BEIJING — You’ve boarded an international flight and are looking around at your fellow passengers. All have been thoroughly screened to ensure that no one is carrying a stolen or faked passport, right?
Think again. On flights that don’t involve U.S. and British airports, airlines and law enforcement rarely check international databases to verify that a ticket holder’s passport isn’t fraudulent. Last year, fewer than 20 of the 190 countries that belong to the global police network Interpol used its database to verify passports of international travelers, according to the agency.
Drug runners, illegal immigrants and human traffickers are major users of stolen passports, but aircraft hijackers and other terrorists also have used them as part of numerous attacks worldwide, including 9/11. That’s why the scope of this potential security breach is drawing attention in the search for a Malaysia Airlines jet, missing now for nearly a week with 239 people aboard.
At least two passengers on Flight 370, both Iranian, boarded the flight with passports that later were found to have been stolen. In recent days, investigators have concluded that both were illegal migrants with no links to international terrorism. Various aviation experts have cast doubt on whether they — or the basic problem of bogus passports — had anything to do with the flight’s disappearance.
Even so, there’s no doubt that easy access to stolen passports makes it easier for terrorists to operate, said Paul J. Smith, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
“The weakness in the system is lack of consistent verification of passport numbers against international databases to ascertain whether passports are stolen or otherwise invalid,” said Smith in an email exchange with McClatchy. “That needs to change.”
Interpol has information on nearly 40 million stolen or suspect passports in its database, but the agency’s secretary-general, Ronald K. Noble, is frustrated that so few countries have chosen to access it regularly. Noble said this week that “it remains of serious concern to Interpol that approximately 4 out of every 10 international passengers are not being screened” against the agency’s database.
There was no such screening for those who boarded the Malaysia Airlines flight. The three countries that use the database the most are the United States, Great Britain and the United Arab Emirates, according to Interpol.
Thailand is known to be a hot spot for passport theft and trafficking, with North American or European passports — highly valued because they don’t require many visas to travel internationally — selling for thousands of dollars on the streets of Bangkok.
In the case of Flight 370, the two men whose names were listed on the flight’s passenger manifest, Christian Kozel and Luigi Maraldi, both lost their passports in the popular Thai beach town of Phuket, in 2012 and 2013, respectively. While it isn’t known where the two Iranian men — Seyed Mohammed Reza Delavar and Pouria Nourmohammadi — obtained their stolen passports, they purchased their plane tickets at travel agencies in Pattaya, a Thai city south of Bangkok.
Thailand is hardly the only trade point for stolen and faked passports. Congressional hearings after the 9/11 attacks revealed relationships between al-Qaida and organized crime syndicates that smuggle humans across borders, with brokers in China, India, Africa and the Americas.
In China, a nation with a formidable security apparatus and worries about cross-border terrorism, a search of the Baidu search engine easily produced at least 12 Chinese companies marketing forged passports.
A man who answered at the phone number listed on the Longxiang website Friday said his company could forge a Chinese passport in a day’s time, with delivery to Beijing in three days, at a cost of 2,600 yuan — about $430. While he wouldn’t say where the company was located, Longxiang’s website suggests it’s based in Tianjin or Shijiazhuang, cities to the southeast and southwest of Beijing.
Scott Hamilton, the managing director of the Seattle-based aviation consultancy Leeham Co., said the Flight 370-related revelations about stolen passports “have exposed this giant, giant loophole in the (air security) system.”
Until now, Hamilton said, he had assumed that in a post-9/11 world nearly all nations were routinely cross-checking passport numbers before any passenger flight took off.
“Electronically, you could certainly have it tied into the Interpol database,” he said. “If we can do it here in the United States, there is no reason you couldn’t do it elsewhere.”
Along with stronger cross-checks, the international community needs to guard against “breeder document fraud,” in which bogus birth certificates and other documents are used to obtain passports, said Smith. “The passport, after all, is supposed to be the ultimate identity document, but in some cases it is merely a fiction,” he said.