A Pakistani passport forger whose fakes may have been sold to Islamic State operatives has been arrested in Thailand, police said on Friday, ending a career that helped people slip into Europe illegally.
Mohammad Iqbal, 52, was arrested on Jan. 14 in a Bangkok suburb 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,” Commander of the Immigration Bureau Lt-Gen Suttipong Vongpint told reporters in Bangkok.
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.
Iqbal, who is believed to have operated from Thailand for more than 10 years, was charged with falsifying passports, visa seals and trafficking of fake passports a few days after police seized him as he pulled into his Bangkok condo on a motorbike.
Earlier this week defense minister Prawit Wongsuwan linked Iqbal to a group selling passports to the Islamic State. “The suspect has falsified visa and passports for the I.S. group with the attempt to make them travel from the Middle East into Thailand,” he said before adding that the attempts were unsuccessful.
But at Friday’s press conference officials downplayed the I.S. connections in favor of a portrait of a businessman who welcomed all clients. “Based on the investigation he will sell to every group, not particularly to I.S., he just made them by orders,” 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 MH370. Two Iranians traveling 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 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 his 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 to many countries and is Southeast 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.