Saudi Authorities Crack Down on Forgery Networks

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 16

In recent weeks, there has been a vigorous publicized crackdown on document forgery and identification counterfeiting in Saudi Arabia. Such criminal offenses in the kingdom have largely been committed by people working illegally or avoiding deportation. On a number of occasions, however, al-Qaeda militants have been discovered with false IDs such as passports, which they have used to avoid detection and capture. While the Saudi media reports on periodic arrests of forgers, the last several weeks have seen an increased number of apparently connected investigations, operations and arrests led by the Passport Department. This suggests that the Passport Department has launched coordinated efforts involving the regional passport departments located throughout the kingdom. Moreover, this reporting seems to coincide with the increased anti-terrorism programming that has been broadcast throughout Saudi Arabia since the announcement in late April of a series of security arrests (Terrorism Focus, May 1).

In the Eastern Province city of Dammam, authorities took a Somali national considered by reports to be one of the most proficient forgers in the kingdom into custody (Arab News, May 14). He has been accused by the Passport Patrol Unit of selling fake documents to raise money to send back to Somalia. When he was apprehended, the man had in his possession a number of high-quality fraudulent documents, including iqamas (residency permits). Passport authorities learned of his activities after the recent arrest of one of his close associates who was another well-known forger. A similar case took place in January involving an Ethiopian man operating in Makkah (Arab News, January 22). A subsequent operation conducted by investigators from the Jeddah Passport Office led to the arrest of an Afghan forger (Arab News, May 21). The man was involved in the forgery of iqamas and other official documents. When he was taken into custody, it was noted that he was in possession of a number of false passports and iqamas. In March, a ring of Bangladeshi forgers, who were operating in Riyadh and possessed a stamp from the traffic police, was broken up (Saudi Gazette, March 18).

The most recent development took place in Jeddah, where a sting led by the Passport Department’s investigative division arrested 18 security guards in possession of fake tribal IDs (Arab News, May 22). Saudi tribesmen along the Yemeni frontier use tribal IDs to certify their ability to work until they receive official state-issued documentation. All 18 men were employed as private security guards at a Jeddah-area hospital, and the men have subsequently confessed to buying the forged papers in order to work. Some men paid SR300 ($80) for the IDs in Yemen, while others were reported in the Saudi press as paying as much as SR500 ($133) in Jeddah. An investigation is now underway to identify the source of the counterfeit documents.

According to the Passport Department’s statistics, last year more than 2,200 individuals were involved in the forgery of passports, iqamas and other official documents. In that same year, officials seized numerous forged documents and other counterfeit items, including: 703 passports, 2,196 iqamas, 565 iqama extension stickers, 10 “official” seals, 55 identification letters and 37 entry visas (al-Madina, February 9; Saudi Gazette, February 10). According to the government’s statistics, the majority of these crimes are committed by Asians and Africans mostly in order to facilitate the illegal labor market, although Yemeni criminal networks have been reported to be increasingly active in this trade. There is some indication (as mentioned above with the case of the Somali) that the money raised through the sale of doctored papers in the kingdom is sent abroad.

Identification documents are a serious security concern in the kingdom. In a number of the attacks since the start of Saudi Arabia’s current anti-terror campaign, al-Qaeda operatives have used fake uniforms, improvised checkpoints, vehicles modified to resemble official police or Aramco cars and forged papers. On a number of occasions, militants have been apprehended with counterfeit IDs and passports. As the case with the tribal IDs demonstrates, the ways in which fake papers can be used to move undocumented people from Yemen to Saudi Arabia raise concerns.

In order to combat this and other crimes, the Saudi government is introducing new “smart” tamper- and forgery-resistant documents like iqama cards, increasing the training given to security officers to combat forgery and introducing new digital fingerprinting technologies (Arab News, February 27; Arab News, February 4; Saudi Gazette, February 10). The government’s recent efforts are encouraging because they demonstrate that the authorities are seeking to lessen the opportunities for abuse that currently exist. Clamping down on the petty forgers will also make it more difficult for extremists to obtain extra passports and identity documents. Such security policing efforts taken now should show counter-terrorism benefits in the future.