BY N. C. BIPINDRA
The world is at present obsessed with, rightly so, the fight against the Coronavirus, with suspicion and rumors of it being a bioweapon. In this fight against the virus that has claimed hundreds of thousands of human lives, the world’s attention to another major war, this one against terrorism, fuelled by the dark money from the global narcotics trade, particularly in Asia, has weakened.
The region’s ‘Golden Crescent’ comprises of Muslim-majority nations Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. These nations have been the most important poppy cultivating triumvirate of the world and heroin has been the main source of illegal revenue for the countries, especially for Afghanistan, where the narcotics trade has midwifed the birth, existence and rise of the Taliban, a dreaded Islamic terror outfit.
As per the UNODC annual report of 2019, it is seen that there is a major increase of 37 per cent opium production in Afghanistan and a reduction of 25 per cent production in Myanmar, the main player in the Golden Triangle. This further crystallizes the fact that Afghanistan contributes to more than 87 per cent of the opium production of the world. Most of the areas that grow opium in Afghanistan are under the control of the Taliban, whose close ties with Pakistani establishment, especially the Pakistan spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence, is well known.
Heroin obtained through further refining of Opium in Afghanistan traditionally takes three routes for its global distribution, namely through Balkan States or Central Asian countries or the Indian subcontinent. It has been noticed that from 2015, both the routes, namely the Balkans and the Central Asian countries, have reported less seizures of Heroin indicating that there may be an increase in government intervention in Iran and Central Asia in controlling the menace. With such bumper production of heroin in Afghanistan, the only other alternate route available for global distribution is through Pakistan.
The drugs that are produced in the rugged places of Afghanistan — more than 10,000 tons as per 2018 estimates — finds an easy outlet at the hands of the Pakistan-based networks that are working with the ISI. These drugs produced at the heart of Afghanistan travels at least thousands of kilometres to reach the coast of Pakistan for further distribution. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is one of the most sensitive zones and Pakistan has deployed huge military apparatus to guard these borders.
To become a viable option for smuggling, the drugs in tons need to be transported through trucks or cars through these borders and then further split for distribution inside Pakistan into smaller quantities of 100kg or 200kg. Many gangs based in Lahore and Faisalabad are involved in such splitting and then the consignment is transported to Karachi or Gwadar for further transport through fishing vessels. In many of the seizures that happened in 2019, the packing covers were of some popular brands of oats and wheat flour in Pakistan.
The trends of seizures indicate:
* Involvement of Pakistani nationals linked with ISIS as the kingpins. They are the ones who procure and further distribute it to countries like Maldives, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, India, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Kenya from where it is further transported to the West.
* ISIS-linked Pakistan gangs use Makran coast as the staging point and also use the traditional dhows that are plying between West and South Asia as a part of their distribution channels.
* The network has Pakistani nationals based in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Dubai, and East Africa to assist the kingpins in Pakistan.
* Involvement of Nigerians is also noticed in the transactions, which leads to the suspicion of Heroin moving out and Cocaine coming into the region.
Pakistan’s primacy in the global narcotics trade and the funding of terror activities has been time and again confirmed by investigation agencies around the globe. On May 18, in one of Asia’s biggest ever drug bust in Myanmar brought out the links of top Southeast Asian drug syndicates and the involvement of Karachi-based underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, who controls major narcotics operations in the region including Bangladesh and Thailand.
Last year, investigations into the seizure of 532 kg of heroin on the Wagah-Attari border in Punjab showed that the same Pakistani network pushed narcotics consignment and transferred funds to terror outfits operating in Jammu and Kashmir. The Customs Department seizure on June 29 last and the law enforcement probe brought out that the contraband was concealed in six rock salt consignments.
Gurpinder Singh, the owner of Kanishk Enterprises (Amritsar), was arrested along with the contraband and subsequently, Tariq Ahmed Lone of Handwara in Jammu and Kashmir was arrested. The National Investigation Agency, which was brought into the investigations in July last, has so far charged Lone’s Pakistani uncle Farooq Lone, Pakistani nationals Sahil and Sohaib Noor.
Recent seizures of Methamphetamine (ICE) along with Heroin are also a disturbing trend. There have been cases in Mozambique in November and December 2019 involving Pakistani nationals, where the law enforcement agencies have caught Methamphetamine along with Heroin. In the recent seizure made by the Sri Lankan Navy, it was noticed that along with 400 kg Heroin, there was another 100 kg of ICE. This indicates the same Pakistani gang’s operation.
ICE has been a recent addition to the Golden Crescent. A naturally growing shrub in the region named Ephedra has been found to contain an easily extractable drug called Ephedrine. This drug is the precursor for ICE and was synthetically manufactured earlier. It is noticed that there are illegal labs in Pakistan, where they are able to extract Ephedrine from the plant. Recent seizures in huge quantities indicate that the trade is slowly moving towards ICE in the region.
Illegal labs have mushroomed in Pakistan for processing Opium into Heroin. The main precursor for production of Heroin is Acetic anhydride. This is a restricted item to trade and is completely controlled and restricted. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, this product needs to be imported by air. However, with stricter law enforcement in place, it is noticed that the processing labs in Pakistan, controlled by a few gangs, are sourcing Acetic anhydride from within Pakistan, where there are huge industries, which can fudge utilisation of Acetic anhydride as a raw material.
Undoubtedly, the hardcore evidence now points out that Pakistan is the epicentre of both the international global narcotics trade and global terrorism, and an international effort is required, led by the Indian government, to not only name and shame India’s western neighbour, but also to get the multilateral institutions to impose hard punitive action against Islamabad for its shenanigans.
(N.C. Bipindra is a defence analyst. He is the Chairman of Law and Society Alliance, a Delhi-based think tank, and Editor of Defence.Capital. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are personal.)