Two Iranian nationals purchased fake passports on the Thailand black market and used them to board Malaysian flight MH370. Although no malicious motives have been ascribed to the two men, the incident brings to light a thriving trade that can potentially facilitate the endeavors of underworld criminals including arms dealers, illegal immigration brokers, human and drug traffickers, and Islamist militants.
The headlines come as no surprise for security officials around the world who have dealt with the problem in the past. At least one suspect investigated for the 2004 Madrid M11 train bombings that killed 191 people and left 1,800 injured carried a fake passport. After those bombings, a six-year joint investigation between Thai and Spanish officials culminated in the arrest of two Pakistani nationalists, one of whom, Mohammad Ather, aka “Tony Butt”, led an international gang that stole and modified passports from overseas travelers. The organization also supplied fake passports for terrorists accused of carrying out the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 164 and to Tamil Tiger separatists in Sri Lanka.
Tony Butt was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but other passport falsifying gangs continue to operate. These organizations choose Thailand as their base because of the relaxed entry and exit requirements as well as the scores of American, European, and Australian vacationers who travel there each year. Members of these gangs, in the majority of cases, steal the passports. Car and motorbike renters appear to lose a conspicuously disproportionate number. In some cases, the black marketeers purchase passports from travelers for about $200. The seller of the passport then simply appears before his consulate to report a stolen passport and a new one is issued.
The fake passports used to board Malaysian flight MH370 were stolen, in Thailand from two Europeans, Christian Kozel, from Austria, and Luigi Maraldi from Italy, both of whom had been vacationing on the island of Phuket. Maraldi’s passport still displayed his photo when the airline tickets were purchased. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs recorded over 60,000 reports of stolen passports between January 2012 and June 2013.
Fake passports bring in tons of money for the gangs that sell them. The high traffic volume and inventory means that dealers can sell unmodified passports, matching their descriptions and photos to the phenotypes of potential buyers. These passports typically go for anywhere in the $1000 to $3000 range, with European passports costing the least and Canadian passports fetching the most.
Vacationers to Thailand are thus cautioned to maintain vigilance over their passports. Reporting a lost or stolen passport immediately after the occurrence ensures that the event will be entered into Interpol’s international data base of Lost and Stolen Travel Documents (LSTD). Theoretically, a stolen passport will not fly if airport officials keep a close watch and compare passports against the LSTD. Although both Kozel and Maraldi reported their missing passports, the Thai database was not properly linked to the LTSD on the day of MH370’S departure.
Of course there is no evidence of foul play connected with the stolen passports and not all illegal passports are sold to criminals. So far it appears that the two men who boarded Malaysian Flight MH370 with fake passports purchased them in Thailand in order to circumvent European travel restrictions affecting Iranian travelers.
By Robert Wisnewski