Thai officials say suspected passport forger had ISIL links

Pakistani man arrested in Bangkok produced passports for terror group, defence minister says

Commander of the Immigration Bureau, Lt. Gen. Suttipong Vongpint (hand at R), points to a board with information about an apprehended passport forger during a press conference in Bangkok on January 19, 2018.
A Pakistani passport forger whose fakes may have been sold to Islamic State operatives has been arrested in Thailand, police said on January 19, ending a career that helped people slip into Europe illegally. / AFP PHOTO / Roberto SCHMIDT

A suspected Pakistani passport forger arrested in Bangkok this week may have sold fake travel documents to ISIL operatives, Thai police said on Friday.

Mohammad Iqbal, 52, was arrested he pulled into his Bangkok condo on a motorbike on January 14. Police found him in possession of Singaporean and Indian fake passports as well as plates and laminates to forge entry visas to France, Italy and Spain.

"He has worked on faking documents for a long time using Thailand as his base," Lt Gen Suttipong Vongpint, commander of the Immigration Bureau, said.

The arrest is the latest in a series of targeted operations against skilled passport forgers in Thailand as fears over security and immigration have compelled authorities to tackle a shadowy industry that has thrived in the kingdom for decades.

Mr Iqbal, who is believed to have operated from Thailand for more than 10 years, has been charged with falsifying passports, visa seals and trafficking of fake passports.

Earlier this week defence minister Prawit Wongsuwan linked him to a group selling passports to ISIL.

"The suspect has falsified visa and passports for the ISIL group with the attempt to make them travel from the Middle East into Thailand," he said, adding that the attempts were unsuccessful.

But police officials at Friday's press conference said Mr Iqbal was a businessman who welcomed all clients.

"Based on the investigation he will sell to every group, not particularly to ISIL, he just made them by orders," Lt Gen Suttipong said.

A typical fake passport would sell for only a few hundred dollars, according to the immigration bureau.

Thailand's role as a global hub for fake passports came under renewed scrutiny following the 2014 disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370.

Two Iranians travelling on European passports bought and modified in Thailand were on board the ill-fated flight.

It is an industry dominated by highly skilled Iranians and Pakistanis serving customers from South Asia, the Middle East and further afield.

Immigration police said Mr Iqbal was affiliated with a shadowy Iranian master forger known as The Doctor who sold "Triple A" quality passports to refugees, economic migrants and criminals from a Bangkok suburb for nearly 20 years.

Detectives hailed The Doctor's 2016 arrest as a major breakthrough in the fight against passport crime - although other forgers have taken his place.

Transient, vast and permissive, Bangkok has for long provided sanctuary for people wanting to disappear or re-invent.

Thailand welcomes visa-free travel from many countries and is South-East Asia's best connected transport hub, sharing long, ungovernable borders with Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

That draws transnational criminals moving everything from people and rare wildlife to drugs, weapons and gems.