AnalysisDefense/SecurityIndian Subcontinent

Drug Trafficking from Af-Pak Reach New Heights Failing all Counter Measures

by Prasad Nallapati*

Summary

Afghanistan accounts for more than 80 percent of the world’s opium production. Last year, production of pure opium increased by 21 percent to 6,700 metric tonnes compared to previous year.  More than half of it is converted into heroin in Pakistani laboratories before being smuggled out to markets worldwide through sea, air and land routes.  The African continent, which has long served as a transit point for smuggling this heroin to Europe, has itself been emerging as a major consumption market.  India, particularly its state of Punjab, is also witnessing increased incidence of narcotic consumption and the Khalistani terrorist groups, sheltered by Pakistan, are deeply involved in syndicates pushing drugs and weapons across the border.

Recent international investigations led to arrest and sentencing of several Pakistani kingpins and their African distributors.  Senior politicians like Rana Sanaullah Khan, former Punjab Law Minister and provincial chief of the PML (N) party, was arrested. He is known to have long associated with drug cartels and terrorist groups.  Two Sind provincial ministers are facing drug charges in the state’s High Court.  The Talibn-ISI nexus in drug trafficking has long been known and one of its networks got exposed when a blast in a seminary killed them last month.

The UK government suspended last year an agreement with Pakistan for exchange of convicted prisoners because of lenient application of law and punishment handed down to transferred drug smugglers in the Islamic Republic. China is also reluctant to enter into such Transfer of Offenders Agreement (TOA) with Pakistan for similar reasons.  Thailand had earlier transferred 17 convicted Pakistani traffickers to serve their sentences but many of them were set free soon.

The United States is least exposed to drug trafficking from Pakistan. Hence, the Trump administration do not seem to have an incentive to lead any serious drive to neutralize the drug syndicates in the Af-Pak area. With the US fast-tracking its `peace arrangement’ with the Taliban that would allow a short window to slow down its violence to allow American withdrawal, the writing on the wall is clear. The Taliban and its Pakistani masters would be emboldened to further boost opium and heroin production and their trafficking to European, African and Asian markets.  It is up to these countries to launch counter measures to bring pressure on Afghanistan and Pakistan by making it expensive for them to indulge in narcotic production and trafficking activities.

Inter-governmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has proven to be one of the very effective mechanisms to make countries fall in line and adapt strong regulatory procedures to deter and desist from money laundering and terror funding including narcotic finance.  Pakistan is already in its `grey list’, being put on observation.  The prospect of slipping into `blacklist’ has forced Pakistan to adapt some of the FATF recommendations but still dithering on a number of other measures, including drug finance.  Pressure should be mounted further, and not lessened, until Pakistan fully carry out all necessary actions to prevent illicit financing activities.

Introduction

Narcotic drug production and its illegal trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise worldwide. Millions of innocent people, particularly young generations, are falling prey to these blood-sucking drug traffickers, ruining many families. Several countries have enforced harsh punishments ranging from life imprisonment to death sentences for these traffickers but that has not deterred them to transport this `slow poison’ to every corner of the globe.  What drives them to risk their lives is massive profits to all those in the supply chain. The stakes are high as it is controlled by a nexus of criminals, security forces and politicians.

Afghanistan accounts for 82 percent of global opium production, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and half of it is trafficked through Pakistan to other markets around the world.  Opium paste is produced from poppies in Afghanistan and transported to laboratories located in Pakistan for its conversion into high-grade heroin. Pakistanis do not consume the drug themselves and hence most of it is smuggled out. Pakistani traders operate a number of direct air, sea and land routes to Europe, mostly to the UK and the Netherlands. This heroin trade is controlled by the Tehriq-e-Taliban (Afghanistan) and its masters in the Pakistani establishment. The Taliban collects $ 100-300 million from Afghan farmers in the form of taxes alone.

The other half of the heroin production is transported through Iran and Central Asian routes to Europe and Russia respectively. The largest national market for Afghan heroin is reported to be the Russian Federation.

The US and NATO forces have spent billions of dollars to eradicate poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, but all their efforts proved to be ineffective.  Pakistan has also been brought under pressure through arrests of some of its kingpins during their visits abroad and through the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to adopt structural reforms to prevent money laundering and terror finance, including drug financing.

Pakistani government has been desperately trying to get out of the `Grey List’ of the FATF in its plenary session in Paris on February 16, 2020.  “However, it will not come out of the Grey List because the government has failed to do anything about drug financing and as yet there are loopholes in catching big terror financing mechanisms of banned organizations,” according to Dr. Qais Aslam, Professor of Economics at Lahore-based University of Central Punjab. Pakistan, however, may not slip into the `Blacklist’ with the backing of the US, China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

 Investigations into Af-Pak Drug Cartels and Transit Operators

International investigations have exposed some of the Af-Pak networks and their African partners that transport the narcotics further to European and American markets.  A US investigation into their modus operandi that began in January 2017 consummated in August last year with sentencing of a top African distributor and arrests of a Pakistani controller and his transporter.

Case Study of Nexus between Pakistani Kingpin `Sultan’ and Kenyan Akasha Group

Akasha Group was an organized crime family in Kenya and led by Baktash Akasha Abdalla and Ibrahim Akasha Abdalla brothers.  According to court documents released by the US Department of Justice, they and their associates negotiated with undercover agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency, who were acting as prospective buyers of huge quantities of pure quality heroin for distribution in the US.  Their conduit for import of the drug was Gulam Hussein, a resident of Pakistan and head of a transportation network that distributes massive quantities of narcotics from suppliers in the Af-Pak region throughout the Middle East and Africa by sea.  He is known by other aliases like Hussein Shabakhash, Hadji Hussein and Old man.  He operated a large fleet of small “dhows” (small cargo boats) from all ports from Gwadar to Karachi carrying goods to ports in East Africa and Middle East.

The Pakistani kingpin for supplies of the heroin was Muhammad Asif Hafeez, @ “Sultan”, who operated from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the UK.  While Akasha brothers were extradited and sentenced for 25 years by a New York court, Hafeez was provisionally arrested in London in August 2017 and his extradition to the US appears to be still pending.

They initially supplied to DEA undercover agents samples of 1 kg of high-quality heroin and 2 kgs of methamphetamine in Nairobi.  This was followed by another 98 kgs of heroin. The price of pure heroin delivered in Africa was approximately $ 12,000 to 14,000 per kg and it was agreed to reduce the price to $ 10,000 per kg if paid upfront.  They negotiated for another 500 Kgs of same quality of heroin produced from the same laboratory in Pakistan.

Baktash and Ibrahim Akasha Abdalla brothers “operated for almost two decades a sprawling and lucrative international drug-trafficking organization, which distributed multi-tonne quantities of narcotics including hashish, ephedrine, methamphetamine, and methaqualone. They engaged in acts of violence to protect the reputation of the Akasha Organization and their drug-trafficking business.  For example, in 2014, they kidnapped and assaulted a rival drug trafficker in Kenya named David Armstrong.  They helped orchestrate the murder in South Africa of an associate of Armstrong, who was known as “Pinky” and was shot approximately 32 times in the street. By early 2014, they and their associates started to work to import tonnes of methaqualone precursor chemicals into Africa in order to fuel the illicit pills’ production in South Africa.  They, along with Pakistani “Sultan”, worked together to establish a methamphetamine-production facility in Mozambique.”

Case Study of another Pakistani Kingpin Shahbaz Khan

In a similar operation to that of Akasha brothers, another designated head of Pakistani drug trafficking organization, Shahbaz Khan, 71 years, was extradited to the US from Liberia in December 2016 and was sentenced by a New York court to 15 years of imprisonment in November last year for conspiring and attempting to import massive quantities of heroin into the United States.  Khan was designated a Narcotics Kingpin in 2007 under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act by the then President George W. Bush. Court records stated that he had distributed staggering quantities of narcotics from Afghanistan and Pakistan to countries throughout the world.  In 2016, he agreed to transport tens of thousands of kilograms of heroin to New York city and provided a five-kilogram sample of high-quality heroin to undercover agents in Kabul.  He claimed to have decades-long experience in international drug trafficking, and he had once transported 114 tons of drugs in a single year, including 64 tons of hashish.

Iranian Transit Route

Iran is another major trafficking route for Afghan opium with the two sharing a 900-kilometer border making it almost impossible to control the influence of smugglers.  According to UN figures, Iran accounted for 91 percent of the world’s opium seizures and 20 percent of heroin and morphine seizures in 2017, amounting to 630 and 39 tonnes respectively. Iran has a major success in January this year with the capture and execution of a notorious drugs kingpin, known as the `Crocodile of the Persian Gulf’. He was arrested along with accomplices while transferring more than 100 tonnes of drugs through international waters.  Identified as only by his initials, `A.Z.’, the 36-year-old is said to have “led one of the biggest and most vicious drug-trafficking networks in Iran and the region”. He is believed to have smuggled more than 400 tonnes of drugs into Iran in recent years and laundered over $ 142 million through property market.

Iran has strict anti-narcotic laws and executed hundreds of prisoners each year.  According to Amnesty International, the country executed at least 253 people in 2018 and 507 a year before.

Africa not only serves as Transit Point but also emerging major Consumer of Drugs

Africa has not only emerged as the transit continent for trafficking and production of drugs, but also lately a consumption market.  According to a report of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), seizures of heroin have risen since 2009, increasing 10-fold in East Africa.  Most heroin seizures in Africa were made at sea borders, ports, or on the open sea, pointing to the increase of maritime trafficking. Though maritime seizures make up no more than 11 percent of all cases, they are on an average 30 times larger than those involving planes.  East Africa is the first point of transit delivery for Afghan opiates destined for the European market.

A recent study has projected that Africa will see the world’s biggest surge in illicit drug users over the next 30 years. The report by Enact (Enhancing Africa’s Response to Transnational Organized Crimes),  a coalition of security-focused organizations including Interpol, forecast that by 2050, there will be 14 million more users of illicit drugs in addition to the current estimated drug user population of about 9 million on the continent. “Compared to West Africa, where drug use is forecast to roughly double between now and 2050, in East Africa drug use is projected to nearly triple, going from about two million today to about 5.5. million in 2050.”

The report noted that heroin begins its journey in Afghanistan where farmers cultivate the poppy plant over hundreds of thousands of hectares.  The opium paste derived from the poppy seed is then transported to Pakistan, where it is refined into heroin.  African drug networks have representatives in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, who are involved in moving heroin shipments to the Baluchistan coast.  There, the heroin is ferried by speed boats and loaded onto dhows. South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia serve as entry destinations to Africa, the report stated.

The Kenyan city of Mombasa, the largest port in East Africa, has become the capital of a new drug trafficking route.  Heroin from Pakistan and Iran and Cocaine from Latin America now transit through Kenya, before heading to Europe, according to a report by France 24 TV channel. “From Mombasa, smugglers have several options: taking a plane straight to Europe or Dubai; moving the drugs to the capital Nairobi to send them abroad more discreetly; or even sending them to South Africa or West Africa to use an even less obvious route.  This illegal market was estimated in Kenya at more than $ 130 million a year.”

Massa, the head of Kenya’s Anti-Narcotics Unit, said most of the drug seizures in East African region had their port of origin in Pakistan.

Mozambique has also become a major transit point for smuggling of Afghan-origin heroin via Pakistan to Europe.  13 Pakistani nationals were arrested by Mozambique’s Navy and National Criminal Investigation Service in December last year, off the coast of the northern province of Cabo Delgado.  Earlier in the same month, 12 Iranian nationals were arrested in a similar operation.

Seizures of Drugs on the Arabian Sea by Combined Task Force (CTF)

The warships of the Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150) of the Combined Maritime Force (CMF) have seized last year over 2000 Kgs of heroin, over 257 Kgs of crystal methamphetamine and nearly 54,000 Kgs of Hashish in the Arabian sea from dhows originating from Pakistani ports and heading for East Africa and the Gulf countries. This takes CTF 150’s overall narcotics seizures during 2019 to nearly $ 50 million at most conservative estimates.  The CTF has seen a huge increase in the amount of crystal methamphetamine being smuggled year on year as its seizures in 2018 was only 9 Kgs.

This represents a 33 percent increase in heroin and 20 percent increase in crystal methamphetamine seizures by the CTF last year from the previous year.  The naval ships of the Task Force seized and destroyed over 1500 Kgs of heroin and 45,000 Kgs of Hashish in 2018 from the northern Arabian sea, which itself was a four-fold increase over the previous year.

Controllers of Heroin Production and Distribution in Pakistan

Taliban-ISI Nexus

Within Pakistan, there has been a well-established nexus between the Taliban, ISI, police and politicians who control the procurement, production, and transportation of the heroin drugs using different routes to markets abroad, including China, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Middle East and Africa. Besides monetary benefits, drug trafficking, like terrorism, is used by Pakistani army to serve its strategic security objectives.

A recent attack on a seminary exposed this nexus. The January 10 suicide blast at a Quetta seminary-cum-mosque killed some 15-20 people, majority being Afghan nationals. The Afghan news agency, Khaama, reported, quoting intelligence sources, that several key Taliban members including Maulana Sheikh Abdul Hakeem, who served as chief justice during the Taliban regime, his brother, 3 ISI members and drug smugglers were in a meeting there when the explosion took place.  Those killed included the ISI members, Hakeem brothers and other key Taliban members such as Haji Mohammad Halim, Mawlavi Haji Ahmad Khan, Gul Agha Akund, Mawlavi Amanullah and Haji Ahmad Khan.

According to a report by Pakistani paper, The News, the seminary security surrounded the site and took away the bodies before the arrival of the police and personnel from security agencies.  The police were later allowed to inspect the bodies of Sheikh Hakeem and his brother.  The seminary-cum-mosque was earlier managed by Haibatullah Akhundzada, until he succeeded Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as the Afghan Taliban leader.  Mansoor was killed in a US drone attack in May 2016. Akhundzada appointed his brother Ahmadullah as the new administrator of the seminary.

Criminal-Politician-Terrorist Links

Many top politicians are in league with criminal gangs reaping good share of the drug money. Former Punjab State Law Minister and provincial chief of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Rana Sanaullah Khan was arrested in July last year while carrying a large quantity of narcotics in his vehicle to Lahore.  The documents and video clippings of his statements submitted to court by the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) showed admission of his association with drug trafficking for several years.  In his statement, Khan told his investigators that he developed links to drug smugglers and other criminal groups after he entered into politics for quick monetary benefits. He said that he acquired the drugs from Afghans in Faisalabad and these were collected by others at different points for smuggling abroad. Khan has been closely associated with a number of terrorist groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, etc.

Two senior Sind provincial Ministers are accused of being part of a Karachi drug trafficking network. Acting on a petition filed against the two Ministers, the Sind High Court issued notices to them on February 11 to submit their responses.  The petition stated that a secret police intelligence report by Senior Superintendent of Police, Dr. Rizwan Ahmed Khan, leveled serious allegations against Minister Imtiaz Shaikh. A similar earlier report in 2017 accused Farhan Ghani, brother of another Sind Minister Saeed Ghani, of running a network of assassins and drug peddlers along with another criminal, Hassan, alias Natha.  Hassan is named in 17 cases of dealing in narcotics at Mehmoodabad police station and one with the anti-Narcotics Force.  The report also exposed the involvement of a policeman of the Mehmoodabad police station and an official of the Excise department in selling of drugs.

Involvement of Sikh Terrorist Groups Sheltered in Pakistan

Even the Sikh militant groups sheltered by Pakistan seem to be deeply involved in this complex drug trafficking network.  The killing of Harmeet Singh, leader of the so-called Khalistan Liberation Force, in Lahore last month is believed to be the fall out of a rivalry between three groups over control on drug money.  The Hindu, quoting an official of Indian enforcement agency, reported “There is an ongoing rivalry between Pakistan-based Khalistani groups led by Harmeet Singh, Khalistan Zindabad Force’s Ranjit Singh Neeta, and Paramjit Singh Panjwar of the Khalistan Commando Force.  Initial reports suggest that a dispute over drug money has been a major factor in the killing.”

Heroin Smuggling from Af-Pak into India

There has been a recent spurt in trafficking of Afghan-origin heroin through land and traditional sea routes via Pakistan that had led to generation of huge money for the syndicates that were also being used to push weapons into India for terrorist activities. Preliminary investigations into the seizure of about 200 kg of heroin in Sultanwind village of Amritsar in the State of Punjab in January this year have indicated that it was part of a bigger contraband consignment that landed in Mandvi in Gujarat last year via a sea route. Over 300 kgs of heroin was seized in the state in the year 2018. There were major seizures in the state and in Haryana during parliamentary elections in March-April last year.  Punjab has now emerged a major drug consuming state in the country.

Another Indian investigation in July 2019 has blown the lid off an Af-Pak narcotics cartel controlled by a Taliban leader and his Pakistani counterpart, leading to the biggest ever contraband haul in Delhi till that date.  A consignment of 150 Kg of heroin was seized in the operation. “The drugs were embedded in jute strings that would be made into bags, which were then filled with spices and dry fruits to be exported to India from Afghanistan.  As per rough estimates, the cartel pushes heroin worth over $ 500 million into India. The expose has revealed the sinister side of the spice and condiments trade between India and Afghanistan, and its use as a cover for international drug syndicates. The employment of chemical experts from Jalalabad to oversee the reconstitution and processing of heroin in India indicates the scale and sophistication of the operation.”

The Indian coast guard seized 1500 Kgs of heroin from a Pakistani dhow off the coast of Gujarat in the year 2017.  Another Pakistani boat was earlier blown up by the crew themselves to avoid capture by the approaching coast guard ship.

World Community strongly reacts to Pakistani trafficking and its weak Laws

Nearly 4,000 metric tonnes of pure opium, which was about half of Afghan production last year, might have been processed and converted into high-grade heroin in laboratories in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces of Pakistan before being smuggled to markets in Europe, Southeast Asia, South Asia and even China.

The UK government suspended last year an agreement with Pakistan for exchange of convicted prisoners because of lenient application of law and punishment handed down to transferred drug smugglers in the Islamic Republic. The British authorities have categorically stated that they would consider restoring the agreement only if Pakistani government applies the same punishment handed down to convicts in the UK.  According to a OCCRP report, Pakistani and Turkish groups continue to dominate the British heroin market by both land and sea.

China has also been reluctant to enter into such Transfer of Offenders Agreement (TOA) with Pakistan for similar reasons, a Parliamentary committee was informed by the Director General of Overseas Pakistanis Division.

Commenting on the modus operandi of these convicts, the DG mentioned of a case of 17 convicted Pakistani drug traffickers repatriated from Thailand in April 2018, who had sought reduction in their punishment invoking the Pakistani law. The Supreme Court ordered releasing eight of them.  Under the Thai law, a drug convict spends 40 years in jail, but in Pakistan, the punishment for traffickers of narcotics varied from 10 years to a maximum of 25 years. Of the 88 Pakistanis jailed in Thailand last year, 60 were convicted for drug-related offences.

A Pakistani boat with five of its nationals was picked up last year off the port Safaga by Egyptian authorities and they were charged with involvement in drug trafficking.  A total of 62 Pakistani nationals were executed in Saudi Arabia for drug smuggling between 2013-18.

Estimates of Poppy cultivation and Opium production

According to the latest estimates of the US White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Afghanistan Poppy cultivation decreased in 2019 compared to 2018, but potential pure Opium production increased.  Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan declined 28 percent, from 221,000 hectares in 2018 to 160,000 hectares in 2019.  Conversely, potential pure Opium production increased by 21 percent, from 5,550 metric tonnes in 2018 to 6,700 metric tonnes in 2019.  Low opium prices at planting time drove the decline in cultivation.  The rise in potential pure opium production is a direct result of favourable weather and harvesting conditions. By far, the year 2017 was the highest for both cultivation and production, recording 329,000 hectares and 9,140 metric tonnes respectively.

Table: Afghan Poppy Cultivation/Opium Production

Poppy/Opium

Year

Hectares under Cultivation

Potential pure production

(metric tonnes)

2011

115,000 4,400

2012

180,000

4,300

2013

198,000

5,500

2014

213,000

6,300

2015

201,000

4,100

2016

207,000

5,800

2017

329,000

9,140

2018

221,000

5,500

2019 160,000

6,700

 

The US government has spent about $ 9 billion between 2002 and 2019 to eradicate Afghan opium, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).  Despite these efforts, the poppy production has steadily gained ground.  Because of its crucial role in the national economy, providing hundreds of thousands of jobs to farm workers and incomes to farmers, moves to suppress the crop met entrenched resistance.  Initially, Afghan poppy farmers were paid by the British to destroy their crops, which only encouraged them to grow more the next season.  Later, the US government eradicated poppy fields without compensation. In one such operation in Farah province in May last year, at least 30 civilians were killed in American airstrikes targeting drug-processing facilities.   These American operations only infuriated farmers and encouraged them to side with the Taliban.

The Taliban now controls half the country and most of the poppy cultivation is located in this area.  A British Broadcasting Corporation report said that the Taliban generate somewhere between US $ 100 and 400 million from taxes on opium farmers, producers and traders.

CONCLUSIONS

Afghanistan accounts for more than 80 percent of the world’s opium production. More than half of it is converted into heroin in Pakistani laboratories before being smuggled out to world markets, while the rest of it is transported through Iranian and Central Asian routes.  The drug production and trafficking are growing by leaps and bounds despite the best efforts of the international community, in the form of incentives and harsh punishments, to eradicate it.

The Af-Pak drug trafficking is targeted mostly at the markets in Europe, Africa and to a lesser extent the Indian sub-continent and Southeast Asia. The United States is least exposed to these drug supplies as this market is mainly catered to by drug cartels from Mexico and Colombia. Hence, the Trump administration do not seem to have any incentive to continue to lead any serious drive to neutralize the drug syndicates in the Af-Pak area controlled by the Taliban, the Pakistani military intelligence services and its politicians.

With the US fast-tracking its `peace arrangement’ with the Taliban that would allow a short window to slow down its violence to allow American withdrawal, the writing on the wall is clear. The Taliban and its Pakistani masters would be emboldened to further boost opium and heroin production and their trafficking to European, African and Asian markets.  It is up to these countries to launch counter measures to bring pressure on Afghanistan and Pakistan by making it expensive for them to indulge in narcotic production and trafficking activities.

Inter-governmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has proven to be one of the very effective mechanisms to make countries fall in line and adapt strong regulatory procedures to deter and desist from money laundering and terror funding including narcotic finance.  Pakistan is already in its `grey list’ badly affecting investments and its credit-worthiness.  The prospect of slipping into `blacklist’ has forced Pakistan to adapt some of the FATF recommendations but still dithering on a number of other measures, including drug finance.  Pressure should be mounted further, and not lessened, until Pakistan fully carry out all necessary actions to prevent illicit financing activities. This helps Pakistan to come out clean and lead to economic growth.

Many of the controllers of the drug syndicates in Af-Pak region are known to the US and European intelligence agencies.  They need to be designated as offenders under the UN and European sanctions regimes with all their consequences.  As some of them hold prominent positions in the armed forces or in government, the sanctions would be an effective deterrent.

The naval ships of the Combined Maritime Force have had many successful seizures of the boats carrying huge quantities of narcotic drugs from Pakistani ports in the Arabian sea.  However, their seizures account for only a small portion of drug trafficking and they might consider deploying more ships at vantage points to deter such maritime smuggling.

European countries are finding it convenient to transfer to the charge of Pakistani authorities its convicted nationals on drug charges to serve their sentences.  This takes off the burden of maintaining these criminals in their countries’ facilities.  However, many of such transferees are using lax laws in Pakistan to get their sentences shortened or set free to return to their old profession.  These countries therefore need to find better arrangements to keep the convicted incapacitated.

(*Prasad Nallapati is President of the Hyderabad-based think tank, Centre for Asia-Africa Policy Research, and former Additional Secretary to the Govt of India)

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