British investigators' report into passport forgeries used in Dubai killing says data was stolen in border checks.
Passing through Israel's Ben Gurion airport, a few kilometres east of Tel Aviv, is a unique experience no first-time visitor is likely to forget.
It represents the pinnacle of modern aviation security. Baggage is passed through giant, state-of-the-art machines, and travellers — both arriving and leaving — are frequently subjected to lengthy, personal and repetitive questioning by officials, on their ethnic background and that of any local acquaintances they may have made.
It is not at all uncommon for the mostly youthful immigration officers to wander off, passports and tickets in hand, ostensibly to consult with their seniors. Surrendering documents at check-in or at immigration has hitherto been considered a necessary evil for all those travelling in and out of Ben Gurion.
But the evidence that the Israeli state has been taking the information gleaned from these inspections to create cloned identities for its spies introduces a new level of risk to the experience. The report by the U.K.'s Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) into the use of cloned British passports in the Dubai assassination makes clear their view that this is what happened as Britons travelled through the airport in the months and years before the plot was hatched to kill Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.
The Soca report concluded that the passports must have been cloned at the airport or at other interfaces with Israeli officialdom, such as airline offices in other countries. There were no other links between the 12 individuals whose identities were stolen.
According to insiders, the language in the Soca report, produced after a four-week investigation, was “direct” and the findings unequivocal: the inquiry showed that the victims' data was taken, stored and passed on when they handed their passports to Israeli officials or those linked to them.
“We cannot pin it on individuals, but the evidence draws us to the conclusion that the only place these passports could have been cloned is when they were inspected at the Israeli border or in other countries, where they were passed to Israelis,” said one source.
In some cases, this information theft had taken place several years before the assassination. One of the Britons involved told investigators he had not travelled out of Israel for more than two years.
Soca concluded the report on their findings last week and handed it to the U.K. Home Office on Friday, which passed it to the U.K. Foreign Office on Monday. It then moved from the criminal sphere to the diplomatic, as Foreign Secretary David Miliband translated the raw findings into concrete measures to be taken against Israel: the expulsion of a diplomat and a travel warning that Israeli officials were not to be entrusted with passports.
The Foreign Secretary's decision to accuse Israel directly in Parliament on Tuesday reflected both the certainty among British officials of Israeli state involvement, and the anger among diplomats and security officials at such a blatant infringement of British sovereignty. At least 12 British passports were used in the Mabhouh plot, more than any other nation's.
That irritation was heightened by Israel's record. In 1986, eight British passports were found inside an Israeli embassy envelope in a West German telephone box, apparently left there by an absent-minded Mossad agent.
The next year, a Palestinian found with an arms cache in the eastern English port of Hull turned out to be a double-agent working for the Mossad, taking part in a covert operation Israel had omitted to tell Britain about. After investigating operations by the Mossad, the government expelled an Israeli diplomat, Arie Regev, for “activities incompatible with his status”. And the Israeli government of the day gave an assurance that such transgressions would not be repeated.
Today, Britain is looking for similar assurances.
According to those close to the Soca investigation, detectives soon realised the passports involved were no ordinary forgeries of the type most often seen during inquiries into organised crime, terrorist support networks and money launderers in the U.K. and abroad.
Most experts agree that British passports are notoriously difficult to forge, and those which do come to light are either poorly doctored originals, or passports created from fake documents.
“It is rare for us to see forged British passports,” said one police expert. “When we do, they are not often of the quality which could pass through an international border.” So when investigators from Soca examined the details of the passports, they immediately noticed the difference.
“These were incredibly good forgeries. They are not the thing that anyone could do,” said an investigative source.
“The originals were still in the hands of their owners and someone had used the information to create a new document. The quality of the forgeries made it highly likely that there was state involvement.” The accusations will put considerable strain on Britain's relationship with Israel.
But MI6 (British intelligence), which pursued its own informal investigation into the affair, is likely to maintain its close, professional relationship with the Mossad.
Key findings from the Soca investigation have been passed to the United States and to investigators in the United Arab Emirates, who are leading the inquiry into the murder of Mabhouh. To all intents and purposes the Soca investigation is now closed, although detectives may still be asked to provide additional information to the Foreign Office or the Dubai authorities. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010