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Murder and stolen passports?

Could the passports used by the alleged killers of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh be a key piece of forensic evidence?

Last modified: 17 Feb 2010 17:11
Photo from AFP
Update : It is not clear whether this was passport or identity theft.  The 7 dual Israeli citizens claim their passports were never stolen or "lent" to anyone else.
 
As I earlier blogged, the passports used by the alleged killers of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh would be a key piece of forensic evidence.  I must first admit some bias in my thinking as I got some experience investigating passport fraud in my first three years out of college. 
 
In training we were taught the passport was Holy Grail. The ultimate identity document, a passport proves you are a lawful citizen of the country stamped on the booklets jacket, entitled to full protections, privileges, and bilateral treaties between the traveler's home and the country being visited.
 
Press reports are now hinting that a group of unsuspecting Israelis with dual citizenship had their identities hijacked to carry out the state's dirty business. 
 
Operating on the assumption that the UK, Ireland, Germany and France did not give those passports to Mossad (or whomever did it) for intelligence purposes, it's already clear to me that a couple of people dropped the ball. 
 
If any of the 11 passports were stolen, the victims may have erred. They had a duty to inform their respective Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) that their passport were gone.  They would have typically been asked to make a sworn statement providing any available details (when it was lost, circumstances, copies of a local police report, etc.)
 
MFA investigators would then in theory register the lost/stolen passport numbers into Interpol's database, which has an estimated 11 million passports reported.  That would render the missing documents expired while at the same time flag it for suspected fraud.  
 
This could be either contributory negligence on the part of the "victims" who had their documents taken (by failing to report it), or by the States in question who failed to pass that information along to Interpol.  This presumes, of course, the "victims" did not "donate" the books to their governments for intelligence purposes, which can never be ruled out. 

Had the above described steps been followed, the Dubai immigration officer on duty who swiped the traveler's documents would have noted the passports were not supposed to be in use, and saw a flag on his/her computer reading "contact Interpol," which in turn would notify investigators from the relevant country MFA. 
 
The computerized exchange would go something like this: "Hey, someone is at our airport using a passport reported as stolen--what should we do?"  A duty officer or investigator from the country in question would be contacted.
 
 Whether immigration agents take this step can be the difference between whether or not they've had a cup of coffee, but in most cases they do. Airport officials would then invite the suspected fraudsters into secondary for a long and fun interview.
 
Had all those steps been missed, the last measure would be the careful examination of the document being presented. 
 
Swapping photos on a passport is not so commonly used anymore since most passports bear flat, digitally printed photos bearing holograms.  It also presumes that forged booklets were not used, which is a more difficult and risky undertaking, but not impossible.  There are millions of printed pages made for passports that are in theory controlled items. But it would not be impossible to find a corrupted employee to donate the pages to a foreign intelligence service.
 
Most countries adopted tougher fraud reducing measures following the September 11th attacks, which required countries to move to machine readable passports. But there are still plenty of old school booklets in circulation. I suspect low-security passports (that were still valid) were sought after by whoever intended to carry out the crimes. 
 
In most countries, gone are the days of old where photos are supplied by passport applicants so they can be laminated by a machine inside these traveling booklets. 
 
A professional counterfeiter, however, the kind one would expect to be employed by a first-world intelligence agency, would make it hard to detect a photo swap as they are able to unseal lamination in ways that conceal the fact it had been tampered with.  
 
Who knows why these steps were missed.  Maybe there was a long line and a bunch of screaming kids standing at the counter.  

But I do find revealing my conversation a few days ago with an Irish Ministry of Foreign Affairs official. I contacted him on background to see whether UAE police had notified them of the possibility that their passports were misused. 
 
This individual told me that no one from the UAE police had requested their help.  In fact, the official told me, the Irish actually took the step of contacting the Dubai police out of their own concern over media reports that Irish documents had been used.   
 
If Mossad was involved, as they have been in other attacks against Hamas outside its border, the Israeli citizens who may have had their identities stolen would have little recourse against their own government. 
 
No government speaks on intelligence matters, including Israel, and it will be mighty difficult for them to prove that they had been victims of passport or identity theft without looking like a crackpot.
 
Tough luck for those folks if they were not involved.  They may want to skip Dubai on their next vacation abroad till it all gets sorted.