggests that a stray bullet from hijackers may have caused the plane to decompress. Whether or not terrorism was involved in the flight’s disappearance remained unclear for many months.

But the revelation that some of the passengers were travelling on false passports set security organisations scrambling to the Thai resort of Phuket. A once quiet and particularly picturesque island with an economy based around fishing boats and small farms, by 2014 Phuket was swamped with more than a million tourists a month and its landscapes utterly transformed. Italian Luigi Maraldi and Austrian Christian Kozel were both surprised to find themselves listed on the passenger manifest of the missing flight.40 On a trip to Phuket in 2013 the Italian had his passport stolen from a car rental agency.

At the time he was being caught up in the greatest aviation mystery of modern times Maraldi, 37, was once again holidaying in Thailand. The Italian said he lost his passport on a vacation the previous year, in a motorcycle rent shop deal gone wrong. He said the woman at the shop had told him she gave his passport to another man. Having returned home to Italy on temporary travel documents, he said he learnt of the Malaysian flight going missing when his family rang to check whether he was the same Luigi Maraldi on the flight’s manifest.

Austrian Christian Kozel, a 61-year-old retired massage therapist from Salzburg in Germany was informed of the missing flight when the police came knocking on the door of his apartment. He said his passport was stolen at
Phuket airport two years earlier during a moment of inattention. Kozel said he had been through considerable difficulty to procure an emergency passport and get back to his native Austria, but had since almost forgotten about the incident. The two passengers travelling on passports stolen on Phuket were both Iranians, Pouri Nourmohammadi, 18, and Delavar Syed Mohammad Reza, 29.

The two men were believed to have travelled from their home countries to Phuket, where they had purchased the stolen passports for around $US10,000. Both INTERPOL and the Malaysian government claimed the men did not appear to be involved in terrorist activity, but simply wanted to live in Europe, one to join his mother. The pair, who were friends, entered Malaysia using valid Iranian passports.

Dr Carl Ungerer of Queensland’s Bond University said: “To buy a stolen passport in Thailand in order to go to Europe is not something you do accidentally. You want to be able to make sure the person sitting next to you on a plane is travelling on a legitimate travel document. MH370 has thrown into sharp relief the flourishing black market in false passports in Southeast Asia.”

INTERPOL declared that while the passports had been entered into their Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database there were no checks by any country, and INTERPOL was therefore unable to determine how many times the passports had been used to board flights or cross borders.45 The SLTD database was created in 2002 following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It was aimed at helping countries secure their borders and protect citizens from terrorists and other criminals known to use fraudulent travel documents. By 2014 the database had grown from a few thousand passports to more than 40 million entries from 167 countries and had more than 800 million searches per year. But a number of countries, including Thailand and Malaysia, do not systematically search INTERPOL’s databases.

In an official statement INTERPOL’s Secretary General Ronald Noble said it was clearly of great concern that any passenger was able to board an international flight using a stolen passport. The failure of countries to systematically use the SLTD database had left a major gap in the global security apparatus which was then vulnerable to exploitation by criminals and terrorists.

Photo by Geoff Greenwood on Unsplash

“This is a situation we had hoped never to see,” Noble said. “For years INTERPOL has asked why should countries wait for a tragedy to put prudent security measures in place at borders and boarding gates. Now, we have a real case where the world is speculating whether the stolen passport holders were terrorists, while INTERPOL is asking why only a handful of countries worldwide are taking care to make sure that persons possessing stolen passports are not boarding international flights.” He pointed out that in 2013 passengers were able to board planes more than a billion times without having their passports screened against INTERPOL’S database. There was a predicted increase in international travel to 1.5 billion passengers a year by 2017.

“If Malaysia Airlines and all airlines worldwide were able to check the passport details of prospective passengers against INTERPOL’s database, then we would not have to speculate whether stolen passports were used by terrorists to board MH370,” Noble said. “We would know that stolen passports were not used by any of the passengers to board that flight. “For the sake of innocent passengers who go through invasive security measures prior to boarding flights in order to get to their destination safely, I sincerely hope that governments and airlines worldwide will learn from the tragedy of missing flight MH370 and begin to screen all passengers’ passports prior to allowing them to board flights. Doing so will indeed take us a step closer to ensuring safer travel.”

In a pointed reference to Thailand he said countries which placed an emphasis on protecting their borders from terrorists, money launderers and other criminals provided a safer and more stable environment and were therefore in a stronger position to ensure the sustainable development of their economies and societies.

Former commander of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau and an expert on terrorist financing Steve Vickers said Thailand had become the epicentre for the worldwide trade in false documents because under Thai law it was difficult to prosecute. A complainant under trademark legislation was required. Vickers said stolen and counterfeit passports were providing a very lucrative revenue source for criminal organizations and called on the Thai government to take action.

“I must say that I am quite surprised at the blatant manner in which these fake documents are sold on the streets,” he said. “I see many instances of identical documents being used in fraudulent bank loan applications or in attempts to obtain credit through false pretenses or in support of other fraudulent activity. “The airline staff identification papers and US driving licenses which I saw are scarier, however. This is because in many US states all you need to buy a firearm is a current driving license. They may do a quick check, but in practice they often don’t, and the holder of the fake card walks away with a semi-automatic firearm in his hands. Likewise, fake airline passes used in a third world environment may facilitate access to restricted areas.”

In an effort to boost tourism 2014 was named “Visit Malaysia” year. To no avail. The publicity could hardly have been worse. Malaysian Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said they skipped checks against INTERPOL’s database because it would have slowed down the clearance of passengers. He claimed Malaysian Immigration computers could not handle the global data base of 40.2 million entries but immigration officers guarding the country’s entry points were trained by other countries, including the US, Canada, Australia and the UK and had met “world standards”. INTERPOL hit back at Home Minister Zahid’s claims of competence, saying Malaysia’s decision not to consult INTERPOL’s database before allowing travellers to enter the country or board planes could not be defended by falsely blaming technology.

In an official statement, INTERPOL declared: “If there is any responsibility or blame for this failure, it rests solely with Malaysia’s Immigration Department.

“INTERPOL’s SLTD database takes just seconds to reveal whether a passport is listed, with recent tests providing results in 0.2 seconds.

“The fact is that the US consults this database more than 230 million times per year; the UK more than 140 million times; the UAE more than 100 million times and Singapore more than 29 million times. Not one of these countries, or indeed any INTERPOL member country, has ever stated that the response time is too slow. “The truth is that in 2014 prior to the tragic disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, Malaysia’s Immigration Department did not conduct a single check of passengers’ passports against INTERPOL’s databases.

“Malaysia’s Immigration Department owes it to all passengers boarding flights originating in, or passing through, Malaysia to make sure that passports registered as stolen or lost in INTERPOL’s databases cannot be used to board any flight. “In this regard, despite this unjustified attack on INTERPOL, we remain ready, willing and able to help Malaysia better safeguard its citizens and visitors from those seeking to use stolen or fraudulently altered passports to board planes.”

Back in Phuket, where the stolen passports originated, veteran journalist Lindsay Murdoch recorded that the “curious” thefts of the passports were a focus for a team of FBI investigators flying from the United States to assist Malaysian and other international investigators.

“Hundreds of passports are lost or stolen on Phuket each year, raising fears they could fall into the hands of criminal or terrorist networks,” Murdoch wrote. “Honorary consuls representing countries there often deal with tourists who report their passports missing.”

One of the most publicly outspoken of all the diplomats, Australian Honorary Consul Larry Cunningham, said: “Some passports were certainly lost, falling out of pockets or being genuinely misplaced. But there were also substantial incidents of passports being stolen.”

The Phuket Gazette reported that senior police claimed they were powerless to stem the trade but were trying to “stymie the fallout” from the stories. “Something needs to be done, especially after learning that these … passports were used to board the plane,” Phuket Provincial Police Deputy Commander Arayapan Pukbuakao said.

“We are looking into what measures we can take, but as far as I know, there is no law in Thailand prohibiting foreigners from handing his or her own passport to another person to hold as per their own agreement.”

The Colonel said he would initiate a campaign to stop vehicle rental operators from holding passports. But as the newspaper observed, “Such campaigns have been held time and again in Phuket, usually resulting from a collective, concerted push by ambassadors and honorary consuls.”

Thailand’s trade in forged, stolen and doctored passports was ringing alarm bells among international security experts, airlines and immigration authorities long before the disappearance of MH370.

International news outlets including CNN had repeatedly highlighted the issue in the preceding years, but far from the media coverage shaming Thai authorities into action, instead each news story acted as an advertisement, boosting the trade. The number of places selling forged documents increased, the displays got bigger and the range of products on offer broader. No action was taken by the police or other authorities.

The international publicity simply attracted yet more customers from abroad. The trade had started in Thailand decades before with student cards sold by travel agencies near the Malaysia Hotel in Bangkok. The cheap hotel, 10 minutes walk from the major business thoroughfare of Sathon, was a backpacker haven in the 1960s and 70s in a sprawling low rise city which had barely begun to discover the tourist dollar.

While upmarket condominiums, hotels and the internationally famous gay sauna, Babylon, have all sprung up around it since then, the Malaysia Hotel itself remains almost identical in appearance to 40 years ago.

Except that its corridors are no longer filled with long haired travelers exchanging stories about the wiles of Afghanistan while comparing the quality of marijuana and hashish. Instead a mix of elderly Americans and British on retirement incomes, a smattering of gay massage workers and customers, and random travelers looking for cheap accommodation now grace its time-worn foyer. Originally the budget travelers at the Malaysia Hotel, with the full cooperation of nearby travel agents, used the fake student cards to buy discounted airline tickets. To the adventurous but money conscious travelers of the day, it all seemed innocent enough.

Then the trade took off.

By the 1980s the easily faked student cards made way for the far more lucrative product of forged passports. At the time most businesses required supporting identification before converting then widely used and easily stolen traveler’s checks into cash, and false passports were therefore in demand.

Because many tourists kept their valuables in their luggage or left them in hotel rooms, where they mistakenly believed their belongings would be safer, several gangs employed prostitutes, hotel staff, tour bus attendants and others to steal them. The forgeries were less sophisticated than those of later years, but they were usually good enough.

In the month prior to the disappearance of MH370 there was a spate of stories around the world on the ready availability of high quality faked documents in Thailand following an expose in the leading Bangkok based expatriate news and lifestyle magazine Big Chilli. Just as journalists everywhere build on the work of each other, so the magazine’s research provided background information for other news outlets alerted to the issue by MH370, including The Guardian in Britain. When traveler’s checks became almost obsolete in the late 1990s the Thai gangs began to focus on passport fraud, which with the rise of militant Islam and a flood of foreign criminals wanting to make Thailand their home, showed great money-making potential.

The gangs got in touch with foreigners who were looking for stolen passports. And thus began a long and profitable relationship. “Some of these foreigners are still here and running the passport fraud gangs,” Big Chilli reported.

“Today the way the business works is that thieves steal passports from tourists and sell them to Thai or foreign criminals. Some lost and stolen passports are sent from abroad to the foreign gangs. The worldwide demand for fraudulent passports means that these gangs will continue to operate in Thailand as long as they can evade international and local law enforcement agencies.”

Feature writer with The Guardian Jon Henley wrote that Thailand’s trade in forged and doctored travel documents was propping up criminal activity around the world, supporting enterprises from human trafficking to terrorism: “The gangs have targeted Thailand mainly because of the very large numbers of European, US and Australian holidaymakers who travel there every year.”

The sheer volume of tourists made for easy pickings. Other experts agree. Dr Peter Chalk, Senior Political Institute at the RAND Institute, said: “Thailand is one of the world’s main hubs for fake ID papers though there are others such as Russia, India, Dubai, South Africa and Nigeria. Corruption, a free-wheeling capitalist market, an internationally-linked transportation infrastructure, weak law enforcement and very high through flows of tourists/travelers are the major factors that have stimulated the trade. I believe a good quality western passport can be bought for around $10,000.”

Big Chilli’s article, “Khao San’s fake document industry”, noted that while the trade was the subject of international condemnation and more clandestine aspects of the operation occurred behind closed doors, the streets of one of Bangkok’s oldest tourist areas remained its’ most visible portal: “The stalls offering counterfeit documents blend effortlessly into the pandemonium of Khao San Road, best known as a haven for backpackers in Southeast Asia, with its cheap hotels, guesthouses, internet cafes, restaurants, travel agencies and tattoo parlors. It is nothing new to find these stalls among the other vendors selling a tremendous variety of merchandise…”

In the 1970s Khao San Road was part of the so-called Coca Cola trail, where heroin and marijuana, the famous China White and Thai Sticks respectively, could be “scored” within minutes, if not seconds. Ragged backpackers and hippies sat eating banana pancakes in makeshift restaurants and surrounding hostels catered for the “under-five dollar a day” crowd.

Five dollars doesn’t buy you much on Khao San Road anymore. Still a tourist mecca, it now caters more for the so-called “glampackers”, backpackers with money, offspring of the West’s middle classes on their almost obligatory world tours prior to settling into a life of study, work and children. They cluster in the crowded streets of places like Khao San Road as if to repel the vast foreignness of the Asia beyond. The only Thais they ever meet are hotel staff, shop keepers, street vendors, touts and taxi drivers. Drugs are no longer readily available, no bars remain where heroin can be bought as easily as a beer, and the only aging hippies in sight stand out from the thronging crowds of Westerners like relics from a medieval age.

Photo by Andreas Brücker on Unsplash

Foreign police and security experts have repeatedly warned that the fake identity documents originating in Thailand, coupled with stolen and altered or forged passports were being used by terrorists to gain access to the European Union and other countries.

“We are really concerned about this matter,” a foreign police liaison officer told Big Chilli. “We have evidence, and so do the Thai authorities. Criminals and terrorists know they can go to Khao San Road and get a good quality counterfeit document quickly. The quality of the fakes is getting better and the activity represents a serious threat to the security of many countries.” The officer, acting as a spokesman for the intelligence community, said the number of passports reported stolen from foreigners living around the Khao San Road area had been high for years. This applied particularly to passports from EU countries.

“Stolen or bought passports obtained in Thailand — with a corroborating counterfeit ID, like a driving license — make it possible to enter an EU country,” he said. “The holder of the altered passport must make sure they don’t enter the country the passport was issued in because its theft would have been reported to that country’s authorities. “Anyone who steals a passport in Bangkok can then freely travel through all the other 25 Schengen countries. No visa between these countries is required and it’s not necessary to show a passport while crossing to a different Schengen country, only a form of ID is enough. Again, the EU country where the stolen passport originated must be avoided.”

Some countries, such as Italy, take as little as five seconds on average to check the travel documents of those crossing their borders from neighboring countries.

The term “Schengen” originates from a 1985 agreement signed near the town of Schengen in Luxembourg and proposed the abolition of border checks at the borders of signatory countries.

The borderless Schengen area consists of 26 countries with a population of more than 400 million and covers more than four million square kilometers.57 The countries with free movement across their borders are: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Spain and Switzerland.

Illegal immigration into these countries is big business, and the forgers find a ready market, including from the Arab states.

With the initial flurry of news stories linking the disappearance of Flight MH370 to Thailand’s trade, Indochina Bureau Chief for The Straits Times Nirmal Ghosh decided to take himself off to Khao San Road to see for himself. A nervousness had overtaken the normally brazen business. While the vendors peddling false IDs were normally clearly visible on the main street, touts now led potential customers up to the vendors positioned in nearby streets. Masquerading as a buyer, Ghosh was quickly shown a large album.

“In it there were well over 100 samples of identity cards, from driving licenses to student passes to airline crew passes and many others. There was even an INTERPOL ID card and a Singapore identity card. When I expressed surprise he stared and said: ‘Are you INTERPOL? Are you INTERPOL?’ But I laughed it off. I chose a Singapore driving license and a Qatar Airways crew card. They cost 800 baht each.” Eight hundred baht is around $US25, not much to pay for a change of identity.

After an hour and a half’s wait Ghosh had in his hands a spanking new Singapore driving licence and a Qatar Airways crew card. The only difference from the real Singapore license was the absence of holograms. “Yet, on the face of it, the cards were startlingly realistic.”

The complicity of the Thai authorities in the trade in false papers was never in doubt. Fake identification cards have normally been sold directly in front of the local Chanasongkram Police Station, which fronts directly onto Khao San Road. A giant screen shows two police patrolmen and the words “24-Hour Protection and Services”.

There was ample warning of the dangers of the passport trade even prior to the disappearance of Flight MH370. The Bali bombings of 2002, executed by jihadist group Jemaah Islamiyah in or near popular nightclubs in the tourist district of Kuta, killed 202 people and injured 240. There was a Thai connection. The death toll by nationality was: 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians, 27 Britons, 7 Americans, 6 Swedish citizens and 3 Danish citizens.

Military head of jihadist group Jemaah Islamiyah and alleged mastermind of the Bali bombings Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, was an Afghan war veteran often described as the Osama bin Laden of South East Asia.60 Trusted by Al Quaida itself, he was close to the planners of the Twin Towers terrorist attacks. According to Western intelligence sources Hambali had an ongoing association with Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, fellow mastermind of the Bali bombings.

Hambali was captured in a joint CIA and Thai police operation on 11 August 2003. Ayutthaya, the old capital located in the Chao Phraya river valley where Hambali was apprehended, has a stronger Muslim presence than any other Thai city. It was originally settled in the 17th Century by Muslim traders from India, Malaysia and the Middle East. Many Thai Muslims send their children to university in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, where the fundamentalist sect of Islam known as Wahhabism originated; and there are fears they may become radicalized before returning to Thailand, and to centres such as Ayutthaya.

Once one of the largest cities in the world, it fell into decline after being destroyed by the Burmese in 1767.

Beginning in the early 1970s, in less than 50 years Ayutthaya, much like the rest of the country, went from being a sleepy backwater where foreigners were conspicuous by their rarity, to a bustling center and tourist destination. The Islamic population has been bolstered in the 21st Century by people fleeing the Islamist violence of Thailand’s southern provinces. It is an easy place for foreigners to hide.

When arrested Hambali was reported to be wearing jeans, a t-shirt, sunglasses and a baseball cap, and to be in the company of his common law wife. He envisioned creating a Muslim super-state, or caliphate, across South East Asia, including Thailand, with a population of more than 400 million.62 He was carrying a fake Spanish passport he had purchased in Bangkok. The Bali bombings exposed the fact that radical Islamists were using safe houses across Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand and Cambodia.

Hambali had made full use of the system. The country’s open borders, chaotic politics, loose government structures and dysfunctional municipal systems, combined with widespread corruption within the military and the police force, made the country the perfect place for terrorist groups to operate. The ready availability of forged and doctored documents turned it into paradise.

Hambali’s associate Mohammed Nazir Bin Lep, also known as Lillie or Suicide Ali, was arrested in Bangkok only hours before Hambali was taken into custody.63 The American government accused him of helping Hambali to plan operations, case targets and transfer money. Both Hambali and Lillie are reported to have been tortured in a Thai detention facility during the days following their arrest. They were then flown out of the country to Afghanistan via Sri Lanka on a privately owned Gulfstream jet N85VM contracted from DynCorp by the CIA, where the torture is believed to have continued.

There are few reliable reports of the two men’s whereabouts until their transferal from the CIA secret prison system to Guantanamo Bay in 2006, where they remain. 64 Hambali’s arrest was heralded as a significant victory in the war on terror. 65 At the time of his arrest Hambali was alleged to be planning a series of attacks centered around the October, 2003 Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation meeting in Bangkok; including hotels and embassies. Leaders who attended the conference included: Russian President Vladimir Putin, American President George Bush, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, Chinese President Hu Jintao, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Mexican President Vicente Fox and Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

In a joint statement the leaders committed themselves to ensuring the security of their peoples and agreed that transnational terrorism posed a direct threat to APEC’s vision of free, open and prosperous economies: “Dismantle, fully and without delay, transnational terrorist groups that threaten the APEC economies… Strengthen our joint efforts to curb terrorist threats against mass transportation. Increase and better coordinate our counter-terrorism activities, where appropriate, through effective collaboration, technical assistance.”

Two months prior to Hambali’s arrest then Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced the detention of several senior Jemaah Islamiah operatives planning a bombing spree around the Summit. Plans included hitting the Australian, Israeli, United States, British and Singaporean embassies and tourist spots such as Khao San Road, Bangkok’s red light district of Nana, and the holiday destinations of Phuket and Pattaya. In the wake of Hambali’s detention then Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared that all JI leaders had been rounded up. He promised to toughen immigration procedures and curb the widespread availability of fake passports. Thai police had previously viewed forgery as a petty crime. But under pressure from Western governments after the September 11 attacks and the clear evidence of the black market that had aided Hambali, the authorities began to act.

The most commonly seized fakes were Belgian, French, Portuguese and Spanish passports, which Thai police said were easily copied. Up to 90 percent of fake passports leaving Thailand were bound for London, where the growth of terrorist networks and home grown Islamic radicalization were already of massive concern to national security.

In 2004 Mohammad Ali Hossein, the counterfeiter who supplied Hambali with a forged passport, was arrested. The Thai Immigration Police Bureau, which oversaw the investigation, declared: “The people who use these fake passports are terrorists, fugitives and people illegally transferring or laundering money or opening bank accounts.”

But Hossein’s arrest did not stop the trade. Authorities reported that a number of highly sophisticated counterfeit rings continued to operate in Thailand, run by Thais, Iranians, Burmese and Bangladeshis utilising stolen passports, visas and immigration stamps, as well as passports that the counterfeiters had bought off tourists. Travellers down on their luck and looking for a quick buck could sell their passports, American and European passports fetching the best price. The practice was one of the reasons behind embassies worldwide raising the price for replacement passports.68 Thai police seized 353 such passports from a Greek courier en route to London in March 2004.

A further 100 passports were confiscated in February of 2005 from a Spaniard and Dutchman trying to sell them to an undercover policeman in Bangkok. Another 452 were taken from Algerian-born Briton Mahieddine Daikh, who was going to deliver them to London in early August. That year both Thai and foreign police forces attempted to bring attention to the issue by making public statements that Thailand had emerged as one of the world’s main sources of passports for fraudsters, fugitives and terrorists, including al-Qaida. And in latter days: undoubtedly the world’s most dangerous terrorist threat, Islamic State.

In 2007 almost 250 fake passports were discovered at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Immigration officials received help from a $10 million passport verifying machine. But with airport workers granted an average of 45 seconds to determine the validity of a passport, a measure designed to facilitate the passage of tourists, and no cross checking against INTERPOL databases, Thailand remained an easy place to enter and exit using a false identity. In 2008 there were several sweeps on passport counterfeit rings.

An April raid netted 1300 passports. In May authorities netted 20,904 fake passports, along with 200 genuine US passports, in the nation’s biggest raid on false documents. Twelve people were arrested, including the leader, a Myanmar national. All were charged with falsifying documents and trafficking in drugs and weapons. The gang’s clients were believed to be from South Africa and South Asia. Commander of the Thai Immigration Police Lieutenant General Chatchawal Suksomjit said most of the fake passports were at various stages of manufacture. But 2,300 of them were completed passports from France, Suriname, Norway, Belgium, Italy and Myanmar.

Also by 2008 police officials from eight different countries were meeting monthly in Bangkok with the Thai police to discuss passport forgery and other identity fraud issues. In December 2010 three Pakistani nationals were arrested, suspected of running a forged passport gang and believed to be linked to terrorist groups.

The forgery gang operated with impunity in Thailand for 10 years under the protection of powerful individuals, according to the Thai Department of Special Investigations. The arrests created headlines around the world after the forgery gang, which had connections in Europe, was linked to terrorist groups in Spain responsible for the 2004 Madrid train bombings and several other bombing and arson attacks.”

The gang of master forger, Pakistani Muhammed Ather Butt, was believed to number at least 10 associates and have close relationships with Spanish racketeers. After his detention seven men, six Pakistanis and one Nigerian, were arrested in Barcelona and accused of providing fake identification documents to groups linked to al-Qaeda. In a major investigation, the Bangkok Post reported: “The gang also allegedly provided forged passports for the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba group, which has been accused of plotting the November, 2008, Mumbai attacks, in which 10 militants killed at least 166 people. They also allegedly supplied passports to the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatist group in Sri Lanka.”

Head of the DSI investigation, using the codename Agent Suerte, told the newspaper Pakistani, Iranian and gangs from other countries would look for a Thai lady to support their criminal activities by opening bank accounts and renting a post box or apartment in their name. He said the operation’s leader “found a Thai girlfriend, learned the Thai language and other culture and also established good relations with certain Thai authorities to give him protection. He learned how to survive in Thailand while doing this type of business. You can’t usually do such business in Thailand unless you know some officials.” Butt’s business grew until he became the most famous passport forger in Thailand.

“Everyone in the business admired him,” the Head of the DSI Investigation said. “He was well connected to the authorities; had a lot more money, more than anyone else in this business, and his network reportedly involved Iran, India and other countries. He has been doing this business for 10 years, so you can imagine how big his network and how many customers he had.” Butt was reported to have never opened a shop but would drive a car to meet his customers and often sit with people inside the car and talk. He went to the post office to send the passports. Sometimes he went to Soi 3 off Sukhumvit Road, an area of Bangkok where Arabic is widely spoken and Middle Eastern restaurants dominate.

Investigators described Butt’s room as like a small factory, with computers, a high-definition scanner and printer. There were almost 1,000 pieces of evidence, including photos, passports, counterfeit data pages for EU, Canadian, Chinese and Israeli passports and visa stickers for the US and Schengen countries. Among the seizures were more than 100 passport-sized photographs of people of Middle Eastern appearance.

The Head of the DSI Investigation said Butt chose Thailand as a base because “you can negotiate with some law enforcement people. It is easy to enter and leave the country, and, importantly some people don’t regard passport forgery as a serious offense. They counterfeit only foreign passports but not Thai, so why should we worry, is their attitude.”

Thai Department of Special Investigation’s agent Tinawut Slilapat said there were around 20 groups operating in 2010, often headed by criminals from south Asia or the Middle East, which were engaged in various forms of passport fraud in Thailand. They used passports stolen in Thailand but also in countries such as Spain, France and Belgium, added new photographs, data pages and signatures, and sold them to customers who either travelled to Thailand to buy the documents or sent couriers.

Almost all the passports were used to commit crimes outside Thailand. The gangs were dealing in such high volumes that they could afford simply to wait until a potential client showed up of approximately the right age and appearance for their preference, an undoctored, stolen passport. While estimates ranged up to $US10,000 for fake passports, depending on circumstance, nationality, condition and the number of years left to run, Tinawut said they typically sold for between $1,500 and $3,000. Italian, British, Spanish and other European passports fetch about $1,000, Tinawut said, while Israeli passports cost $1,500-$2,000 and Canadian could go for up to $3,000.

“There is still huge demand for passports, and identity fraud is a tool to support other criminal activities,” Tinawut said. Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations cracked another counterfeiting ring in June of 2012.

The gang was accused of issuing some 3,000 falsified passports and visas over the five years of its existence. Two of the passports were used by Iranians convicted of carrying out a series of botched bomb attacks in Bangkok in February of 2012. One of the men lost his limbs as he hurled an explosive device at police. The pair were among five Iranians suspected of involvement in bomb attacks in India and Georgia targeting Israeli diplomats. They were ultimately sentenced to between 15 years and life.

The counterfeiting gang’s alleged ringleader, Iranian-born Seyed Paknejad, 45, was arrested but jumped bail and fled, on a fake Turkish passport, to Malaysia where he was re-arrested in 2013 carrying 17 stolen New Zealand passports. Thailand subsequently asked for his extradition.

The Global Terrorism Index, a project run by the privately funded think tank Institute for Economics & Peace, ranked Thailand as the most dangerous country in Southeast Asia for terrorism, and the eighth most dangerous in the world. The Index, claimed as the best data set on terrorism available, was based on information collected by the USA’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and relates to the period 2002 to 2011. It showed that nations severely affected by terrorism share high levels of corruption.

The Index took in a basket of 158 countries and measured the impact of terrorism through the number of incidents, deaths, injuries and the level of property damage.

Thailand accounted for five per cent of the world’s terrorist incidents. Much of Thailand’s poor ranking was due to Southeast Asia’s longest running and most dangerous insurgency, in the Muslim southern provinces adjacent to the Malaysian border. More than 6,000 people had been killed since 2004, including school teachers and Buddhist monks. Explosive devices had been found in tourist areas and feared to be linked to the southern insurgency. The provinces are separated from the rest of the country by ethnic, cultural and religious differences.

Administratively and socially there is little connection to the rest of the country. In a predominantly Buddhist country there is little sympathy for or understanding of the Muslim minority in the south. Ethnically the population is closer to the Malaysians than to the dominant Thai population.

Photo by Colton Duke on Unsplash

There is a difference of emphases between various writers on the links between Thailand’s fake passport trade, the southern insurgency and the international terrorist threat. Professor Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, is the author and editor of 12 books including Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, an international bestseller. He co-authored The Terrorist Threat from Southern Thailand: Jihad or Quest for Justice?

The book argued there was strong potential for the localised insurgency in southern Thailand to be sucked into the global jihad and to spread to neighboring countries, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia. Gunaratna said the trade was centered in Thailand because the scale of human trafficking in Thailand “was huge” and “law enforcement weak”.

While Africa and Latin America also had trades in forged passports, Thailand’s quality of printing was the best in the world. He argued that Thailand lacked the capacity to address the issue, and rather than criticize the international community needed to work with and support Thailand in dealing with the problem.

“There is an infrastructure of agents who provide passage for people who travel to North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand,” Gunaratna said. “Terrorist and criminal groups have used Thailand for this purpose.”

He said a specialist organisation or task force to combat forgery and theft of travel and identity documents needed to be established in Thailand made up of intelligence, military and law enforcement agencies.

“It is important for this organisation not to be just police, it must include military and intelligence services,” Gunaratna said. “It would be a huge mistake to make it just police; if combined they cannot be easily corrupted. Police can be threatened, the military can kill anyone who threatens them.”

Other scholars argue that the southern insurgency is more intranational than international in consequence, and has been poorly managed by the body politic. Duncan McCargo, author of Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand and most recently Mapping National Anxieties: Thailand’s Southern Conflict, is dismissive of any attempt to link the southern insurgency to the trade in false passports. He said writers suggesting Thailand’s southern provinces were a training ground for international jihadist networks did not appear at academic conferences and were dismissed by serious scholars because their work relied on “intelligence sources” which could not be checked or verified.

However, to put the contrary view, with the world spiraling into the most serious terror threat it had ever faced, with the role of academe in the public acceptance of the Islamization of the West under serious question, with those attending academic conferences having grown intellectually lazy and out-of-touch, isolated in the comfortable corridors of higher tertiary institutions, and with intelligence sources by their very nature unable to be exposed, journalists were far more likely to be a credible source for a devolving security situation than academics.

Apart from Gunaratna’s concerns, also in contrary evidence was the masterwork Pure, by one of the millennial period’s most truly gifted writers, Timothy Mo. The renowned author had always wondered why a dynamic and flexible art form like the novel had never embraced the single greatest issue of the age, the mind of the terrorist. Highly intelligent, born of wealthy Hong Kong parents, educated at Oxford and once the darling of the British literary establishment, Mo has well established links to the highest reaches of the English and Asian establishments; and to the intelligence community. Using the device of character, Pure paints a stunning portrait of the mujaheddin training camps of southern Thailand and their clandestine reach across Asia; and an insightful exploration of fanaticism.

But McCargo persists: “The Pattanis are genuinely provincial. They don’t care about papers and passports and have no desire to travel. I am one of a small group of experts who has tried to convince people and especially the Thai elite that this is a political problem in need of a political solution, but it is a message that Bangkok would generally rather not hear.”

McCargo said the southern insurgency was provoking discontent in Muslim minorities across Thailand. In a speech to the Lowy Institute for International Policy in April, 2014, he argued: “Thailand has seen a resurgence of ethno-regionalist tensions across the country, most recently in the North and Northeast. Grasping the nettle by addressing the root causes of the southern insurgency will be crucial in turning back the tide of regional resentments and allowing Thais everywhere more political space to manage their own affairs without constant interference from Bangkok. The deep south must not become a model for a larger nationwide civil conflict.”

With Thailand hungrily eying the booming Muslim tourist market, expected to be worth $US192 billion by the year 2020, up from $126 billion in 2011, the potential radicalization of mosques becomes of significance to millions of travelers.

Thailand ranks eighth in the world as the most popular tourist destination for Muslims, with more than 200,000 Indonesians visiting each year.

The Thai Tourism Authority has an office in Dubai and has been promoting Islamic travel packages, including halal spas, transportation and hotels, which require strict privacy. Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport is rated the most Muslim friendly in the world outside an Islamic country.

In December, 2013, a car bomb with enormous potential to damage the nation’s tourist industry was disarmed on the tourist island of Phuket. The improvised explosive device (IED) consisted of two components with a combined payload of 33kg which failed to explode. A smaller 5kg device had exploded nearby, drawing the attention of security forces.

The Phuket attack used comparatively sophisticated twin bomb methodology similar to attacks conducted in Iraq and elsewhere.

Security experts suggested the incident was indicative of the growing capabilities of ethnic Malay Muslim separatists. The attack was also notable in that it represented a significant out of area operation in one of Thailand’s prime tourist regions. Its explosion would have seriously harmed the Thai economy.

In July of 2014 three people were killed and 30 injured in a bomb attack at Betong in the southern province of Yala, which is popular with tourists from neighboring Malaysia. A Malaysian tourist was amongst those injured.

In their 2014 Asia Risk Assessment Steve Vickers & Associates warned that extremist activity in southern Thailand could intensify, with political instability in Bangkok undermining security in the south and posing a direct threat to tourists.

The report pointed to an upsurge in activity by groups such as the Pattani United Liberation Organisation.

Recent bombings had been sophisticated in nature, suggesting southern insurgent groups were increasing their capabilities: “The risk of further such acts is growing; government capacity in southern Thailand has slipped as the Thai intelligence and security forces have withdrawn assets to Bangkok. An associated concern in this regard is that elements engaged in the Thai political dispute may carry out bombings in the name of Malay separatists.

“Signs of growing capacity and determination to attack tourist targets are discernible, even as government capacity in the south is falling. Risks of increased attacks in Thailand’s south, including in tourist locations outside the traditional conflict zone, are thus rising.”

The recurrent exposure of Thailand as a hotbed for fake and stolen passports led once again to criticism of the nation’s laissez faire attitude to criminal operations, many of which impacted on or were a direct part of the tourist industry.

The Kingdom’s location at the center of Southeast Asia and its sophisticated transportation infrastructure meant that international syndicates of all kinds, including arms and narcotics traders, human traffickers, sex businesses, money-laundering operations and terrorists, had used Thailand as a hub.

“So, why Thailand? The Nation asked. “Those who are in trouble at home can easily seek shelter, lead easy lives and even run businesses here. Gangsters of all sorts, be they from Asia, Russia or anywhere in the West, always feel at home in Thailand.

“Nowhere is it as easy to make a deal as in Thailand, as the country’s laws and law-enforcement operations are very weak. It is easy to bribe officials and pave the way for illegal businesses, not to mention the high-ranking officials who also have a hand in this grey business. Since Thailand is also close to places where guerrilla warfare is ongoing, the demand for small arms is very high. Plus, it is the land of narcotics producers and drug lords are still very active in the country.

“Some of these drug traffickers also double as warlords, using the money they make from narcotics to finance their battles back home.”

At the same time as Thailand acted as a major crime crossroads, the daily news cycle was cluttered with a burlesque display of the last, the lost and the least. They were usually addicts, small time dealers and the dissolute, those who had simply stayed too long at the party. They were usually people without the social connections to protect themselves or the financial resources to bribe their way out of trouble.

Before being found guilty in a court of law they were paraded before cameras and microphones as fodder for television stations, news websites and newspapers. The noise creates an unworthy air of business. Often the most public arrests are for the most minor of offenses.

In April of 2014 Martin Curtis Taylor, originally from Manchester in England, for example, had his face paraded in the media for all to see for the alleged possession of one gram of marijuana, a quantity which would not attract attention in most of the Western world. The drug was no doubt purchased locally.

Renowned Thai journalist Chutima Sidasathian describes Phuket, with its international orientation and plethora of news stories, as a reporter’s paradise. While questioning the Phuket police at a press conference about the number of stolen passports being traced to the island after the disappearance of MH370, she was castigated for raising a subject which could damage the reputation of the island and of Thailand itself.

She declared she was just doing her job and shot back to the senior officer: “Yes, but what is the answer?”

As she recalls: “There was no answer.”

Indeed, to the charge against the Thai political, military, police, social and business elites of allowing racketeers to trade freely in doctored, stolen and forged passports, along with a wide variety of other false documents, thereby fueling criminal and terrorist networks and endangering the world’s traveling public, there is no answer.

And no defense.