Passports often hold clues to terrorism

Document fraud is often used to conceal crime, officials say.


DETROIT -- When a Saudi Arabian airline passenger arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport weeks ago, red flags went up, landing him in jail.

He had a pressure cooker in his luggage — a similar device was used in the Boston Marathon bombings.He gave conflicting stories about the cooker.And perhaps the biggest flag of them all: His passport had a page missing.

"You have got to say, 'These are not ordinary times,' " said criminal defense lawyer James Howarth, who has represented dozens of travelers detained at the border, including the Saudi passenger, whom he believes did nothing wrong.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, passports have been scrutinized like never before as federal agents try to keep terrorists and criminals from entering the U.S. Over the last decade, the number of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents has doubled, from about 10,000 in 2004 to a record 21,000-plus agents today.

There's plenty keeping them busy.

In 2012, a record 98 million international travelers entered the U.S., a 12% increase over 2009, and the number is projected to increase up to 5% each year for the next five years. On a typical day, according to the border protection agency, agents inspect nearly 1 million travelers, including Americans. In 2012, the agency saw more than 350 million travelers total.

Passport fraud, law enforcement officials said, often is used to conceal criminal activities, such as drug trafficking, human trafficking and terrorism. The passport, they said, can provide clues to such activities, especially when it has been altered, appears phony or has a page missing.

Even the slightest tweak could get flagged.

Howarth said his client's case offers a lesson to travelers: "Closely check and make sure that your documents are in order and that you haven't got something that somebody would think is funny."

Underwear bomber

Increased U.S. scrutiny of travel documents was triggered by the 2009 Christmas Day terrorist attack by Nigerian passenger Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane with a bomb strapped to his underwear. His plan failed and he was sentenced to life in prison on terrorism charges.

Abdulmutallab had a visa and should have been screened before boarding the plane after a warning from his father that he had become radicalized. But U.S. officials didn't know he posed a threat until the plane was in the air.

Since 2001, the State Department has revoked about 60,000 visas for a variety of reasons, including nearly 5,000 for suspected links to terrorism; 1,451 of those occurring since the attempted Christmas Day attack over Detroit.

For U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, who started her job as Detroit's top federal prosecutor in the days before the Christmas Day terrorist attack, border officials can't be overly cautious when it comes to scrutinizing travel documents.

"A passport is both an identity document and a road map showing where a person has traveled. A passport that has been intentionally altered may indicate that an individual is attempting to hide travel to a particular country and perhaps his activities there," said McQuade. "If travel locations are concealed, lines of inquiry that would otherwise be pursued by border officials are effectively cut off."

In the last year, McQuade's office has handled more than 20 passport and document fraud cases — that's more than one a month — in U.S. District Court in Detroit. The defendants have come from all over: Brazil, Mexico, Senegal, Albania, Honduras, France, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Africa.

Some of the cases involved foreigners who were trying to flee to the U.S. for a better life or those who had previously been deported and tried to sneak back in again.

One case involved an African man who was convicted of passing off four African children as his own by using fake passports then abusing them for years in his Ypsilanti, Mich., home.

Another case involved an Albanian man who was linked to a Michigan driver's license that was found on a suicide bomber who attacked a bus of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria in July 2012.

The most recent is Saudi Arabian traveler, Hussain Al Kwawahir, who remains jailed since his May 11 arrest.

"The combination of facts, including an altered passport and false statements, raised concerns," McQuade said. "Although we never want to jump to conclusions, we have a duty to conduct an appropriate investigation to protect the public."

Trying to sort it out

Howarth, Al Kwawahir's defense attorney, said he believes the government had no choice but to arrest his client given the information agents had when he entered the U.S.

But he insists his client will be released when all the facts are sorted out.

"It's unfortunate that they couldn't clear it up more quickly," Howarth said, noting federal authorities have been cooperative. "The plan has not been, 'Let's go to war.' It's 'Let's see if we can straighten it out.' "

According to court documents, during a baggage exam, officers found a pressure cooker in Al Kwawahir's luggage. Initially, Al Kwawahir told officers that he brought the cooker for his nephew because such devices are not sold in America. He then changed his story and said his nephew had purchased a pressure cooker in America before, but that it was cheap and broke after the first use, so he brought him one from Saudi Arabia.

“A passport is both an identity document and a road map showing where a person has traveled.”

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade

The officers then read him his Miranda rights.

According to Howarth, his client — a 33-year-old father of three children — did nothing wrong, but was scared and didn't know how to communicate because he doesn't speak English. His story, he said, was true: He bought his nephew a pressure cooker to prepare Middle Eastern meals. Moreover, Howarth said, his client didn't know that a pressure cooker was used in the Boston Marathon bombings.

"He had heard that a bomb went off in the U.S., but had no idea that it went off in a pressure cooker," Howarth said. "When you get caught in a whirlpool of an interrogation ... you may state things with greater strength than you mean. He is scared. He wants to go home."

According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, getting hassled at the border is one of the biggest complaints the council receives every year from travelers. Complaints are especially high when a terrorist attack occurs, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, triggering more scrutiny.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that sometimes, there's "an overreaction to a tragedy" and "ordinary people just get swept up in it without really knowing why."

But he understands the scrutiny of passports. And he cautions all travelers to be truthful with federal agents.

"People don't realize the repercussions. ... You cannot lie to any law enforcement officer," Hooper said, adding: "Everybody who enters the country should be fully identified. And it should be verified and that they're not up to anything."

How is passport fraud committed?

• Assuming the identity of a deceased person to apply for passports

• Using phony support documents, such as fake birth certificates

• Using stolen and altered passports

• Circumventing the two-parent signature rule for children

Offenders commit passport crime to:

• Conceal their identity, such as fugitives and terrorists

• Illegally enter the U.S. or avoid deportation

• Commit financial crimes and bank fraud

• Facilitate other criminal activity such as drug trafficking or alien smuggling