There have been many strategic rifts between al-Qaeda and ISIS, but they haven’t split on one operational maxim: get fake IDs to avoid detection. The 9/11 Commission concluded in its final 2004 report that “for terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons.” That’s because the 9/11 hijackers used over 30 different fraudulent IDs between 18 terrorists to open bank accounts, obtain credit cards, hide from law enforcement, enroll in flight schools, and board the aircraft that took 3,000 lives.
The loopholes that those al-Qaeda operatives exploited fifteen years ago so still haven’t been closed – and ISIS knows it. It started with the al-Qaeda training manual, which has been circulated by cells around the world since at least 2000, advising that “all documents of the undercover brother, such as identity cards and passports, should be falsified.” It wasn’t just the 9/11 terrorists that took this advice. The instruction was heeded by attempted WMD terrorist Khaleed al-Dawsari, a Boston Marathon bomber, the Burgas bus bombers, and now by ISIS operatives who have produced their own training manual based on many of the same principles.
“How to Survive in the West” which ISIS published earlier this year is a veritable terrorism for dummies training guide, teaching recruits how to sneak into countries, hide, build bombs, plan attacks, maximize civilian casualties, and escape to Islamic State afterwards. Key to doing so, the book advises, is obtaining fake IDs to hide from governments and to “rent cars under fake identity papers and install bombs in them and set off the car bombs near Synagogues, near governmental or police buildings, near gas pipelines or near those who are harming the Muslims.” According to a Department of Homeland Security report, ISIS has seized passport printers from the Syrian government and can print “legitimate looking” Syrian passports. Furthermore, Belgian authorities say two of the ISIS terrorists involved in the Paris attacks used fake IDs to send money and to rent a house before the November 12 operation. But ISIS operatives don’t even need their own printers to obtain fraudulent documents. Any terrorist with an internet connection and a mailing address can order high quality, low cost counterfeit U.S. driver’s licenses from fake ID vendors in China. These documents are being shipped to the U.S. by the thousands, hidden in packages of toys to avoid detection. With one of these documents, a terrorist can move anonymously within our borders and board airplanes, just as the 9/11 hijackers did.
Transportation Security Administration officers, charged with securing our airways, must make quick decisions on the veracity of the documents they are presented with. However, they are under-trained and under-tasked to deal with the mass proliferation of fake IDs. They lack sufficient fraudulent document recognition skills, familiarity with the scope of documents presented to them, and the time to conduct adequate inspection of the millions of IDs they must examine. Because of this, getting onto an airplane with a fake ID has become far too easy. For example, internet users on anonymous chat forums boast regularly about using fake IDs to get through TSA security checks. The flood of fake IDs from China has made TSA’s mission of successfully screening passengers on our planes by quickly examining their driver’s licenses nearly impossible.
It’s been almost 15 years since 9/11 and we still have not implemented the 9/11 Commission’s key recommendation to secure our driver’s licenses. With false documents so easy to obtain and so highly coveted by terrorists, it’s crucial that this country has a national strategy to combat fake IDs. That strategy should include a method of shutting down fake ID vendors outside of U.S. law enforcement jurisdiction, particularly in China. It should include upgrades to driver’s licenses, both in the authentication and adjudication processes and in the physical security features of the documents. It should include enforcement of the REAL ID Act so that driver’s licenses that do not meet federal security standards will not be accepted for federal purposes. And it should include methods of reducing demand for fake IDs through education and enforcement of local laws. As long as our federal government and our local police, as well as our banks, bosses, and buildings, rely on our identity documents, we need a national strategy. Without setting a clear line of attack on fake IDs, you will never know who is really next to you on your planes, trains, and highways.