ISTANBUL — Whoever stole Sam Neher’s passport must have been “pretty crafty,” he thought.
It was a December day, and Neher, a 25-year-old medical student at the University of Michigan, was on vacation in Istanbul with his girlfriend. They visited the Hagia Sophia, the historic mosque whose dome defines the city’s skyline, and wandered through the Grand Bazaar, the covered market that has drawn tourists and pickpockets alike since the 15th century. Then Neher checked his black travel bag — or “man-purse,” as he liked to call it — and saw the pouch where he kept his passport was empty.
If someone had told him that his passport had been sucked into the parallel universe of the war in neighboring Syria — and that his identity would eventually transform from a tourist to an ISIS jihadi and a refugee — he would have laughed. Trekking out to the U.S. consulate, on a hill in Istanbul’s suburbs, he reported the passport stolen and received a temporary ID. From there he continued on his trip, considering the passport incident “just a blip.”
Neher returned to Michigan in January, and as he plowed ahead with the new semester, the Turkish teacups he’d brought home began to gather dust.
Back in Istanbul, his stolen passport was taking on a strange new life.
Turkey is the world’s gateway to the conflict in Syria. NGOs base their staff here, and the U.S. government’s Syria team operates from the same fortress-like consulate Neher visited. Turkey’s government is a key backer for a host of rebel groups, whose leaders meet in five-star Istanbul hotels. Hundreds of miles to the south, fighters and weapons pass through the long and porous border. Turkey is also the main port of call for foreign radicals seeking to join the war, and it hosts more Syrian refugees than any nation — at least 1.5 million and rising daily.
Neher had been surprised at how little of all this he saw. Istanbul buzzed with its regular charm, the captivating city that welcomes around 10 million tourists annually. Yet the moment he lost his passport he was drawn into the conflict — or the passport version of him was, at least.
From the thief who stole it, the passport traveled into an underworld, fueled by Syria’s war, that pulses beneath the city most tourists and residents see.
In this world — one of smugglers, criminals, refugees, and spies — stolen passports are a valuable commodity. Syrians die by the crowded boatload trying to reach Europe’s shores, but a Western passport offers a chance at salvation far removed from the dehumanizing journey by sea. With a passport like Neher’s in hand, a Syrian whose own identity has been shattered in the conflict can take on a new one, for a few hours, and board a plane. Though the scheme doesn’t always work, the hope that it will can fetch a steep price.
The war has killed at least 250,000 people, created nearly 4 million refugees, and displaced 6.5 million people internally. The world has few options for those who escape: Just as there is no real international push to end the conflict, there is no plan to deal with the exodus it has created, which is pushing the global number of refugees to points unseen since the second World War. The migrants drowning in the Mediterranean are one symptom. The booming market in stolen passports is another — one that also shows the Syrian conflict’s unusual reach. Stolen U.S. passports are arriving in Turkey after being snatched from places like Barcelona, where 21-year-old Justin Owen had his “nabbed,” he said, by a thief on a beach. Smugglers in Istanbul say they’ve stashed away hundreds of Western passports like these.
The stolen passports also speak to the mass confusion resulting from the war. As Syria spirals, its people rush out, many losing their IDs along the way, while some are buying fakes. Heading in the opposite direction, foreign fighters flock to Syria from around the globe, usually obscuring their identities. It gets harder to tell who’s who by the day. Murky characters in Turkey and Syria are even peddling photos of U.S. passports — including Neher’s — claiming they’re American members of ISIS. They hope to sell the photos to intelligence agencies or to unscrupulous journalists in search of a story.
In fact, Neher’s passport sits in the hands of a smuggler in Istanbul, who will scan the human tide of refugees to find a person whose face matches Neher’s — and who might want to borrow his identity for a day.
The Hagia Sophia and Grand Bazaar sit in the neighborhood of Sultanahmet, the center of Istanbul’s Old City and nexus of its massive tourism industry. Set on a hilltop, Sultanahmet overlooks the waters of the Bosporus strait, where commercial ships pass between Europe and Asia. On a recent afternoon, a steady stream of tourists poured through the Hagia Sophia’s gates. Visitors from around the world swarmed the plaza outside: a European couple posing with a selfie stick, a stocky American in a Red Sox hat, a pack of Thai tourists trailing a flag-wielding guide.
A 25-minute walk west, the neighborhood of Aksaray is the heart of another kind of city, overflowing with Syrians and continuing to swell. Crowds of refugees sat around fountains in the main square; word of mouth that stretches down to the border told them that if they waited there, they might find a smuggler who can help them reach western Europe. Passage on the deadly sea route can cost between $2,500 and $6,000, and to pay it, Syrians often part with everything they have.
Smugglers convene in the tea shops that line the streets around the square. Rough edges are required to navigate the web of corrupt police, mafia, and other criminals trying to profit from the desperation.
One of these smugglers, who goes by the nickname Abu Mahmoud, works from an office nearby, where a machine that scans passports and tests their validity sits on a corner of his heavy desk. On a recent afternoon, the office was crowded with fellow Syrians who hoped he could help their passage to Europe. Abu Mahmoud organizes voyages that pack hundreds of migrants from Syria and beyond into tattered ships that steal off from the Turkish coast, sometimes sinking as they make for Greece or Italy. Like other smugglers, he also has access to the hundreds of stolen passports that are for sale in Istanbul, which he makes available to clients who can pass for the person inside.
Abu Mahmoud scrolled through a photo gallery of the passports on his iPhone 6. Occasionally, a refugee’s headshot had been pasted beside the info page, to see if it was a good fit. A balding Syrian had a doppelganger in one European passport. “The same, eh?” Abu Mahmoud said.
Abu Mahmoud runs a scheme that helps refugees use the passports at airports in Istanbul and Greece, where they board planes bound for wealthy European countries like Norway and Germany, and then apply for asylum. The venture is more expensive than the sea route — costing up to $17,000 — and also more difficult to pull off. “It depends on your luck, your language, and your money,” another smuggler in Aksaray said.
When a passport is reported stolen, it gets flagged in an international database kept by Interpol. But border authorities receive an alert only if they check the passport against this database, and often they don’t. In a phone interview from Stockholm, a Syrian doctor recounted an elaborate ordeal in which he’d used a Danish passport to fly to Sweden, where he received asylum in 2013. Then he learned Swedish and opened a pharmacy. “It’s a cold country,” he said, “and it’s hard for Syrians to live here, but we don’t have any choice.”
Around the world, the passport system is often gamed in this way. Stolen passports have been used to travel abroad for years — by asylum-seekers, criminals, terrorists — and there was a market for them in Istanbul long before the Syrian war. But the refugee crisis has created a surge in demand. “It’s a serious and expanding problem,” said Michael Greenberger, who directs the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security. “This is more lax a process than most people understand.”
Smugglers like Abu Mahmoud buy the passports from criminals, who steal them in Istanbul and across Europe. Sometimes people with U.S. or European passports even sell them, Abu Mahmoud and other smugglers said, since the price of replacing them is relatively cheap. “It’s easy for you to get another passport,” Abu Mahmoud said. “But for Syrians, if they have the passport, it’s holy like the Qur'an.”
The Syrians in Abu Mahmoud’s office had given up on returning home. The threat is just too great, whether from the regime and its endless airstrikes, or from ISIS, or from other militants. They saw no future in Turkey, whose cities and refugee camps are taking in more and more Syrians. But in Europe they saw a glimmer of hope: a chance to get a job, continue an education, move on with their lives. The tools of the internet age let the Western world look on at the horrors in Syria with ease — and Syrians can look back the other way. But while their digital selves roam free, their passports keep them stuck in place.
A U.S. passport gives its owner the freedom to travel almost anywhere. In most countries, Americans don’t need a visa to enter or can get one easily. A Syrian passport, on the other hand, is extremely restrictive, with the U.S. and most European countries requiring entry visas that are often difficult to obtain. It can make all the difference to have a Western passport in your hand. In Abu Mahmoud’s office, a bulky Syrian sheepishly wondered if he could pass for an American reporter. His friend pointed out that a simple handoff could change the man’s life: “You want to share your passport with this guy so he can go?”
A Syrian in the room — “call me Joshua,” he said — had lived an American life. He spoke English with a New York accent; his wife and daughter, both U.S. citizens, live in Connecticut. Joshua called the U.S. home for more than 15 years before getting deported after a brush with the law, landing in his native Damascus just before the war. He recounted the horrors he’d witnessed there with disbelief, and he was still coming to grips with the journey ahead, which could find him crammed into the hold of a crumbling ship, praying not to die. “I have no choice, man,” he said.
The scale of Syria’s suffering is, in part, a consequence of Western foreign policy. The Obama administration and its European allies encouraged the protest movement that erupted during the Arab Spring, and they called on Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to step down, giving hope to many on the streets. Then they looked on as the regime massacred protesters and other civilians and tortured tens of thousands in its prisons. When an armed opposition rose up, the West got behind it. But they gave their rebel allies only enough money and weapons to survive — not to win the war — helping to set the stage for a prolonged conflict.
Now Syria is engulfed in chaos — ISIS controls large swaths of territory, with the regime leveling much of the rest — and the same tech-savvy activists who once captivated the West are risking their lives to sneak onto its shores. Experts on the region say it will take years to put the country back together, if it’s possible at all. Joshua couldn’t accept that the world had no answers for a refugee crisis no one expects to go away. Some 254,000 Syrians have filed asylum applications from E.U. nations, while as of mid-March, the U.S. had resettled less than 550 Syrians over the course of the war. “They have to find a solution for this,” Joshua said. “They have to.”
To him, smugglers like Abu Mahmoud were “heroes” in this broken world because they were the only people making an effort to fix it.
“I will fuck you!” Abu Mahmoud shouted into his iPhone. A colleague in Greece was trying to sell him stolen Italian ID cards, which Abu Mahmoud was sure wouldn’t work in the airports, prompting a tirade of curses and threats.
Beside him in the office sat a stack of stolen passports, the documents he trusted: Dutch, Danish, French. “The passports are coming from everywhere,” he said.
“I know this one,” said the Syrian journalist, a rail-thin man in his forties with cigarette burns on his dress shirt. He sat at a restaurant in Taksim, Istanbul’s main square, looking down at a photo of Sam Neher.
One day this spring — and it wasn’t clear how or why — the journalist had gotten his hands on a cache of photos, each showing a different stolen Western passport. These were the same sort of pictures smugglers like Abu Mahmoud browse to find matches for refugees in Aksaray.
The journalist, who asked to remain anonymous because he still has family in Syria, sent the photo cache to some activists who work around the border.
And that was how Neher’s — fake — adventure as an ISIS jihadi began.
Pretty soon his photo was being marketed by murky characters who claimed he was a member of the terror group. Many other Westerners unknowingly suffered the same fate. Their images became something like trading cards — sent from smartphone to smartphone across borders and cities. The plan was to try to sell the photos to journalists and spies, with the hope of netting a lucrative payday.
The value of any information tied to the estimated 3,000-plus Western members of ISIS is rising with the chaos in Syria. Western governments don’t know for sure which of their citizens has slipped into the war. A photo of an American jihadi’s passport would be of intense interest to an intelligence agency: It would reveal his name, photo, birthday. This same information could also help land a journalist an attention-grabbing news story.
Neher’s passport came to light by way of a Syrian man in his early twenties, who had been a member of ISIS before defecting last year. He said he had a friend still inside the group who had found dozens of passports of Western ISIS members stashed in one of its headquarters in Syria — and was willing to sell photos of the passports to journalists or intelligence agencies. The young Syrian revealed a photo of one such passport on his smartphone. It was Neher’s.
It took a quick Facebook search to show that far from waging jihad in Syria, Neher was at school in Michigan, happily pursuing his medical degree. Reached on his student email account, he was unnerved by the idea that his passport might be in ISIS’s hands. “My only connection to Istanbul is I’ve been there on vacation. How did you get this email?” he wrote. “I’m a bit weirded out.”
Later, by phone, he described what had happened during his vacation in December. But a question remained: Who actually had his passport?
Neher’s story is not unique. One rebel fighter claimed his battalion had captured dozens of passports from an ISIS office in Syria. He too showed BuzzFeed News a photo. This time the passport belonged to Owen, the young Minnesotan who had his passport stolen in Spain. A well-connected Syrian activist also provided two photos of Western passports that were making the rounds. One belonged to a college sophomore in Boston. The other, once again, was Neher’s. “There are a lot of people who would pay a lot of money for this stuff,” the activist said.
None of these Americans have anything to do with ISIS: While Neher received his doctorate last week, Owen got his bachelor’s degree, and the college sophomore in Boston helped bring a championship to her varsity rowing team. But it would be alarming if their passports and those of the other Westerners had indeed been found with ISIS — as the people selling them claimed. It would suggest that ISIS wanted to use the passports to send members abroad.
That might be happening, but not in this case. Both the former ISIS member and the rebel fighter later admitted that their stories about taking the passports from ISIS were lies. They said they had in fact gotten the passport photos from some activists on the border — the very same activists to whom the Syrian journalist in Istanbul had first sent his cache of photos this spring.
At the restaurant in Taksim, the journalist attributed the passport scam to desperation. Everything in Syria is for sale these days, not just information — from artifacts and oil to factories, carted away piece by piece — while people do what they can to manage as citizens of a country that no longer exists.
The journalist had been a successful engineer before the war. Now, he conceded, he often spent his nights sleeping in the park across the street. “I wish I could use my passport to go to another country,” he said. “If I had money I would buy a stolen passport and do it directly.”
While the rebels and activists trafficked in photos, Neher’s actual passport sat in the hands of a chain-smoking smuggler with long black hair, who put it down on the table of an Aksaray cafe one recent afternoon.
The man, who declined to be named discussing his illegal work, recounted what he knew of the path the passport had taken, passing from smuggler to smuggler — and never leaving the city. He had eventually bought it for $700, he said.
The cafe was a place to sell everything from stolen phones, T-shirts, and IDs to weed. The smuggler showed Neher’s passport to some colleagues at another table, hoping to figure out how it had first entered their world. They took one look and placed a call to the man who had plucked it from Neher’s travel bag.
The thief entered the cafe and proudly pulled an iPad from his backpack. He’d stolen it earlier that day from a tourist in Sultanahmet, one of his favorite haunts. “I can take everything, from people and from shops,” he said. “If you want to buy anything expensive, just call me, and I will steal it and sell it to you for half the price.”
Whenever he manages to steal a passport — “I have stolen a lot,” he said — he sells it to smugglers. So do other thieves in Istanbul and elsewhere, from Sweden to Spain, who are well aware of the rising value of a Western identity.
The smuggler said he’d had trouble finding a buyer for Neher’s passport so far — he was still searching for the right face. Once he found him, he added, “I will send him to Europe.”
Reached by phone in Michigan, Neher was surprised. “I suppose if it can help the refugees, it’s not all bad,” he said.
With additional reporting by Ellie Hall in New York.