Western security officials are struggling to respond to the threat that Islamic State can make authentic-looking Syrian and Iraqi passports, which could be used to hide operatives planning attacks in Europe or the U.S. among refugees.
Islamic State has likely obtained equipment and blank passport books needed to make Syrian passports when the group took control of the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Deir Ezzour, those officials said. It has also gained control of materials to make Iraqi passports when it occupied the Iraqi city of Mosul, a Belgian counterterrorism official disclosed for the first time. But the near-absence of communication with the Syrian government means Western officials are lacking key information that could be used to identify the passports, according to a confidential analysis by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The Nov. 13 Paris attacks, which killed 130 people, have shown that the proliferation of Syrian passports amid the chaos of war poses a serious security threat to the West. At least one of the suicide bombers who attacked Paris had been registered as a refugee at the Greek island of Leros using a fraudulent Syrian passport.
European leaders are moving to tighten border security in the wake of the attacks. Last week, Austrian police arrested an Algerian and a Pakistani national at a refugee shelter in Salzburg, both holding forged Syrian passports. The two men had arrived in Leros on the same boat as the Paris attacker, officials said.
Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, has recently sent document experts to Leros and other Greek islands to pick out fake passports. But there are now only 10 experts, and identifying a fake that has been printed on real Syrian passport books with real equipment is very difficult, a Frontex spokeswoman said.
“It’s enormously difficult to figure out,” saidRichard Barrett, a former, senior U.K. counterterrorism official. “Maybe if you have very good local knowledge, very good Arabic language skills,” he added. Islamic State “can probably make them good enough to get them past someone who has faced 10,000 refugees,” Mr. Barrett said.
Identifying fake Syrian passports poses a particular challenge, Western security officials and experts say. That is because communication between the Syrian government and Western authorities is almost nonexistent, they say.
“The lack of ability to verify information with the Syrian government about how many passports may be vulnerable for exploitation in former provincial/regional government building(s) will make attempts to analyze the scale of the problem difficult,” according to the confidential analysis prepared by the Department of Homeland Security, sections of which were reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Use of the passport-making equipment extends beyond Islamic State to human trafficking rings that operate in Turkey, officials say. That area serves as a way station for radicals traveling between the conflict zone and Europe.
European governments now grant asylum to almost all Syrians, creating a thriving black market for authentic-looking fake Syrian passports.
Belgian police earlier this month arrested a man in Antwerp who had entered Europe as a refugee, carrying a Syrian passport. The police acted after receiving a tip that the man, whose arrest hasn’t been previously reported, was actually Egyptian.
The man, who isn’t considered a terror suspect, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose supporters have been jailed by the thousands by Egypt’s government. He obtained his Syrian passport in Turkey and then crossed into Greece along with masses of refugees that are still arriving by the thousands, the Belgian counterterrorism official said. The man’s passport was printed on what appeared to be an authentic Syrian passport book.
The Egyptian’s presence in Antwerp worried authorities because he espouses an ultra-conservative version of Islam known as Salafism and was seeking to become an imam at a mosque in the Antwerp area, said the Belgian counterterrorism official. European authorities have become increasingly worried about the influence of more conservative, non-European clerics on local Muslim populations.
The analysis by the Department of Homeland Security describes another example: an acquaintance of one of the department’s intelligence sources bought a fake Syrian passport in Istanbul issued by the passport office of Deir Ezzour more than a year after the city in eastern Syria fell under the control of Islamic State.
That means either the city’s passport-issuing equipment has been moved or such passports are still being issued from Islamic State-controlled territory, the analysis says.
Islamic State may have also gained control of passports and equipment when it took territory near Aleppo in Syria, the Belgian counterterrorism official said.
At a summit last week, European leaders pledged to cooperate more closely on security measures and run security checks on all Europeans returning to Europe.
The proliferation of Syrian passports shows how even the latest measures under discussion can be circumvented. There is no record of the Paris attackers who were in Syria, at least five of whom were European citizens, returning to Europe using their own passports.
Videos have proliferated online showing people how to obtain Syrian passports and impersonate Syrians. A video shot by a Moroccan claiming to be in Germany posted on YouTube explains everything, from obtaining the passport from a cafe near the Izmir train station to the best way to get to Germany from Greece.
“You can pay the smugglers and they do the rest,” the man says. “Don’t forget to burn your Moroccan papers.”
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