More than 22,000 kilograms of illegal narcotics, much of it destined to fund terrorism, has been seized in the northern Indian Ocean since December, the Canadian commander in charge of anti-smuggling operations told The National.
In an exclusive interview, Commodore Darren Garnier, who commands the Combined Task Force (CTF) 150, headquartered in Bahrain, acknowledged that geopolitical complexities and extremism in the region mean that plenty of illegal substances still flow unobstructed through international waterways.
“You could draw some parallels perhaps to what’s happening in the fight against drugs coming into the Caribbean,” to meet high US demand, “but it is far more complex here,” he said.
Mr Garnier’s CTF 150 is tasked with tackling terrorism, smuggling and organised crime in 3.2 million square kilometres of water, stretching from the Makran coast of Pakistan and Iran into the Gulf of Oman, Red Sea and down as far as Madagascar.
The heroin trade, born in the poppy fields of Afghanistan, is a major source of revenue for extremist groups. Narcotics are trafficked to south-east Africa, north to Turkey through the Red Sea, or east to Sri Lanka, where they are parcelled out to markets in Europe and North America.
Mr Garnier told The National that drugs might account for as much as 40 per cent of the revenue of some extremist groups, although the percentage is hard to estimate.
“What we do know is that the poppy industry in Afghanistan is being used by the Taliban and other terrorist groups at some point in their capability to funnel money into their organisations,” he said.
Investigators of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people, found not only that narcotics trafficking had helped finance the attacks, but that the explosives were purchased in exchange for drugs.
Nevertheless, the link between organised crime and terrorism is complex. The piracy and smuggling that boomed in the waters around Somalia in 2011 began after international trawlers destroyed fishing livelihoods and equipment, pushing Somali fishermen to pursue other sources of revenue.
“A lot of the trade that you see at sea is historic trade; there have been dhows plying, fishing and trading coastally here for millennia, so it is tough to differentiate” between boats engaging in legal and illegal activities, said Mr Garnier.
Somalia, which remains conflict-ridden and insecure, is not a member of the maritime coalition force and so Mr Garnier is unable to tackle the instability that propagates smuggling.
Still, since Canada took command of CTF 150 on December 6, the force has overseen 12 successful boardings, seizing and destroying more than 22 metric tonnes of narcotics.
“If we weren’t there, that’s 22,000 kg of illegal narcotics that would be flowing into cities in the region, further destabilising populations” and leading to piracy and terrorist activities, said Mr Garnier. “We are making a difference.”
Late last year, one of its warships – the British HMS Dragon – seized 10,000kg of hashish from two dhows along the notorious Arabian Sea smuggling route known as the “hash highway”. The 300 heavy sacks, with a street value of $97.9 million (Dh360m), represented one of the biggest drugs hauls in recent memory. Last week, the same Type 45 destroyer seized 49kg of heroin.
Mr Garnier said the Red Sea was an aperture for anti-smuggling operations, because it is extremely narrow, but sees heavy traffic through the Suez Canal to its north, preventing coalition warships from lingering long enough to conduct their operations.
“The Red Sea is one of those unexplored areas,” he said. “I own the water space in terms of responsibility for dealing with it but I don’t have a lot of the tools to engage in the area.” He added that he was looking for international partners to “help us plug some of these gaps.”
Mr Garnier spoke while in Abu Dhabi with a Canadian military delegation to attend the International Defence Exhibition and the Naval Defence and Maritime Security Exhibition, and to hold talks with UAE military representatives.
The UAE has strong strategic interests in the waterways that Mr Garnier’s force protects. The country has military bases in Eritrea and Somaliland, while Emirati companies operate ports at Bosaso in Somalia and Somaliland’s Berbera.
The UAE navy is engaged in CTF 152, the GCC’s security and co-operation mission in the Arabian Gulf.