The sea is the circulatory system of the world economy, through which the economic blood of trade, ideas, and information flows. At odds with this healthy economic lifeblood are the pathogens of theft, corruption, and illicit trafficking. In addition to patently illegal contraband, such as narcotics and weapons, numerous illicit goods move through the maritime transportation system, avoiding taxes and undermining legitimate trade. Tobacco is one of the most commonly smuggled illicit goods around the world. The commodity moves in multiple directions, sometimes both to and from the same countries, making it challenging to understand the traffic flow. Specifically, the distribution of substandard, untaxed cigarettes through the Eastern Mediterranean involves a complex criminal network of producers, smugglers, and dealers and benefits nefarious actors across the Levant.
These substandard cigarettes are often cheaply made in Eastern Europe, circumventing European Union safety regulations. Brands such Prestige and Victory are packed aboard container ships in Bulgaria which move through the Black Sea, then into the Aegean via the Bosporus Strait. From there, some of the contraband shipments make their way to Syria, while others continue down to the Red Sea and around to the Persian Gulf. The Gulf-bound cigarettes likely continue into Iraq and Turkey. In the Eastern Med, many are offloaded at the Syrian port of Latakia. The cigarette distribution network in Western Syria is controlled by and benefits the Assad family while bypassing various international sanctions against the authoritarian regime.
Upon arrival from sea at the port of Latakia, cigarettes move through a series of storage warehouses and distribution points from Assad-controlled coastal regions of western Syria into transshipment points near the Turkish border that are sometimes controlled by smugglers aligned with the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL). The cheap cigarettes are sold at a premium price in Syria and also smuggled across several border points into Southern Turkey. In a typical display of jihadist hypocrisy, ISIL has publicly burned shipments of cigarettes to enforce Sharia while continuing to profit from their smuggling into Turkey. The product and profit not only support ISIL and their organized crime network, but other Al-Qaeda affiliates and foreign fighters drawn to the region. The illicit tobacco trade is an instrumental part of their funding portfolio, which also includes weapons trafficking, and sale of stolen oil.
Disrupting a trade that crosses multiple sea and land borders (some of which are in war-torn countries) is challenging to say the least. Law enforcement and military organizations are incentivized to ignore or take action against illicit smuggling networks for various reasons. Clearly, customs officials in more than one jurisdiction are complicit in looking the other way or even facilitating these illegal cigarette shipments that contribute to instability in the Middle East. On the other hand, one of the more active maritime law enforcement authorities in combating the illicit tobacco trade is Turkey’s Coast Guard. In 2013, the organization seized 177,420 packs of cigarettes, down from over half a million in 2012. The organization’s deployments in the Bosphorus Strait and along the Eastern Mediterranean coastline place it in a strategic position to combat shipments moving towards Syria.
Another regional player with a demonstrated a propensity to disrupt the illicit tobacco trade is the Hellenic Coast Guard. The agency recently arrested two smugglers and seized a container full of nearly nine million contraband cigarettes at the port of Thessaloniki. Interdicting a cargo ship at sea to find a contraband cargo in one or more specific containers is extremely difficult from a tactical perspective and often unsuccessful. But intelligence sharing can assist in narrowing down the search and aiding in the removal of suspect containers as the ships make port while not disrupting the flow of legal cargo. Additional cooperation between intelligence services, private companies, and maritime law enforcement will erode the illicit cigarette trade, and reduce the profits supporting the region’s bad actors.
Chris Rawley is a Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve with experience in maritime interdiction and counter-smuggling at the tactical and operational levels. The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or any of its agencies.
CIMSEC is having a Non-Navies Week from 29 July to 2 August as a first step in a longer series on specific non-navies. Delve into this list of non-navy navies with us.
Mainstream policy discussions of navies and maritime law enforcement often consider the denizens of the high seas to be a pliant polity – passive actors being defended, disrupted, or directed by the might of global or local security networks. However, national fleets and their individual warships are not the only ones with the agency to effect global politics and security.
Some topics we have covered at length – pirates and the Private Military Contractors that have risen up in opposition – but we have only scratched the surface.
Commercial enterpirses pursue the possibility of massive drone-ships, bringing new possibilities and vulnerabilities as our virtual network and our trade network grow closer together. Remember those pirates?
Fishing fleets have their own interests and controls – their operations and movement impacting global politics from the Gibraltar to the South China Sea. Sometimes inadvertant, sometimes purposeful, their movements can motivate states or global institutions – from territorial disuptes, to security, to environmental concerns.
Ever-better organized and equipped activists are taking to the high-seas, battling whalers or even states. From the Sea Shepards to the “amphibious landings” of Japanese and Chinese activists in the Senkakus, civilians are taking the politics to sea. Somalian piracy actually started as activism, fisherman-come-vigilantes.
Terrorists are an unfortunate reality on the high seas, from the category of at-sea terrorist attacks to the use of amphibious operations as vectors for attack from Israel to Mumbai. Some groups, such as the Tamil Tiger’s “Sea Tigers”, even went so far as be considered a possible real-world naval force.
Around the raucus political conflicts flows the silent schemes of smugglers, black marketeers, and human traffickers. From drug runners to sanction busters, admirals are not the only ones trying to mask their position. Criminal enterprises conduct their own air-sea battle, even operating submarines to smuggle goods.
The almost clinicically precise maps of the sea lines of communication would lead one to think that the oceans are a tame and organized place. Hardly. The sea is as alive with merchants, combatants, and all number of active players creating their own order and chaos.
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In the din of East African security issues, the navy of Africa’s most populous nation has fallen out of the international eye. With continued pressure on diversified procurement, increasing capability, and new international cooperation, Nigeria’s Navy is slowly growing to fill a void dominated by piracy, petroleum smuggling, and other criminal elements that is re-engaging international attention in Western Africa. Whereas the state of Somalia has been quite unable to manage its offshore affairs, the Nigerian Navy has plotted a course out to sea under the pall of its severe security challenges. If the challenges of oversight, funding, and collusion don’t capsize their efforts, it may become a quite fine sailing.
Procurement-Let’s Go Shopping:
Since 2009, Nigeria has been pursuing an aggressive new procurement program. During the last Nigerian naval modernization period, the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Nigeria purchased a vast number of vessels from Germany (LST’s) , France (Combattantes), the UK (Thornycraft), Italy (Lerici minesweepers), and others. Unlike the procurement processes familiar in larger navies, such those of NATO, Nigeria ran an “open-source” program, pulling already-proven foreign systems off the foreign shelf. This new buildup is similar, with some new attempt to build local ship-building capacity.
The three big ticket “ship of the line” purchases are the 2 “Offshore Patrol Vessels” and the NNS Thunder. The NNS Thunder is the old school “off the shelf” style ship purchase, bringing a Hamilton-class High Endurance Cutter, the ex-USCG Chase, into Nigerian service in 2011. The “Offshore Patrol Vessels” were commissioned with China Industry Shipbuilding Corporation and approved for purchase by President Jonathan in April of 2012. The fleet’s major combatant until the NNS Thunder was the NNS Aradu, an over 30 year old vessel and Nigeria’s only aviation-capable ship. The new contenders will add a total of 5 new 76mm Oto Melara’s added to the fleet, a none too shabby improvement of overall firepower for littoral operations. The 45 (NNS Thunder)/ 20 (OPV’s) day endurance will give the Nigerian Navy an impressive new stay-time for continuous at-sea opeartions. Arguably most important is that all three vessels have maritime aviation capabilities that will greatly expand the reach and ISR component of Nigerian maritime operations. These three ships are right on target to fill critical gaps in Nigeria’s capabilities.
Nigeria’s littoral squadrons are also scheduled for improvement. Nigeria is purchasing several brown-green water patrol craft to bolster her much-beleaguered inshore security where smuggling of all kinds is rife. Singaporean Manta’s and Sea Eagle’s, US Defender’s, Israeli Shaldag Mk III’s, and others will add potent brown and green water assets to Nigeria’s toolbox.
However, not all of Nigeria’s purchases are imports. Thi package also begins the cultivation of indigenous ship-building capability. One of the aforementioned OPV’s is scheduled for 70% of its construction to occur in Nigeria. To more fanfare, the NNS Andoni was commissioned in 2012. Designed by Nigerian engineers and produced locally with 60% locally sourced parts, it is considered a good step forward for building local expertise and capability in the realm of the shipwrights. More local capacity and expertise will further increase the ease with which ships bought locally, or abroad, can be maintained.
The Nigerian Navy is making good progress. With new ships, expanded operations, and continued engagement the bow is pointed in the right direction. However, without maintaining the engineroom and navigational equipment by battling corruption and putting enough fuel in the diesels by increasing their defense budget, the Nigerian Navy will find itself floundering in the storm.
Matthew Hipple is a surface warfare officer and graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. He is Director of the NEXTWAR blog and hosts of the Sea Control podcast. His opinions may not reflect those of the United States Navy, Department of Defense, or US Government. Did he mention he was host of the Sea Control podcast? You should start listening to that.