‘All passports that get stolen get sold… and the British one is a strong passport’: The Mail secures a UK passport for £2,500 from people smuggler dubbed ‘The Doctor’
- Abu Ahmad, who is known as ‘The Doctor’, sells stolen passports for thousands
- Many come from Germany and France and British passport is a ‘strong’ product
- The Daily Mail bought a British passport from Ahmad, 40, in Istanbul for £2,500
Just 72 hours after putting out a request for a British passport we secured a meeting with a people smuggler who offered us five.
Abu Ahmad, who is known as ‘The Doctor’, used to operate openly among fellow Syrian migrants hoping to reach to Western Europe.
However, since being put on the Interpol wanted list, the former heart surgeon has gone to ground and regularly changes his phone and home to evade the attention of the authorities.
After negotiating with an intermediary, he agreed to meet us at our room at the Istanbul Grand Hyatt and tell his story.
He insisted his face should be disguised, and made it very clear our contact would suffer if the deal was broken.
The stocky 40-year-old bristled when asked if he was worried that jihadis might be among the thousands of people he had helped smuggle into Europe.
And he pointedly asked the intermediary: ‘Are the people from your side solid or not?’
Relaxing a little, he showed us the passport he was selling and explained: ‘I got hold of this through people who bring us European passports – legitimate ones that haven’t been toyed with. Most of them come from Greece.’
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He said he normally chooses around 15 from a range of 100 passports, selecting those that most look like his clients.
‘I have other contacts who supply passports and all are European,’ he said. ‘Some are Danish, some are from Sweden.’
He says gangs operate around Europe, possibly including the UK, stealing passports and couriering them back to people smugglers.
Ahmad said: ‘All passports that get stolen, get sold. The passport trade in Europe is spreading.
‘A passport is expensive, its price is high. Most of the passports we get are German, French and British.’
Abu Ahmad, who is known as ‘The Doctor’, helps smuggle people across the world by selling them stolen passports
Ahmad sells 15 to 20 passports a month about five of which are British. ‘It’s a strong passport, the British one,’ he said.
Because of extra security measures surrounding direct flights from Turkey to UK, buyers of British passports are told to first go to France and from there fly to Britain.
‘Out of every ten at the airport, seven make it,’ he said.
‘There are people that get caught the first time in the airport. We’ll try again with them after four to five days.
‘But many make it the first time. This goes back to how the person looks, how strong they are, their personality – if they know the language, that all affects how easy it is to move.
‘The passport as well, if it’s legitimate, if the person looks like the picture, that all plays a role.’
Ahmad offers three tiers of service.
The cheapest, passport only, starts at £2,500, leaving the buyer to ‘sort himself out’ and try to reach a European Union country alone.
For an extra £1,300 he arranges a Turkish entry stamp and pays off corrupt officials so that immigration records show the client had legitimately arrived in Turkey. The process takes ten days.
The full-service package costs £7,000.
Ahmad says: ‘It is a huge amount, but I arrange everything to help them leave.
‘I book him a room in a hotel, I get them food, I get them a passport and entrance stamp and then when they leave they have to pay the money.
‘Many people have never been to an airport before. The young man will check in for him, will guide him to security, then we’ll explain to him over the phone where to go until he reaches the gate.
‘We’d have already explained to him any time he talks to us he should delete everything. Every time he contacts us, he has to delete it all from his phone.’
Those making the trip on a fraudulent passport have a choice: either to pass through immigration control on arrival or claim asylum.
Ahmad said: ‘If he looks a lot like the passport picture and he looks decent, he can land with it and pass through in a European airport.’
For £7,000 Ahmad books his client a hotel room, gets them food and hands over a stolen passport. This is the full-service package, with the cheapest being just the passport for £2,500
If the client is planning to apply for asylum on arrival, he is told to go to the toilet on the plane and tear up the passport.
‘We explain to him that once he arrives at the requested country, he shouldn’t hand himself in or leave immediately. He should hang around in transit for two to three hours, then he can go hand himself in or leave the airport,’ said Ahmad.
‘We’d have already told him to not bring up that he came from Turkey. He should say he came from a different country. Egypt, Beirut, any other country besides Turkey.’
Ahmad, a father of three, is a Palestinian-Syrian who studied medicine in Damascus and worked as heart doctor in the city’s Al Bassel Hospital before moving to Aleppo.
He fled his homeland two years after the civil war broke out in 2011.
‘On our way to Greece we sank in the ocean,’ he said. ‘I spent 11 hours swimming and 140 people died. One of my friends drowned.
‘The Turks caught us and saved us and brought us back here. I tried hard to leave for five to six months but it wouldn’t work for me.
‘People started to know me, my friends and acquaintances, that I’ve been living in Turkey for a while.
‘They want to migrate, so they’d call me and say we want to leave, what do you advise us?
‘They trusted me because I am I doctor. And since then I started to work in this field. It happened coincidentally.’
One of the stolen passports used to help get people through passport control and across borders. The Daily Mail bought one from Ahmad in Istanbul for £2,500
Despite living in Turkey for five years Ahmad does not speak a word of the language – or any English.
All his dealings are in Arabic, meaning he is unable to practise medicine in his new home.
‘I can work here but there are conditions,’ he said. ‘I have to get the equivalent of my degree certificate. The language needs to be there and I didn’t learn the language.
‘And I came here to leave. I’m not here to work, I’m here to go to Europe.’
He began trafficking in the coastal town of Mersin, in south-west Turkey, where he led a gang of 37, had contacts across Europe, and regularly paid off police with bribes.
He helped people on to boats, who would then be picked up by ships operated by the bigger smugglers and taken to Italy.
As the money rolled in, Ahmad’s ambitions grew.
He decided to invest in shipping containers to provide the complete service, often transporting up to 1,000 people at a time from Mersin to Italy.
He said: ‘We used to buy most of the ships from Cyprus and put them in international waters and get passengers onto them from or five small boats twenty miles in.’
A terrorist or a criminal could have assumed my identity, says victim
The owner of a British passport bought by the Mail yesterday told of his shock at it being touted by a people smuggler.
Brijen Hathi, a consultant from Milton Keynes, said it was stolen at a Eurostar station during a business trip in March.
It was spirited to Istanbul and put on sale for £2,500.
‘It’s frightening to think it got all the way from Brussels to Turkey,’ said the 46-year-old.
‘It’s very worrying to know that someone else might have got their hands on it and tried to use it.
‘Who knows what kind of person might have been claiming to be me? It could have been anyone, even a terrorist or criminal.’
Mr Hathi said he was having chips at Brussels Midi station with colleagues when he looked down and saw his bag was gone.
‘It was a nightmare. I had everything in there – my phone, my car keys, even my loose change,’ he said.
‘But my passport was obviously the most important thing. I was stranded in Brussels until I could arrange a replacement.’
Mr Hathi spent that evening at a police station reporting the theft.
The following day he went to the British embassy in the Belgian capital where he was given an emergency travel document so he could return to his wife and family.
After loading them onto the ship, they would sail for four days until they reached the Italian coast.
‘In Italy, we used to tell the Red Cross that there’s a ship sinking and then the Red Cross went to pick up the people,’ Ahmad said.
‘Or if the ships were good and didn’t sink, someone from the Red Cross would go and drive it.
‘By that point the captain would have mixed in with the immigrants to hide and they would say that the captain had run away.’
One of Ahmad’s first ships, the Ezadeen, created international headlines in January 2015.
A ‘ghost ship’, it was found carrying hundreds of migrants after apparently being abandoned by its captain in dangerous seas off southern Italy.
One of the migrants raised the alarm using a radio on board, telling coastguards: ‘We’re without crew, we’re heading toward the Italian coast and we have no one to steer.’
A spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration said at the time: ‘This takes the smuggling game to a whole new level.’
Ahmad’s mass-scale trafficking came to an end when one of his ships was seized by rival smugglers, costing him a million dollars and leaving him with huge debts to other criminals.
An investigation by German police saw him put on the Interpol wanted list and he was caught in a dawn swoop on his home in Mersin in 2016.
He recalled: ‘At 6am, there was knocking at the door. I opened for the police.
‘He asked for my passport. He focused on my picture and told me to get dressed. He handcuffed me, and we went outside and saw five cars.
‘My interrogation lasted two days, then they took me to court.’
Ahmad said they arrested ten of his gang of 37 in the crackdown, including his German henchman, but the rest managed to escape.
It turned out the police had been monitoring Ahmad for some time and recording his conversations on 140 CDs.
He was held for four months before being released on bail while the investigation into people-smuggling charges continued.
The week before meeting the Daily Mail he was convicted in Istanbul and jailed for eight years. But his lawyer immediately filed an appeal and he was released again.
The loss of his ship and the police investigation meant he had to move to the city, but it did not stop him working: ‘I have continued to people smuggle, but more secretly. More carefully. I stay out of the picture.
‘I don’t know if the police know. I have no idea honestly. But for sure they’re watching me. I try to change my numbers regularly and change my whereabouts regularly.’
The change in circumstances means Ahmad is now making around £3,500 a month – which is still ten times the average monthly salary in Turkey.
To maintain his network of contacts, he travels widely using an Omani passport and has recently visited North Africa.
After our meeting with him, he was due to travel to Libya and then to Canada. ‘Every time I travel I use a stolen passport,’ he said, smiling.
‘I have never had problems travelling on a stolen passport.’
Stolen papers helping illegals into the EU
More than 200,000 illegal EU border crossings were made last year, according to the European police agency.
The movements were driven by a ‘large, lucrative and sophisticated criminal market’ in black market travel documents.
Europol warned that ruthless and violent gangs selling fraudulent passports and ID cards posed a major security threat.
A third of cases investigated last year by the European Migrant Smuggling Centre, which was set up by the law enforcement agency to tackle people smuggling, had a ‘strong document fraud’ element.
Gangs in Turkey and Greece are said to be frequent offenders, even ‘renting’ travel documents to migrants for later re-use.
Others are sold online on ‘dark net’ marketplaces and on social media.
Robert Crepinko, the head of the European Migrant Smuggling Centre, said: ‘Ruthless and violent criminals are increasingly providing smuggling services to irregular migrants to evade border controls, migration regulations and visa requirements.
‘Most irregular migrants resort to the assistance of profit-seeking smugglers.
‘Migrant smugglers are becoming more and more organised, establishing sophisticated professional networks, operating transnationally from source towards destination countries.’
A Europol report published in April warned: ‘An illicit document industry has sprung up in the past three years, largely driven by the demand created by the smuggling gangs.
Fraudulent or fraudulently obtained travel and identity documents are increasingly part of the smuggling package, especially by air, and raise the price of the service.
‘The abuse of genuine documents by lookalikes continues to be widely used.’
Legal businesses, such as travel agencies, are used to support smuggling by organising flights, transfers and accommodation and helping to arrange forged passports.
‘Criminals employ various marketing techniques, for example offering discounts for additional migrants such as family members or providing entire smuggling packages to include fraudulent travel and identity documents,’ the report added.
The biggest concern for the future is the increased use of high-quality forgeries of documents and new techniques to circumvent biometric checks.
One crime ring caught in Greece last year had a stash of 939 travel documents – two thirds of which had been recorded as lost or stolen in European databases.
Most were snatched from pedestrians, passengers on public transport or parked vehicles by gang members operating in France.
They used courier companies to send the passports back to Athens, where they were sold to migrants from Asia and Africa.
Rob Wainwright, former executive director of Europol, said: ‘Document fraud is of course a crucial enabler for the organised smuggling of migrants’.
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