Revealed: how fake passports allow IS members to enter Europe and US

Seller whose passports have been used by those who illegally crossed Syrian border says: ‘it is not my job to see who is bad’

A booming online industry specialising in fake passports with official visas and travel stamps is offering people with links to Islamic State the opportunity to leave Syria and travel onwards to the UK, EU, Canada and the US, a Guardian investigation has found.

One such network, run by an Uzbek with extremist links living in Turkey, is now selling high-quality fake passports for up to $15,000 (£11,132) purporting to be from various countries. In at least 10 cases the Guardian is aware of, people who illegally crossed the Syrian border into Turkey have used his products to depart through Istanbul airport.

Sellers claim the EU is the most popular destination but say in at least two cases people were able to travel from Istanbul to Mexico on fake Russian passports and, from there, illegally over the border into the US. Niger and Mauritania are also popular destinations, as are Ukraine and Afghanistan.

The Uzbek’s business is doing so well he recently opened a new channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram with the official-sounding name “Istanbul Global Consulting”. The growing trade suggests that dangerous extremists could be slipping under the radar of security services around the world, escaping justice for past crimes and potentially able to continue terrorist activity in countries other than Syria.

“I do not ask about which group someone is with. I am willing to work with anyone,” the Uzbek said in a message chat with the Guardian, which posed as an interested client. “It is not my job to see who is bad and who is not. The security services should deal with it.”

Western security officials warned in 2015 that IS had managed to obtain significant equipment such as blank passport books and printers to make Syrian and Iraqi passports, which it used to disguise operatives among the more than 1 million people who fled to Europe during the peak of the refugee crisis. IS claimed several attacks around the continent shortly after, including the November 2015 attack on the Bataclan theatre in Paris and the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017.

Since then, European border agencies have invested in technology and personnel training to better identify forged passports. In 2020, Tajikistan totally overhauled its consular staff in Istanbul and document system in an attempt to stamp out the use of fake Tajik passports.

But in response, sellers of fake passports have also upped their game, using a wider variety of nationalities for prospective clients.

The Uzbek sent several videos of his wares, including crisp new French, Belgian, Bulgarian and Russian passports that appear to feature authentic security watermarks and holograms.

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