Coalition navy ships patrolling the Arabian Sea have intercepted major drug hauls of hashish and heroin this year, busting narcotics smuggling networks that operate using boats and dhows plying in the region.
The total of 34.98 tonnes of hashish confiscated by the naval forces so far this year is more than three times the 9.69 tonnes seized last year and substantially more than 1.02 tonnes in 2016, according to data from the Combined Maritime Forces.
The heroin seized has amounted to 3.32 tonnes until June this year - nearly double the 1.74 tonnes last year and 1.15 tonnes in 2016.
A security expert said drug smuggling is a vehicle used to fund terrorist organisations.
To avoid alerting smugglers, the coalition does not comment on operational specifics but counter-narcotics operations is a key mission of the patrolling navies.
“Trafficking vessels tend to head from the Makran Coast to either the Arabian Peninsula or to East Africa. More localized areas of focus depend on a variety of intelligence factors which cannot be disclosed,” said Lt Cmdr Craig Sharland, deputy public affairs officer of the Combined Maritime Forces.
A southern coastal strip in the southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan, Makran is a smuggling hotspot.
“Most narcotics smuggled through the Combined Maritime Forces area of operations are smuggled onboard local dhows to the Arabian Peninsula (mostly hashish) or East Africa (mostly heroin). For operational reasons, we are unable to detail more specific routes taken at sea,” he said.
The rise in seizures this year does not surprise experts due to the collapse of law and order in Afghanistan, one of the world’s top producers of opium, from which heroin is made. The country is also one of the world’s largest producers of hashish.
Most drug smuggling is an income generator for terrorist groups such as ISIS, Taliban and other extremist organisations.
Marc Martinez, a UAE-based country risk expert, said the dramatic increase in drug seizures came from a sharp increase in production itself.
Afghanistan's opium production jumped 87 per cent compared to 2016, according to the latest UN report, he said.
“Even more troublesome is that heroin and hashish are used to finance the Taliban and other terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State. More production will mean more money and more destructive potential.”
The rise in drug seizures also highlights the inability to reduce opium production in Afghanistan.
“It highlights the failure of the Afghan government that tried to promote alternate crops to support farmers, the failure of the military intervention in Afghanistan, and the failure of the reconstruction. Around 80,000 hectares of opium was cultivated in 2000 just before the US-led intervention, this number reached an estimated 328,000 in 2017,” Mr Martinez said.
Smugglers have traditionally moved drugs out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Arabian Peninsula is strategically located between Asia and Europe making the regional waters a focal point for trafficking of contraband.
Although the naval coalition has been better known for anti-piracy operations, the drug busts they spearhead also keeps the region safe.
“The fight against drug trafficking needs to be singled out and reinforced at a local, regional, and international level,” Mr Martinez said.
“Gulf countries such as the UAE are targeted by traffickers as they represent excellent transit hubs because of their port and airport infrastructure.”
Carefully stashed and mixed with other cargo, it can take hours of rigorous checks before the contraband is uncovered from boats and dhows.
Video footage shows how once a naval ship spots a suspected movement of drugs, speed boats set out to intercept and board the vessel.
In many cases, experts say drugs are placed in hidden compartments and stuffed into air vents. It requires detailed and exhaustive combing of the boats to unearth the narcotics.
The CMF’s seizures demonstrate the raids by navies to disrupt the flow of narcotics.
The Australian navy’s HMAS Warramunga has rung up a record run of 16 seizures since arriving in the Middle East in November last year. The navy completed a hat-trick of sorts with three drug busts in three days last month.
“All three were regional dhows and headed towards the Arabian Peninsula from the Makran Coast,” said Lt Cmdr Sharland.
“Searches of suspect vessels can be time consuming, however it is time well spent in order to achieve the aim,” he said.
“The CMF is highly effective in locating illegal narcotics being smuggled in the region and with every successful find, smugglers are forced to find more innovative locations to conceal their cargo.”
The navies gather intelligence information from sources across the 32-nation coalition, including the UAE, and this feeds into a naval commander’s decision to search a boat.
“This again very much depends on the variety of intelligence sources available and will be based on details such as known vessels of interest and suspicious activities,” said Lt Cmdr Sharland.
The patrolling covers some of the world’s key shipping lanes and promotes security and stability across the region by fighting terrorism and narcotics smuggling.
All seized narcotics are destroyed.