Revealed: Pakistan's 'cottage industry' in forged documents sought by terrorists
Forged degree certificates, fake income tax returns and bogus payslips were on sale in Pakistan yesterday all valuable tools to help terrorists obtain student visas for Britain.
By Emal Khan, in Peshawar and Andrew Alderson
Last Updated: 10:23PM BST 11 Apr 2009
An investigation, in the wake of last week's arrests over a suspected terror plot, has revealed that a set of documents could be obtained for less than 100 by anyone seeking to support their application to study in the UK.
As concerns grew about the screening processes that allowed 11 of the 12 bomb suspects to enter Britain, self-styled “immigration consultants” in Pakistan were hard at work trying to beat the system.
One said he could provide a convincing certificate from a Pakistani university for 100 on a while-you-wait basis.
A corrupt “cottage industry” has grown up to serve a huge market in young men desperate to find a way of working overseas in the Gulf, North America and Europe, with Britain the favourite destination.
Terrorists can also, however, take advantage of any lax checking procedures.
Many British universities have representative offices in Pakistan's main cities through which they recruit students.
At least one of the suspects arrested last week obtained a student visa after applying to John Moores University in Liverpool through its Peshawar representative office, according to one of its managers.
This newspaper can also disclose that deep diplomatic tensions have arisen over the arrest by Britain of 11 Pakistani nationals suspected of planning a terror attack.
According to Pakistani officials, their country is angry and puzzled that the British Government and its police forces have not provided information on the arrested men.
They say that the reluctance to hand over the names, addresses, telephone records and other information on the suspects to Pakistan indicates a lack of trust.
On Friday, Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, was dragged into a row over the flawed student visa system that allowed the 11 Pakistanis suspects to arrive in Britain unnoticed.
Mr Brown had said that Pakistan “has to do more to root out terrorist elements in its country.”
But Wajid Shamsul Hasan, the Pakistan High Commissioner in London, hit back at Britain by saying: “It is at your end you have to do something more.”
Police forces arrested 12 men on Wednesday in a series of raids across north-west England.
Officers are investigating to see if there are further members of the alleged plot team beyond the 11 on their initial wanted list who are still in Britain. The 12th man arrested is British-born.
Detectives are confident that any threat of an imminent terror plot has been foiled. In the words of one senior investigator, officers swooped on 14 addresses because they believed that “sometimes disruption is better than cure”.
Anti-terror officers were forced to bring forward their arrests by up to nine hours because details of the raids were inadvertently leaked by Bob Quick, Britain's most senior anti-terrorism officer.
He resigned on Thursday morning from his post as an Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard after he was photographed walking into Downing Street with an exposed briefing paper giving secret details of Operation Pathway.
In the wake of the arrests, The Sunday Telegraph carried out inquiries in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Peshawar to see how easy it is to obtained forged documents.
The paperwork is designed to convince British immigration officials that applicants want to learn and can pay for their courses, even though some are virtually illiterate and only want jobs.
Britain has a reputation for being easy to get into: the United States, whose immigration officials imposed tougher security rules post-9/11, is most likely to reject applications.
Nearly 4,000 immigration consultants are thought to be operating in the capital Islamabad and its twin city Rawalpindi.
Officials for the British High Commission in Islamabad face a stream of visa applications and they play a vital role in judging whether applicants are genuine students, would-be illegal immigrants, or terrorists trying to trick their way in.
Every year 10,000 student visas are granted in Pakistan, including many for genuine British universities who have set up offices in the country to attract students. Up to 20 times as many, however, are rejected.
Visa applications for students mean big money for some companies. “It is a roaring business,” said Siddiqa Awan, 40, a consultant at International Centre for Study Exchange (ICSE), whose legitimate office was in a cramped basement in an Islamabad shopping centre.
A sign outside boasted that the business was British Council-certified and affiliated to Grafton College of Management Science and King's College of Management in the UK.
“On average we process the applications of nearly 100 students for the UK alone every month,” she said.
ICSE was not offering forged documents,. Ms Awan said students would pay a 150 deposit once accepted at Grafton College
Pakistani consultants have become notorious for tricks. British officials have noticed on occasion the same pile of dollar bills being presented by several applicants.
It means an agent has lent the wad of cash to a series of applicants to “prove” that they had the cash to come to Britain.
Another consultant, Major Najeeb Ahmed, admitted that the business has lost its respectable image.
“When I started eight years ago there were only a few consultants who had been authorised by colleges to work on their behalf. Now people who are in the property business or run grocery shops are also working for UK colleges,” he said.
Some agents were surprisingly candid. “Colleges back in London can be a scam, they are just one-room colleges,” one said.
Under the controversial points-based system, visa applicants are not routinely interviewed. Biometric checks – fingerprinting and iris scans – are made, but that is no deterrent to so-called “clean skins” with no terrorist records.
Like most British universities, John Moores University has subcontracted representative offices in all of Pakistan's main cities, including Peshawar where Taliban influence is growing.
The university has offices in some of the world's most unstable and dangerous countries, including Iran, Nigeria, and Libya.
Many other legitimate British universities have offices in Pakistan. As well as providing lucrative earnings, attracting Pakistani students to Britain is regarded as a way of winning over young Pakistanis in the battle for hearts and minds against terrorism.
Many of the forgeries are crude and unlikely to fool immigration officers. But others are sophisticated. And the size of the industry shows how much effort is put in to thwart the system at every stage.
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