On 30 November 2010, a 39-year-old Pakistani national named Muhammed Ather
“Tony” Butt was detained with his Thai girlfriend, Sirikalya
Kitbamrung, as they were crossing into Laos from the north-eastern Thai
province of Nong Khai. Later that same day, officers from Thailand’s Department of Special
Investigations arrested a second Pakistani, Zezan Azzan Butt, 27, in the Rat
Burana district of Bangkok. At about the same time, on the other side of the
globe, Spanish police were swooping on a series of addresses in Barcelona,
arresting six Pakistanis and one Nigerian.
The raids were the culmination of a major joint operation, codenamed
Alpha, between Thai and Spanish investigators, prompted by the discovery that a
suspected member of the al-Qaida-inspired terror cell responsible for several
attacks in Madrid – including the 2004 M-11 train bombings, which killed 191
people and left 1,800 injured – was traveling on a false passport.
Information from that suspect would lead, several years later, to the arrest
in September 2009 of an Iranian-born Briton, Ahboor Rambarak Fath, at Bangkok’s
Suvarnabhumi airport – and, eventually, to Tony Butt. Stopped as he got off a
flight from Spain, Fath was carrying a bag of 103 stolen European, Canadian and
Israeli passports destined, he confessed, for the veritable “small forgery
factory” that police found at Butt’s apartment in the hours after his
In one room of the flat, an unnamed DSI agent told the Bangkok Post,
officers discovered computers, a high-definition scanner and printer, and more
than 1,000 stolen passports, photographs and counterfeit data pages for EU,
Canadian, Chinese and Israeli passports, plus assorted sets of US and Schengen visa stickers and stamps.
The gangs have targeted Thailand mainly because of the very large numbers of
European, US and Australian holidaymakers who travel there every year. But the
Bangkok Post’s interview with an unnamed DSI agent quoted him as saying the
country was also attractive because it is relatively easy to enter and leave;
“you can negotiate with some law enforcement people”; and –
importantly – some local officials have not tended to see the forgery of
foreign (as opposed to Thai) passports as a particularly serious offence.
He said an undoctored stolen passport…
typically sells for between $1,500 and $3,000, depending on its condition,
nationality, and the number of years it has left to run. Italian, British,
Spanish and other European passports fetch about $1,000, Tinawut said, while
Israeli passports cost $1,500-$2,000 and Canadian can go for up to $3,000.
International border control authorities were last reminded to tighten up
procedures in 2010, when an Air India Express flight crashed on landing in
Mangalore and it transpired that 10 of the 158 passengers and crew on board –
all of whom were killed – had been traveling on forged or stolen documents,
leading to serious concerns about security checks in Dubai, where the flight