The mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 on Friday has fueled all manner of speculation, from the sensational (the plane was hijacked by Uighur Muslims) to the banal (the plane disintegrated in midair because of a mechanical defect) and the dramatic but unlikely (the pilot deliberately crashed it into the sea). But one aspect of the story has captured the popular imagination like none the other: The discovery that two of the passengers on the flight had boarded using stolen passports.
Once that bit of information emerged, a new narrative quickly dominated the news cycle: That an act of terror had brought the plane down. Perhaps the unknown passengers were terrorists who had hijacked or otherwise sabotaged the plane. Authorities said they couldn't rule out the possibility, while reporters from around the world were quick to point out other instances in which stolen passports have facilitated terrorism. Compounding the mystery, the Financial Times reported Monday that an Iranian man known only as "Mr. Ali" had purchased the airline tickets on behalf of the passengers in question, stirring up rumors about a possible connection to Tehran, a government the United States and its allies see as one of the foremost state sponsors of global terrorism.
Just hours after the explosive FT report, however, new evidence suggests that the stolen passports probably had no connection whatsoever to the plane's disappearance. As one senior American counter-terrorism official told the Los Angeles Times, "There is no indication this is a terrorist attack; stolen passports are certainly not indicative of a terrorist attack." The Guardian further noted that stolen passports are more often used for the purposes of human trafficking and other illicit travel, than for the purpose of committing acts terrorism. A 2010 Air India Express crash that killed 160, the paper reminded readers, revealed 10 passengers with fake or stolen passports -- none of them terrorists. John Magaw, the former head of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, reiterated the point to the BBC, stating that "quite a few people" who travel in Asia do so with "improper identification or false identification."
In many parts of Asia, lax border protections, spotty airport security, and the wide availability of fraudulent IDs attract illegal migrants and smugglers hoping to get to Europe. The mysterious "Mr. Ali" may have simply been a businessman making a living off of those desperate to reach European shores. Adding an unusual twist to the story, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Syrian civil war may be fueling such illicit travel, with Thai officials reporting "a surge in Syrian nationals using stolen or tampered passports to escape the country's civil war by transiting through Thailand and other countries to enter the European Union." In one recent case, 37-year-old Noor Aldeen Alzalek used a fake German passport -- bought in Cairo for $7,000 -- to make his way from to Thailand via Malaysia, according to the Journal. He was arrested at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport. Another six people from Syria were detained in Thailand last month, the Journal said.
INTERPOL, an international clearinghouse for law enforcement information, maintains an international database of more than 40 million stolen travel documents, but few countries -- including Malaysia -- systematically screen passports using the database. The speculation surrounding the stolen passports used to board flight 370 provoked a sharp response from INTERPOL Secretary General Robert Noble, who has long lamented airlines' failure to regularly screen passports.
"This is a situation we had hoped never to see," he said in a statement. "For years INTERPOL has asked why should countries wait for a tragedy to put prudent security measures in place at borders and boarding gates...If Malaysia Airlines and all airlines worldwide were able to check the passport details of prospective passengers against INTERPOL's database, then we would not have to speculate whether stolen passports were used by terrorists to board MH 370."
The mystery of the stolen passports, in other words, may reveal less about the threat of global terror and more about the prevalence and apparent ease of illicit travel in Asia.