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WARNING: Officials Detail Terrorist Ties to Passport Ring
BANGKOK — Investigators in Thailand and Spain were scrutinizing the operations of a suspected counterfeiting network on Thursday, a day after 10 people were arrested in Barcelona and Thailand on suspicion of providing stolen, doctored European passports to terrorists entering Western countries.
Spanish officials said an 18-month international investigation showed that the network had branches in Brussels and London, and was directed by a Pakistani arrested in Bangkok, a 42-year-old named Muhammad Athar Butt. They called the ring “an important passport operation for Al Qaeda” and said the arrests weakened “its international counterfeiting apparatus, and therefore, its capacity to operate.”
The Spanish police said the network was linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based terrorist group behind attacks in Mumbai, India, in November 2008 that killed at least 163 people. The network also provided counterfeit passports and other documents to the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan separatist group defeated last year by the government after decades of war, the police said.
In Bangkok on Thursday, a Thai police official told a news conference that suspicions of the network extended to the possibility that it had provided documents for some of those involved in the devastating Madrid bombings in 2004.
In a follow-up phone interview, the official, Col. Narat Sawettanan, said, “The Spanish authorities believe that the terrorist group that carried out the 2004 attacks used fake passports produced by this group.” But he offered no details to clarify that statement, and a spokeswoman for the Spanish Interior Ministry said shortly afterward that the government was aware of his comments and that “we have no knowledge of this.”
A senior European law enforcement official said the forgery ring was relatively small in size and that there are certainly others of the same "organizational structure with the same modus operandi" in Europe. The official said people in these groups may know each other but they are not operationally linked.
The official said this atomization of terror groups makes it much harder to investigate, penetrate and dismantle because they are small.
The news conference in Bangkok offered new details about the three suspects arrested in Thailand, saying they were stopped at a checkpoint on Tuesday trying to enter Laos, according to The Associated Press. The three had already been identified as Mr. Butt; another Pakistani man, Zeeshan Ehsan Butt; and a Thai woman, Sirikallaya Kitbamrung.
In a search of their apartments, Thai police officers found machines and other materials used in the production of fake passports and immigration stamps, and e-mails containing orders for forged passports and a package from Spain, according to Colonel Narat.
“We found a link to terrorism and also to credit card fraud, arms trafficking, human trafficking and illegal immigration,” he said at the news conference. The seven other suspects — six Pakistanis and one Nigerian — were arrested in Barcelona in raids on late Tuesday and early Wednesday.
The Pakistani suspects were identified as Junaid Humayun, Atiqur Rehman, Jabra Asghar, Malik Iftikhar Ahmad, and Mohammad Saddique Khan Begum, alias Saddique Tanveer Arshad. The Nigerian suspect was identified as Babatunde Agunbiade.
The Spanish authorities said that terrorist organizations would request forged passports from the network according to nationality and age. Members of the network would then steal passports from tourists, mainly in Barcelona, and send them to Thailand where they were forwarded to the terrorist groups, they said.
The raids come at a time of heightened concern among American and European officials over a possible terrorist strike in Europe. In October, the State Department in Washington issued an alert for American travelers to Europe to be vigilant about possible attacks.
The arrests in Spain and Thailand offer a window into the shadowy nexus between terrorist organizations and loose criminal networks in Europe and Asia that facilitate terrorist activities by helping provide militants with transportation, weapons or logistical support. Some terrorist groups use in-house facilitators — to raise money, for instance — while they outsource other needs for their illicit operations.
Counterterrorism specialists say that disrupting facilitators who provide militants valuable services can sharply disrupt terrorist groups, at least until they find replacements.
The police seized nine passports awaiting shipment to Thailand and another that had already been forged, along with a computer and 50 cellphones in raids on the suspects’ homes in Raval, a downtown neighborhood that is home to a large immigrant community.
In January 2008, Spain’s military police arrested 14 men in Raval, who were accused of being part of a vast, coordinated suicide plot that officials said demonstrated the growing threat of terrorist activities migrating from Pakistan to Continental Europe.
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