Thailand has emerged as one of the criminal world's main sources for fake and altered passports for frauds, fugitives and terrorists, including at least one al-Qaeda-linked operative, Thai and foreign police say.
Thai police previously viewed forgery as a petty crime. But under pressure from Western governments after the Sept. 11 attacks, they say they are now cracking down on the black market that aided Hambali, the mastermind of the 2002 Bali attacks and alleged leader of al-Qaeda-linked Southeast Asian terror group, Jemaah Islamiyah.
Hambali, who goes by one name, had a forged Spanish passport that portrayed him as a well-groomed businessman when he was arrested in the central Thai city of Ayuthaya in Aug. 2003.
Police arrested Bangladeshi Mohammed Ali Hossain, the man who allegedly supplied Hambali with the passport, last September.
"The people who use these fake documents and passports are terrorists, fugitives and people illegally transferring or laundering money or opening bank accounts," said Colonel Chote Kuldiloke, who oversees such investigations at the Immigration Police Bureau.
It is difficult to determine the extent of terrorist involvement in the fake passport trade in Bangkok. But when suspects are arrested, Thai police often summon their foreign counterparts to inspect the seized documents and help investigate possible ties to terrorism.
The most commonly seized fakes are Belgian, French and Portuguese passports, which Thai police say are easily copied. Thai police seized 353 such passports from a Greek courier en route to London in March last year and 100 from a Spaniard and Dutchman trying to sell them in February to an undercover policeman in Bangkok. Another 452 were taken from Algerian-born Briton Mahieddine Daikh, who was going to deliver them to London early last month.
A Thai policeman who works closely with the Australian police said up to 90 percent of fake passports leaving Thailand are bound for London.
These fakes are passable likenesses of the originals and cost the buyer from US$25 to US$50. They are often used to open bank accounts or rent apartments.
More rare and expensive are the lost or stolen passports -- some of which have been sold by tourists to black market buyers. They are used by criminals to cross borders, where immigration officials' eyes are better trained to spot fakes.
Many of these passports are sold by or stolen from the more than 10 million tourists who visit Thailand each year.
One 24-year-old French tourist said he was offered US$240 by a clean-cut Iranian man in his 30s staying at the same guesthouse he was at on Bangkok's Khao San Road -- the popular backpacker district that police say is a major source of black market passports.
"Some Westerners will sell their passports for US$500 to get quick cash, and then they'll say it was stolen, so it's hard to crack down,'' immigration policeman Chote said.