The Australian Navy Just Grabbed One Ton of Heroin off the Kenyan Coast
Africa has become a hub for the global drug trade
Aussie sailors found 1,032 kilograms of heroin hidden between sacks of cement on a dhow—a slim fishing boat—sailing between Somalia and Kenya.
Maybe one the largest heroin seizures ever in Africa, the operation highlights the continent’s growing role as a hub for the international drug trade—a trade that intersects with the trafficking of people and weapons. The profits often flow to terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and the Lebanese group Hezbollah.
Heroin is probably only the third most important drug being trafficked in Africa. The illicit trade of cocaine garners the most media attention, but in terms of global importance, cannabis actually tops the list.
Africa used to be a relatively small player in the drug trade, although the first seizures of heroin occurred in Nigeria in the 1980s. According to a 2009 report by the Congressional Research Service, just a 1oth of a percent of all cocaine seizures in 2000 took place in Africa.
By 2006, this had swelled to 2.6 percent, an increase of more than 10 tons in absolute terms. Of course, many more tons of drugs make it past authorities.
For cocaine, the most important smuggling route is the so-called “Highway 10” along the 10th parallel across the Atlantic Ocean—the shortest route across between South America and Africa.
Typically, cocaine travels down Highway 10 in consignments of a ton or more in large cargo ships. Off the African coast, traffickers break it up into smaller bundles for landfall in key countries such as Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Senegal, Benin and Nigeria. Transhipment to Europe could occur by land, air or sea.
There are obvious reasons for the geographical shift in cocaine trafficking. Law enforcement improved in the northern hemisphere, making West Africa more attractive for traffickers.
Most African states only have a very small navies and weak customs and border security. Additionally, the Sahel and Sahara regions boast traditional trading routes dating back hundreds of years and established communities of local smuggling rings.
West Africa has a reputation for cocaine smuggling, but Nigeria in particular also traffics in heroin. Nigeria is also one of the few African nations that actually produces chemical drugs, especially methamphetamine.
Afghan heroin is making its way to Africa. The drug comes from Afghanistan via Iran or Pakistan to countries including Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania or Mozambique and from there onward to Europe.
East African heroin seizures tripled between 2002 and 2011, overtaking West Africa, according to the 2013 U.N. World Drug Report. Smugglers move the heroin by boat along historical trade routes.
The Lebanese terror group Hezbollah is especially active in the African drug trade. Taking advantage of a strong network of Lebanese Shias, Hezbollah has developed one of the world’s most robust smuggling rings.
Researcher Matthew Levitt estimates that by now the drug trade accounts for a larger share of Hezbollah’s income than all other sources combined, including Iranian financing.
The proceeds from this extremely profitable business go to fund criminal and terrorist activities, as well as social projects to strengthen Hezbollah’s domestic support. There’s also evidence that Hezbollah uses the smuggling network for operational purposes when preparing terror attacks.
While Hezbollah controls the coastal channels in West Africa, the inland smuggling routes through the Sahel and Sahara belong to groups affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Drug profits, together with hostage ransoms and proceeds black-market cigarettes, allowed AQIM to gain control over large parts of Mali in 2012.
We have little information on the involvement of terror groups in East Africa’s heroin trade. But Somalia’s strategic geography and the presence of Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda affiliate, makes a drug-terror nexus likely.
Australia’s massive heroin seizure likely will be neither the last, nor the largest in coming months and years.