Drug trafficking in Arabian Sea by Taliban buccaneers

Dr G Shreekumar Menon

On 21st September 2021, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) seized 2,988.21 kg heroin worth Rs 21,000 crore from two containers at the Mundra port in Gujarat’s Kutch district and subsequently arrested a couple that ran an import firm from Chennai. Official sources said the consignment was imported by a trading company registered in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, and declared as semi-processed talc stones. The illegal narcotics consignment is stated to be of Afghanistan origin and was shipped from Bandar Abbas Port in Iran to the Mundra Port. A total of 2988.21 kg of heroin — 1999.57 kg heroin from one container and 988.64 kg heroin from the second container was seized under the provisions of the NDPS (Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances) Act. DRI conducted searches in this connection at Ahmedabad, Delhi, Chennai, Gandhi Dham, and Mandvi in Gujarat. The involvement of some Afghan nationals is also under the scanner of the DRI.

This mammoth seizure is being touted as one of the biggest drug seizures in India as also in the world. The quantity and value are consternating and giving the security establishment a nightmare. That the consignment originated at Kandahar in Afghanistan, traversed to Bandar Abbas Port in Iran and smooth sailed into Mundra Port in Gujarat, is giving jitters about the prospect of the Taliban having launched a drug-war against India, which might also be a prelude for intensified terror strikes in Kashmir and other sensitive areas in India. Hectic investigations are afoot to identify the kingpin and the network behind this massive seizure, involving maritime and land routes.

It was only on April 19th 2021 that the Indian Naval Ship (INS) Suvarna seized more than 300 kg of narcotic substances from a Pakistani fishing boat and the narcotics seized from it were meant for funding terror activities in India, Maldives and Sri Lanka. The approximate cost of the seizure in the international market is estimated to be Rs 3000 Crore. This is a major catch not only in terms of the quantity and cost but also from the perspective of disruption of the illegal narcotic smuggling routes which emanate from the Makran coast and flow towards the Indian, Maldivian and Sri Lankan destinations.

The Arabian Sea has been witnessing a spate of massive seizures for the last few years.

Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Ballarat seized over 3.1 tons of hashish in the Arabian Sea during an operation that took place on January 8 and 9th, 2019. The seized drugs worth an estimated $155 million was the first narcotics consignment seized by the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF). Earlier, the Ballarat had seized more than 900 kgs of heroin worth more than $279 million after boarding two vessels on 21 and 23 December 2018. The illicit cargo seized included nearly half a million rounds of small arms ammunition, and 697 bags of chemical fertiliser. The fertiliser has possible dual use for the manufacture of improvised explosives. This seizure is of significant concern to maritime security, in particular the illicit proliferation of ammunition and chemicals which could be used to produce explosives.

Operation Manitou is Australia’s contribution to Combined Maritime Forces operations, a 33-navy partnership which promotes maritime security in the Middle East region (MER). Operation MANITOU is under the command of Joint Task Force 633 (JTF633), which is the Australian National HQ in the Middle East Region. The Royal Australian Navy routinely sends a Major Fleet Unit (MFU) to the MER for assignment to Combined Maritime Forces (CMF).

Combined Maritime Forces is composed of thirty-two nations and has three principal task forces:

  1. Combined Task Force 150, which conducts counter-terrorism and maritime security operations;
  2. Combined Task Force 151, which conducts counter piracy operations;
  3. Combined Task Force 152, which conducts Arabian Gulf maritime security operations.

India is not a part of the Combined Task Force (CTF).

The vast Arabian Sea is an active oceanic body encompassing extensive sea borne trade/commerce. Unfortunately, it is also a region plagued with a plenitude of military, economic, religious and racial insecurities and asymmetric maritime threats. The Arabian Sea, covers a total area of about 1,491,000 square miles (3,862,000 square km) and forms a part of the principal sea route between Europe and India. It is bounded to the west by the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, to the north by Iran and Pakistan, to the east by India, and to the south by the remainder of the Indian Ocean.

Political entities bordering the sea in addition to India, Iran, and Pakistan are Oman, Yemen, and Somalia. Islands in the sea include  Socotra (a part of Yemen) off the Horn of Africa, the Kuria Muria Islands off the coast of Oman, and Lakshadweep group of coral atolls lying between 100 and 250 miles [160 and 400 km]) off the southwestern coast of India. In this geographical space there are an array of transnational groups operating out of multiple countries indulging in piracy and armed robbery; maritime terrorism; migrant trafficking; and drug trafficking. These illegal activities are interdicted by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)11 and the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC)12 and its Additional Protocols which include Trafficking in Persons Protocol 13.

Drug trafficking, is governed by the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988. Drug trafficking often blends with legal trade and co-opts technology, modalities, and methods employed by the maritime industry to camouflage illegal activities.

The law of the sea is a complex architecture of interactive rules and processes that regulate the use of the world’s seas and oceans, and international cooperation and collaboration are necessary for its success. In form, maritime security is vital to national and international security. In function, maritime security is jurisdictionally complicated, but generally well observed by maritime states.  

The Oceans and the Law of the Sea report, distributed annually by the UN Secretary-General, identifies, inter alia, illicit trafficking of arms and weapons of mass destruction, illicit traffic of narcotics and psychotropic substances, and smuggling and trafficking of persons by sea as threats to shipping companies, militaries, and law enforcement. Maritime trafficking routes closely mingle with commercial shipping lanes, and the modalities and technologies employed by criminals are often more advanced than those used in the legal trade. The vast expanses of the ocean, the complexity of the maritime transportation system, the immense volume of cargo transferred at each port, and the limited capacity for examination of cargo creates vast scope for criminals. Shipping and sea lanes offer anonymity for criminals; criminal activity can be hidden behind legitimate industry, appearing to be licit. Criminal activity, especially illicit trade in narcotics, humans, and weapons, has become quite common. Despite the abundance of laws designed to combat illicit trafficking in drugs, governments remain only marginally successful in interdiction due to the overwhelming volume and complexity of the illicit drug trade.

Traditionally, drug traffickers used overland routes, but in the last few decades they have started using the sea mode extensively. The majority of this trafficking has traditionally been in the littoral regions, and often within territorial waters, but advanced technologies and larger ships have enabled traffickers to move into “blue water” areas, outside the 12-nautical mile mark and even beyond the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of any country. This shifting between domains and geographic areas is described as “squeezing a balloon,” reflecting shifts in supply and demand for different illicit goods.

The Taliban and other terror groups are exploiting the above processes to gain access to various ports including Mundra port. In FY 2020–21, Mundra Port handled 144.4 million tonnes of cargo. It is the largest container port in India. Mundra port handled container volume of 5.65 Million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEU’s). Mundra has the fastest turnaround time for ships among Indian ports of 18-20 hours and, hence, vessels don’t need to wait for a berth. It is these facilities that are exploited for furthering the illicit drug trade.

 The pressure on the Customs Department for quick clearance has become a big boon for illicit drug cartels. Computerized risk assessment, documentation-based assessments, and a skeletal workforce completes the picture of ease-of-business for traffickers.

In the instant case, the drug consignment was meant to be taken from Mundra Port to Vijayawada (the ultimate destination shown in the import documents), which is 1,803 km via NH 65, traversing the States of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

It is surprising that none of the enforcement agencies had any inkling of the massive transportation of illicit Heroin through their jurisdictions. From the internal security viewpoint this is a grave lapse, especially since the Taliban has made known their intentions of expanding their operations to interfere in Kashmir. Privatization of ports and airports means that governmental control has minimized and private operators are interested only in profit maximization. The implementation of our laws is also not firm and quick and our soft approach makes India an ideal end-user country or a safe transit country. Both are fraught with serious consequences.

It is hoped that the government will take expedient steps to counter the new threat dimension emanating from Taliban administered Afghanistan.

he author Dr G Shreekumar Menon, IRS (Rtd) Ph. D (Narcotics), is

  • Former Director General National Academy of Customs Indirect Taxes and Narcotics, and Multi-Disciplinary School of Economic Intelligence India
  • Fellow, James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies, USA.
  • Fellow, Centre for International Trade & Security, University of Georgia, USA 
  • Public Administration, Maxwell School of Public Administration, Syracuse University, U.S.A.
  • AOTS Scholar, Japan

Dr G Shreekumar Menon can be contacted at shreemenon48@gmail.com

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