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Back to Archives | Back to October 2007 Contents 

Operation Triple X: Hitting Hard at Illegal Document Trade

By Richard J. Griffin, Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.

One good tip, some old-fashioned police work, and a solid partnership with a host of law enforcement authorities around the world was all it took to shut down more than two dozen document counterfeiting operations in Indonesia, enhancing U.S. national security.

n May 2005, Diplomatic Security Service special agent Kevin Whitson was invited to observe a police raid on a counterfeit-document broker in Surabaya, Indonesia. As the regional security officer (RSO) for the U.S. Consulate General in Surabaya, Whitson is the top security and law enforcement official at the U.S. diplomatic mission there and has shared his investigative expertise with the Indonesian police to identify and shut down fraudulent–travel document syndicates.

Sample of counterfeit Indonesian documents
During that raid, on a company called Biro Jasa Bukit Sion (BJBS), Whitson had an opportunity to question the counterfeiters. Whitson reported that the counterfeiters shamelessly explained their operation to him, including how they made the documents, how much they charged, and how they sold package deals. The suspects hid nothing from him because they did not think they would go to jail. Months later, however, after the counterfeiters had been tried and convicted, they were shown on an Indonesian news broadcast, their feeling of impunity dissipated; they tried to hide their faces from the cameras.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the task of preventing terrorists from illegally obtaining false or genuine identity and travel documents (see figure 1 for examples) has taken on greater urgency for law enforcement agencies worldwide.

Indeed, the raid on BJBS revealed a direct link between criminal syndicates producing fraudulent documents and the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), according to Special Agent Whitson. One JI operative brought $30,000 to BJBS to pick up three complete sets of counterfeit identification documents. An undercover officer working inside overheard the would-be terrorist declare, “I am a member of JI—now I’m going overseas,” reports Whitson.

The joint U.S.-Indonesian investigation, coordinated by Whitson, prevented many people from entering the United States with false documents purchased in Surabaya.

The Bureau of Diplomatic Security

Every day the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) works to defend the United States by seeking to prevent terrorists and others from entering the United States with counterfeit travel documents or with genuine documents obtained through illegal means. In 2006 alone, DS’s overseas investigations of visa fraud resulted in the revocation of 1,680 visas and 512 arrests.

DS has a long history of protecting the integrity of U.S. travel documents, dating back to 1918, when Congress passed legislation requiring passports for U.S. citizens traveling abroad and visas for “foreign nationals” seeking to enter the United States.

As is the case today, many of these early passport and visa fraud cases were linked to much larger national security threats. In the 1930s, for example, passport fraud investigations conducted by DS’s predecessor agency, the Office of the Chief Special Agent, uncovered related national security crimes involving Communist and Nazi operatives. During this period, visa and passport fraud probes in New York City exposed a Soviet espionage network linked to members of the American Communist Party, marking the first time a federal agency had acquired solid evidence of hostile Soviet operations on U.S. soil.

To this day, U.S. national security continues to be threatened by individuals who attempt to secure valid U.S. visas and passports by illegal means. Indeed, the terrorists involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks succeeded in breaching the U.S. border through the use of fraudulently obtained—but genuine—U.S. travel documents.

“For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons,” the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (often referred to as the “9/11 Commission”) declared in its final report.1

Clearly, DS’s passport and visa fraud investigations play a vital role in ensuring U.S. national security. So important is this mission that, in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, Congress mandated that DS establish a Visa and Passport Security Program to safeguard the integrity of U.S. travel documents and provide lawmakers with a Visa and Passport Security Strategic Plan, which DS submitted to Congress in December 2006.

The Criminal Enterprise Hub: Surabaya

To meet the challenges of the ever-evolving threat of terrorists obtaining travel documents, DS approved and launched Operation Triple X, a joint undercover operation with the Indonesian National Police (INP) and law enforcement and immigration agencies from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand targeting Indonesian criminal syndicates involved in counterfeiting travel documents. To date, the investigation has achieved remarkable success in preventing individuals from entering the United States using fraudulent or criminally acquired documents.

The investigative operation is centered in Surabaya, a city of some three million residents and the main shipping port at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago. The city is Indonesia’s second largest and home to that nation’s eastern naval fleet. Surabaya has a large concentration of brothels, with an estimated 40,000 women and children working in them. The city is also a central hub for human trafficking; illegal immigration; and the smuggling of timber, shrimp, and textiles. Criminal syndicates are well established and operate openly in the city, bribing corrupt immigration and police officials.

In addition, Muslim extremist groups and terrorist organizations have taken advantage of Surabaya’s widespread corruption and criminal enterprises to further their causes.

First Phase of Operation Triple X

The most recent link between Surabaya’s fraudulent document brokers and terrorists emerged June 9, 2007, when Indonesian police arrested JI agent Arif Syarifuddin. JI has been blamed for numerous bomb attacks in Indonesia, including the October 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people, the August 2003 attack on the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, and the September 2004 attack on the Australian Embassy.

Syarifuddin, who was thought to be a rising star among the JI leadership, was arrested by an elite Indonesian antiterrorism task force called “Detachment 88.” (DS has provided Detachment 88 with antiterrorism training for several years.) Syarifuddin had established his safe house about 1.5 miles from the U.S. Consulate General in Surabaya. One of his duties was to obtain counterfeit documents for his JI associates through his connections with some of the Surabaya-based document counterfeiting operations.

Indeed, evidence uncovered in the Syarifuddin arrest underscores the importance of Operation Triple X. The investigation was triggered in February 2005, when fraud coordinators at the U.S. Consulate General in Surabaya identified suspected counterfeit documents submitted by individuals applying for U.S. visas. The fraud coordinators then alerted Special Agent Whitson, their newly arrived RSO.

RSOs are sworn federal law enforcement officers—referred to as Diplomatic Security Service special agents when working stateside—who serve as the top security officials for overseas U.S. diplomatic missions.

After receiving the notification from the fraud coordinators, Whitson pored over hundreds of visa applications and supporting documents from three previous years, including files, notes, correspondence, and fraud coordinators’ files. He also interviewed U.S. consular officers in Jakarta and Surabaya. From his initial investigation, Whitson began to identify patterns and trends, including the following:

  • Three years’ worth of invitation letters, allegedly from different U.S. businesses to supposed symposiums and business meetings, shared identical formatting, language, misspelled words, signatures, phony contact persons, and phone numbers. The only differences in the letters were the logos of the purported businesses.

  • Different visa applicants had provided the same addresses and phone numbers for their supposed points of contact in the United States.

  • Various identity documents submitted by visa applicants—including Indonesian marriage certificates, business licenses, birth certificates, and immigration papers—matched similar counterfeit documents purchased by undercover personnel from criminal suppliers in Surabaya.

  • Certain criminal enterprises specialized in providing specific types of counterfeit documents.

Next, Whitson began interviewing all applicants for U.S. visas who had submitted documents suspected of being fraudulent. Many of these interviews yielded valuable information confirming the rampant nature of criminal syndicates involved in counterfeiting travel documents and details of their operations.

Whitson coordinated this investigation closely with Indonesian law enforcement and legal authorities. Over the course of several weeks, undercover INP personnel contacted the counterfeit document merchants, set up appointments at the criminal enterprises, paid deposit money to purchase package deals on fraudulent documents, and obtained fraudulent documents as evidence. Indonesian judicial authorities prepared to prosecute the cases.

First-Phase Results

By May 2005, the Indonesian National Police launched an initial series of raids, arresting dozens of suspects, including an Indonesian immigration official. From this first phase of the investigation, 84 suspects were charged and eventually convicted under Indonesian fraud statutes.

In addition to counterfeit passports and visas, law enforcement authorities seized hundreds of other counterfeit documents that could have permitted individuals to obtain genuine travel documents using false identification. In all, Operation Triple X investigators recovered more than 4,800 fraudulent documents as evidence (see figure 2), including the following fakes:

  • Indonesian passports

  • U.S. visas and passports

  • Indonesian national identification cards

  • Marriage documents

  • Birth certificates

  • Other family records

  • Vehicle registrations

  • Driver’s licenses

  • Immigration stamps

  • Business and tax licenses

  • Third-country passports and visas

East Java Provincial Police
INP investigators on the Triple X team also seized numerous computers, names of U.S. businesses hiring illegal immigrants, Indonesian and third-country official stamps, original and unused blank Indonesian passport booklet covers with biographical data pages, reflective security laminates, passport pages, software, printers and blank card stock for producing fake credit cards, and official Indonesian government software and stationery for producing counterfeit identification cards and passports.

Links to Other Crimes

Operation Triple X investigators found that the criminal syndicates producing and selling fraudulent U.S. visas in Surabaya were also involved in a variety of other criminal activities, including the following crimes:

  • Illegal immigration

  • Pedophile operations

  • Trafficking in women and children

  • Alien smuggling throughout Southeast Asia (including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and Brunei) and onward to the United States

  • Production of counterfeit Indonesian passports

  • Drug trafficking

  • Arms smuggling

  • Money laundering

Document Fraud and National Security

Every law enforcement agency engaged in document fraud investigations should consider the potential national security ramifications of such cases. Consider the following information from a 9/11 Commission staff report regarding the use of false documents to plan and launch the attacks of September 11, 2001:

  • The 19 hijackers managed to conceal their identities by using 364 aliases, fraudulent entry-exit stamps, and altered passports.

  • The 19 attackers applied for 23 visas and obtained 22. Two more conspirators obtained visas but did not participate in the attack.

  • Over the course of 21 months, the conspirators attempted to enter the United States 34 times through nine airports. They succeeded all but once.

  • Through these fraudulent methods, the 9/11 terrorists obtained legitimate passports and tourist visas, entered the United States, and perpetrated the largest terrorist attack in U.S. history.

The undercover investigation also established evidence of a clear relationship between some of these criminal Indonesian syndicates and JI and other Muslim extremist groups operating in Southeast Asia. Evidence seized from one of the largest document counterfeiters—PT California—demonstrated that these criminal syndicates were doing business with JI terrorists.

The Operation Triple X team also identified more than 8,000 individuals who were using the services of these criminal syndicates, including 100 individuals who had successfully entered the United States through fraudulent means. Law enforcement officials in the United States have arrested several of these illegal aliens.

Document Fraud Resources

For assistance with passport and visa fraud investigations, contact the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Command Center, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 866-217-2089 (toll-free) or 517-345-3146, or via e-mail at

The U.S. Department of State’s Visa and Passport Security Strategic Plan is available on the Web at

More information about the Bureau of Diplomatic Security is available at

“9/11 and Terrorist Travel: Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States,” by Thomas R. Eldridge et al., is available at

One individual who purchased fraudulent documents from one of these criminal syndicates subsequently attempted to smuggle automatic weapons from Surabaya to Los Angeles. Two other subjects—a husband-and-wife team—were apprehended in New Mexico with 15 counterfeit Indonesian passports as well as Social Security cards and New Mexico driver’s licenses. These two individuals were attempting to open 30 separate checking accounts at banks throughout the state.

Enterprising Criminals

Operation Triple X investigators determined that the Indonesian criminal syndicates were selling counterfeit U.S. visas as well as other fraudulent, supporting documents to a very diverse clientele, including citizens of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, China, and Vietnam.

Buyers used the fraudulent documents to obtain genuine U.S. visas, immigration green cards, and U.S. Social Security cards. The criminal syndicates also provided clients who successfully entered the United States with work in low-paying jobs at associated businesses in California, Oregon, New York, and New Jersey.

Investigators discovered that these criminal enterprises routinely charged the equivalent of $30 to $100 for a single fake document and thousands of dollars for a more comprehensive package. Prices depended on the quality of the fraudulent documents and the level of service purchased. Documents for creating a completely new identity, for example, could cost as much as $10,000.

Vendors also provided training to most of the U.S. visa applicants, coaching them on how to respond to U.S. consular officials during visa application interviews. When applicants arrived at the U.S. Consulate for the interview, they provided all the fraudulent documentation (e.g., employment letter, symposium letter, business license, business tax form, valid Indonesian passport with overseas visas to other southeast Asian countries, birth certificate, bank booklet or statement, etc.) to the consular officer.

Despite the steep price tag, business in false documents was brisk and lucrative in Surabaya. Accounting records seized in one police raid indicated that BJBS, one of the large criminal syndicates linked to the JI terrorist network, had earned $3 million during a single three-month period.

DS personnel in Indonesia have identified some key techniques the syndicates used in the course of their illicit business. Most striking was the fact that many of these groups were openly advertising their counterfeiting services in the local newspapers under advertisements for travel agents. Also of note was the fact that these criminal groups operated related businesses that were legitimate. These enterprises were legally licensed travel agencies that provided legitimate travel and tour services up front, while behind the scenes they offered their illegal services.

Finally, some of these syndicates were linked to corrupt government and law enforcement insiders. Triple X investigators found that some of the high-quality genuine Indonesian travel, identity, and financial documents were provided to criminal syndicates with the help, knowledge, and assistance of corrupt immigration officials and police.

Continued Dividends

Operation Triple X is not over. The cooperation and partnership that DS special agents built with their Indonesian counterparts continues to pay dividends. As of August 9, 2007, the operation had achieved the following successes:

  • Operation Triple X investigators had identified and apprehended 10 U.S. fugitive felons—including six pedophiles arrested and returned to the United States.

  • The team had launched 32 raids and shut down 27 major international criminal groups.

  • The INP had arrested 118 Indonesian suspects, including two charged with running a child sex tourism service; three now serving 6- to 10-month prison terms for document counterfeiting; 100 serving five- to seven-year prison terms for document counterfeiting as owners and operators of the illegal document services; one corrupt immigration officer; and one individual suspected of involvement with the JI terrorist organization.

The DS-INP team shut down these international criminal syndicates through intensive and meticulous investigations, close liaison with Indonesian officials, and sustained prosecution of the cases.

The success of Operation Triple X is all the more remarkable considering that the investigation has been conducted in an environment of direct and continuous terrorist threat to U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel operating in Indonesia. Both the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta and the U.S. Consulate General in Surabaya were closed temporarily several times in 2005 and 2006 because of terrorist threats. Yet Operation Triple X continued to deal significant blows to criminal networks involved in producing and selling illegal travel documents.

It is worth noting here that DS achieved such success with Operation Triple X even though its personnel have no law enforcement authority in other countries, outside of the actual U.S. diplomatic facilities. How, then, did DS special agents achieve such tangible results against criminal operations? Besides good and thorough investigative work, perhaps the most significant element for success in any international investigation—or, indeed, any investigation involving more than one agency—is to establish trust and confidence through good working relationships with all partners at the managerial, investigative, and operational levels. It is a lesson that DS learned long ago, applied in Operation Triple X, and successfully puts into practice every day throughout the world.■


1The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 384.



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 10, October 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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