x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Passports were 'licence to kill'

The 11 fake passports used by Mahmoud al Mabhouh's assassins to enter the UAE were their "licence to kill", says a source who is an expert on passport security.

The 11 fake passports used by Mahmoud al Mabhouh's assassins to enter the UAE were their "licence to kill", says a source who is an expert on passport security. The documents were supposedly from Britain, Ireland, France and Germany. Such passports have hundreds of security features, ranging from special types of paper to microchips, the source said. That made it less likely that they would be closely inspected at border control posts in Europe and elsewhere.

It is understood that intelligence operatives are often given several passports issued by their country. The documents are legitimate except for the person's identity. Operatives are restricted to using one identity at a time when travelling. If their eyes are scanned in one country that keeps such records, they must use only the cover they were travelling under when they were scanned. The risk of being searched and caught with multiple passports is considered a major deterrent to travelling with more than one set of documents.

Using forged documents of any type is a risk, experts said. But when the assassins entered Dubai and presented their passports to immigration officers, the chances of being caught rested half on the computerised scanning equipment and half on the person manning the controls. It is up to the officer to spot differences in spelling, serial numbers or other issues that would not necessarily show up when the passport is swiped.

"The machines are not flawless. Half of the responsibility rests on the agent," the passport security expert said. "There are dozens of types of fake passports. The physical passport itself can be legitimate [such as those that have been stolen], but the information in it can be manipulated. It comes down to the officer to figure that out." Lt Gen Dahi Khalfan Tamim, the chief of Dubai Police, said the passports used by the group went through all the necessary checks.

"The passports had all the guarantees outlined by the European countries," he said. "We have received all the training from several European countries needed to spot fake passports. And, after all, they did come from European countries - how did they pass through these airports?" Jeroen Van Beek, an expert in passport technology, said it was not difficult to find the materials or the data to forge a passport.

"The easiest way would be to buy blanks, copy existing data of an existing person and use another picture," he said. In the UAE, when a passport is scanned, information is collected and checked with information in the system about international arrest warrants or other reasons that a person should be detained or denied entry. Because many European countries do not provide an exit stamp, the assassins could have used legitimate passports to exit Europe, then a fraudulent passport to enter the UAE.

"It's very possible and even legal to leave one country using one passport and then enter another country using a different passport. It's not illegal to have two passports," the source said. myoussef@thenational.ae