- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 8, 2004

VIENNA, Austria - They are just little embossed rectangles in burgundy, forest green or navy blue, but they can lay a nation bare to a terrorist plot.

Passports, not box cutters or even jetliners, may be al Qaeda’s most powerful weapons. Stolen and legitimate, doctored and untouched, they have enabled Osama bin Laden’s network and other terrorist groups to plan and carry out attacks worldwide.

In its final report, the U.S. commission investigating the September 11 attacks touts high-tech biometric passports, still in the developmental stage, and better training of border guards as key ways to tighten the United States’ defenses.

But anti-terrorism experts, mindful of the ingenuity demonstrated by Islamist militants, say they feel humbled and helpless.

“One of the hidden criticisms [in the report] is that not only were we not prepared on September 11, but the measures we’ve taken from September 11 to today have not improved the matter that much,” said Michael Greenberger, a Justice Department official during the Clinton administration.

“Our databases are a mess. Change a person’s middle initial and he doesn’t show up,” said Mr. Greenberger, who now directs the University of Maryland’s Center for Health and Homeland Security. “By and large, we’ve not been terribly successful.”

The commission offers no argument.

“No one can hide his or her debt by acquiring a credit card with a slightly different name,” said its report, released last week. “Yet today, a terrorist can defeat the link to electronic records by tossing away an old passport and slightly altering the name in the new one.”

Conceding that the commission has only “fragmentary” evidence of the travels of the September 11 organizers and hijackers, the 567-page report nonetheless is packed with detailed accounts of how the terrorists obtained and modified the passports that got them into the United States.

A key panel recommendation points up the seriousness of the threat:

“Targeting travel is at least as powerful a weapon against terrorists as targeting their money. The United States should combine terrorist travel intelligence, operations, and law enforcement in a strategy to intercept terrorists, find terrorist travel facilitators, and constrain terrorist mobility.”

That, experts say, is far easier said than done.

“If you have someone who is determined to evade immigration controls, they will do it — or at least they will have a good chance,” said Alex Standish, editor of Jane’s Intelligence Digest. “I don’t see any evidence to suggest that we’ve had any success in making [al Qaeda] any less of a threat.”

Al Qaeda once brazenly operated its own passport office at the airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where the group “altered papers, including passports, visas and identification cards” before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the commission notes.

Although the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan ended such Taliban-protected operations, there are plenty of terrorists worldwide who are skilled in doctoring documents, the panel warns. It says al Qaeda and others have refined half a dozen simple yet highly effective techniques.

Among the most popular is obtaining stolen passports, which authorities say are available on a lucrative black market that stretches from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia and South Africa.

There are up to 10 million lost or stolen passports in circulation worldwide, according to Interpol estimates.

“You can find all sorts of fake passports in the Balkans, including stolen or fake American” documents, a former high-ranking police official in Serbia said on the condition of anonymity.

Experts say many documents are being sold for as little as $75, although U.S. passports can fetch $3,000 or more.

Al Qaeda militants and other terrorists intercepted in Europe had obtained South African passports they apparently got from crime syndicates operating within the government agency that issues the documents, officials disclosed.

Another commonly used technique involves adding or removing visa cachets and entry and exit stamps. By doing so, experts say, terrorists can delete any evidence of their travel to suspicious destinations such as Afghanistan or Pakistan. They also can create false trails to throw authorities off-track.

Two of the September 11 hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, apparently flew to Bangkok because “they thought it would enhance their cover as tourists to have passport stamps from a popular tourist destination such as Thailand,” the commission says.

Some simply would turn in passports filled with suspicion-arousing visas and stamps from countries where al Qaeda operated — even if the documents were still valid for another year — and get new, clean ones. Fourteen of the 19 suicide hijackers, exhorted by September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, obtained new passports.

Others work to acquire as many passports as possible, reasoning that a Canadian or Belgian passport is less likely to prompt scrutiny from U.S. border guards than one from Saudi Arabia.

In one case cited by the commission, convicted terrorist Ahmed Ressam obtained a blank baptismal certificate that a document vendor had stolen from a Roman Catholic church in Montreal, and used it to get a genuine Canadian passport.

Saudi hijackers had a problem: If they traveled to Afghanistan via Pakistan, and the Pakistanis stamped their passports, they risked having them confiscated back in Saudi Arabia.

“So operatives either erased the Pakistani visas from their passports or traveled through Iran, which did not stamp visas directly into passports,” the commission says.

Tehran has angrily denied any complicity in the September 11 attacks, even though the panel contends that as many as 10 of the hijackers passed through Iran en route to the United States.

Al Qaeda operative Tawfiq bin Attash indicated that Malaysia repeatedly was used as a place to plot attacks “because its government did not require citizens of Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states to have a visa.” Bin Attash, better known as Khallad, helped bomb the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, killing 17 American sailors.

Mr. Greenberger is among many pushing for the swift consolidation of travel databases “so these names start popping up.” He and others also are pressing for the introduction of supposedly tamper-proof biometric passports that will contain digital photographs and fingerprints.

The European Union agreed in March to fast-track the inclusion of biometric data in passports by the end of 2006. Belgium has vowed to be among the first by introducing its new travel documents next year, and Austria, Denmark and Slovenia have developed working prototypes.

“We’ve got to adopt the technology and get away from purely paper documents,” Mr. Greenberger said.

“Nothing is going to be foolproof, but by altering the technology, I think it’s possible to raise our defenses,” he said. “The harder we make it to forge documents, the greater our gains in protecting the borders. You’re really upping the ante.”

But Mr. Standish, of Jane’s Intelligence Digest, is skeptical.

“The basic problem is that if a document of any kind can be produced, it can be falsified or forged,” he said. “As an IRA terrorist once famously said to the authorities: ‘You have to be lucky all the time. I only have to be lucky once.’”

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