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Whispers 001: The Passport Dilemma
Whispers is an intelligence and analysis column focused on a post-democratic Afghanistan. (weekly)
The Passport Dilemma
“There were significant security weaknesses in the Saudi government’s issuance of Saudi passports in the period when the visas to the hijackers were issued.”
Staff statement to National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States on 9/11 hijackers
Alarming reports from multiple sources indicate that the Taliban have issued backdated Afghan passports to foreign nationals. Iranian nationals are said to have received the majority of passports. However, Gulf state nationals, international terrorist groups, and transnational crime networks have also reportedly received backdated passports. While no exact estimates exist yet, the number of passports issued to foreign nationals is thought to number in the thousands, endangering efforts to evacuate at-risk Afghans and increasing worries of an international terrorist attack. What is the end goal for the individuals holding these passports?
Passport offices across Afghanistan began closing in November 2021 without notice. The official reasons given varied from staffing shortages to clearing out a backlog. The rumor intelligence (RUMINT) circulating among the citizenry said it was so senior Taliban leaders could receive their passports in anticipation of expected travel to seek international recognition and lobby for international aid. All are marginally plausible explanations, but the actual reason may be far more worrisome.
In October 2021, sources began sending scattered reports that the Taliban had been approached by foreigners in the country with requests to grant passports to citizens of their countries and on behalf of other international organizations with links to terrorism and transnational crime. Sources claimed that during an early visit to Tehran, a delegate from the Taliban contingent met with several senior representatives of Iran’s Quds Force in a breakout room to hear a proposition concerning Afghan passports. The group purportedly met for three hours behind closed doors with a security detail present.
Separately, it was widely reported that Osama bin Laden’s eldest son, Abdallah bin Laden, had visited Afghanistan in October of 2021 and met with senior members of both ISIS-K and the Taliban. Most anti-terrorism analysts believe he represents al-Qaeda.
In addition, there has been a mountain of reports about suspected terrorists making the journey to Afghanistan. Some have been interdicted by the Taliban and put on public display to show they are taking the terrorism fight seriously. However, it is thought many others slipped through and are currently there or have even been welcomed.
In March, the Taliban appointed a new Passport Director-General in an effort to crack down on the illicit sale of passports to Afghans. The new director immediately closed offices nationwide and ordered a series of audits focused on reforming the process. Sources stated that several data processing personnel were tasked with “cleaning up” the records, which may be related to the illegal passports issued to foreigners.
Passports are often one of the primary barriers keeping terrorists from being able to expand their operations. INTERPOL says “Stolen and lost passports are highly valuable to terrorists and international criminals who use them to cross borders undetected.” Official, backdated passports present even fewer issues when traveling, making them an enormous asset. It is unsurprising that a variety of unsavory groups would quickly take advantage of a weakened state sympathetic to their cause.
Research has shown that while most terrorists think globally, they primarily act locally with over 50% of the terrorist attacks reported since the 1970s having taken place within 30 miles of a terrorist’s habitual location. The security scrutiny inherent in modern international travel has provided an edge to security forces that most terror organizations simply can’t overcome. Despite that, terrorist groups still aspire to global action.
The importance of official, back-dated passports was proven by al-Qaeda’s exploitation of the weaknesses in the Saudi Arabian passport system to get identity documents for the 9/11 terrorist attack. Although al-Qaeda is believed to have exceptional document forging capabilities, their preference was to use official passports to minimize risk. Terror groups prefer official passports to forged ones, in part because the introduction of biometric data reduces the efficacy of forged documents.
We do find the reports credible and can find no alternative suitable explanation for the extended periods the passport offices have been closed. There are a plethora of foreign terror groups in Afghanistan who are known to have historically exploited fragile states to obtain documents, launder money, and procure weapons.
Although it is not clear who has received the passports in Afghanistan, it seems plausible that organizations with close ties to the Taliban and Haqqani Network would be the main benefactors. Furthermore, given the large numbers of Iranian passports reported to have been issued, it is logical to assume Iran may have taken advantage of the situation to provide travel opportunities for some of their scientific, military, and finance personnel as a tactic to skirt sanctions and avoid scrutiny.
Based on the practices employed by most organizations involved in evacuation efforts, it is unlikely these individuals could infiltrate the refugee population en masse. Even if it were possible, the additional screening processes that have been set up in refugee processing centers pose a significant threat of discovery. Therefore, it is logical to assume those individuals traveling on appropriated Afghan passports would depart the country via regularly scheduled commercial flights or through a secondary point of embarkation, not posing as a refugee.
The international community can minimize risk by continuing/instituting the following procedures:
Closely screen Afghan passports.
Work with Afghan organizations that have maintained contact with at-risk Afghans.
Hire vetted Afghan linguists to assist with screening work.
Require additional scrutiny of persons with ethnic characteristics, accents, or language usage that is atypical for Afghans.
Assume the Taliban will likely continue this process for as long as they are in power.
While we believe in the importance of constant vigilance, we do not believe a terrorist attack is necessarily imminent as a result of these clandestine passport processes, nor do we assess that large numbers of potential terrorist-affiliated persons have traveled out of the region on these passports. We highly recommend the international community closely monitor the situation.