The alias industry — building up fake identities, complete with official documentation — is flourishing. It’s not even that hard to do, says Nigel West.
It is not only schizophrenics and victims of identity theft who experience a double life. Even since thriller writer Freddie Forsyth revealed the technique known as ‘tombstoning’ to acquire authentic passports in false names, in The Day of the Jackal in 1971, an unknown number of people have, for a variety of motives, successfully adopted an alias persona.
Labour minister and fraudster John Stonehouse switched identities after faking his own death on a Miami beach in 1974 before beginning a new life in Australia with his mistress. Stonehouse took the risk of applying for a passport in the name of a recently deceased constituent and was caught, whereas making an application in the name of a child who has died decades earlier reduces the chances of an unforeseen encounter that could prove embarrassing.
Intelligence agencies routinely issue personnel with alias or ‘black’ documentation, usually a package that includes a valid credit card, a driver’s licence and a passport. The American Central Intelligence Agency has an entire branch devoted to the creation of these essential items. However, there are considerable problems associated with this material, and recently a CIA officer reported that he had noticed a common, potentially fatal flaw in all the credit cards he had been assigned.
The internet era has made essential the task of building ‘legends’ that necessarily accompany alias documentation, as claims about someone’s background can now be verified almost instantly. A vehicle checkpoint deep in the Congo, manned by an apparently unsophisticated militia, may reveal the existence of a laptop on which they can quickly find, for example, a graduation photo of the year a suspect has insisted he or she attended a particular college. In such circumstances a tiny slip can have deadly consequences.
Intelligence agencies often require their officers to adopt an alias when travelling abroad so as to minimise the chances of an embarrassing abduction. When Bill Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, was seized by Hezbollah in 1984, the debacle led to a political crisis and the Iran-Contra scandal in the scramble to negotiate his release. By the very nature of their work, intelligence officers must travel the world, and the received wisdom, especially during the era when skyjacking was commonplace, was that carrying a Canadian or Irish passport would attract less hostility in the event of terrorists taking control of a plane, train or ship.
The Israelis in particular have always been heavily reliant on so-called ‘illegals’, chiefly because Mossad has never been able to operate under the diplomatic immunity offered by the Vienna Convention in their principal target Arab countries of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Somalia and Sudan. The absence of a local embassy or consular premises anywhere in the Gulf or the Maghreb meant Israeli intelligence professionals had to work under commercial, medical and journalistic covers so as not to end up a corpse dangling from a lamp-post in Damascus, as happened to Eli Cohen in 1965. Cohen, who posed as a Syrian Arab businessman returning from Argentina, had moved to Argentina in 1961 to establish his cover.
In September 1997, ten Israeli assassins, all carrying Canadian passports, attempted to kill the Hamas leader, Khaled Mashal, in an Amman street using a deadly nerve toxin. On that occasion two of the Mossad team, calling themselves Shawn Kendall and Barry Beads, were apprehended by a bodyguard after they had administered the poison, forcing the Israeli government to agree to a deal releasing the pair in return for a supply of the antidote. When the Jordanians recovered the Canadian passports, Israel promised Ottawa that there would be no repetition.
However, the continuing Israeli demand for high-quality neutral and unobtrusive travel documentation led to the exposure and arrest of Mossad nominees who were caught in New Zealand seeking to acquire birth certificates and other paperwork required to achieve an authentic passport for a false identity. Their attempt to obtain passports — one in the name of a wheelchair-bound victim of cerebral palsy — was sophisticated and involved post-office boxes, opening a false travel agency and the skilful duping of a local doctor.
The two men arrested in July 2004, Uriel Kelman and Eli Cara, were classic examples of agents being transited through a third country in order to erase their past and develop a new persona in anticipation of a future mission in a potentially hostile territory (the mission ringleader, Zev Barkan, and a fourth man, Tony Resnick, were never apprehended). Better that sloppy tradecraft result in a small fine and six months in an Auckland prison, as happened to the duo, than a firing squad in Syria.
Use of illegals has long been part of the Russian intelligence culture, and the KGB deployed hundreds of agents into the West during the Cold War, often with Finnish or Canadian travel documents supposedly issued in regional capitals where record-keeping had been sloppy or susceptible to bribery or had suffered loss through fire or conflict. During the Finnish campaign during the Second World War, the Soviets had exploited the opportunity to plunder Finnish archives and make long-term use of local birth records. Passports issued on the evidence of forged papers originating from Soviet-occupied Finland continue to turn up.
In March 1991, Soviet agent Anvar Kadyrov was arrested in New Zealand trying to obtain a passport with a birth certificate in the name of a New Zealander who was born in 1960 but died as a child. He was deported to Moscow via London, where he declined the opportunity to defect.
In May 1992, two espionage suspects were arrested in Finland carrying British passports in the names of James Peatfield and Anna Marie Nemeth. Both were really Russians, identified as Igor and Natalia Ljuskova, apparently undertaking a preliminary training assignment. Known as stazhirovka or ‘staging’, such assignments are an essential feature of illegal operations and are used to establish the credentials and documentation of agents before their deployment on their main mission. The real Peatfield and Nemeth, living in England, were astonished and mystified by the use of their identities by the Russians.
As the Israelis and Russians have proved, every system designed to verify identities can be circumvented, and not all those who opt to create an alternative identity are illegal immigrants, benefit cheats or fraudsters. Many celebrities with stage names are granted passports in both identities, and doubtless Maurice Micklewhite, Reg Dwight and David Jones (Sir Michael Caine, Sir Elton John and David Bowie respectively) have endorsements in their passports confirming their pseudonyms. The late German Chancellor, Willy Brandt — once Herbert Frahm — was driven to change his name by fear of reprisals against his family by the Nazis.
Paradoxically, despite the measures imposed by anti-money-laundering regulations intended to inhibit terrorists and organised crime, it remains relatively easy to change billing names on utility accounts, take driving tests in false names and obtain gym, library and other membership cards upon which an alternative life can be built. Astonishingly, most local authorities in Britain take no steps to verify the accuracy of names added to their electoral rolls, a publicly available document and one of the basic building blocks of alias development. Similarly, some states in the US issue photo identity cards with minimal supporting proof.
Provided fraud or tax evasion is not intended, the chances of being detected are slight and the penalties in most jurisdictions are less than draconian. Individuals with dual citizenship have the added opportunity to change name legitimately in a different jurisdiction, opening many more possible permutations to what has become an alias industry.