By Sugeeswara Senadhira*
Indian security officials believe the interception of a Sri Lankan boat carrying 300 kilograms of heroin, five AK-47 guns and ammunition off the coast of Vizhinjam in Kerala in South India on March 25 points to a network of narco-terrorism with strong links to a group in Sri Lanka. The Indian officials told the Media the network of narco-terrorism has created sleeper cells in Sri Lanka and other neighbouring countries, and exports drugs to foment trouble. They added that the drug income is then used to fund illegal activities, including extremist activities.
The Indian Coast Guard and the Narcotic Control Bureau (NCB) found heroin worth Rs 3,000 crores (LKR 720 million) stashed in the boat along with AK-47 rifles and 1,000 rounds of 9mm ammunition. “A number of incriminating documents were also seized from the occupants of the vessel,” said the NCB, adding that six Sri Lankan nationals were arrested.
The investigations so far have revealed that an unknown vessel carried the heroin and arms consignment from Chabahar Port, Iran, and handed it over to the Sri Lankan fishing boat, Ravihansi, in the high seas near Lakshadweep. Ravihansi then attempted to traffic the consignment to Sri Lanka when the Indian authorities intercepted it. NCB officials said that earlier, Sri Lankan authorities, too, had seized drugs worth Rs 2.5 billion that had been smuggled from the Gwadar port.
Sri Lanka has become a vulnerable transhipment hub for Transnational Organised Crime (TOC) since the Tamil terrorist’s commenced drug trafficking and money laundering in the 1980s. The LTTE smuggled drugs to raise money for arms and ammunition. However, after establishing links with Norway, Canada and few other Western countries the LTTE transferred its drug money into legitimate businesses in the West.
Organised crime and new terrorism
That was the era in which the distinctions between organised crime and new terrorism, as distinguished from old terrorism in cause and effect, have increasingly become blurred. According to A P Wickramasekara, a Sri Lankan researcher at Naval Postgraduate School in California, referring to the convergence of TOC and new terrorism in Sri Lanka proposed three hypotheses.
First, new terrorism often avails itself of the means and methods of organised crime. Second, increasing TOC and the existing ethnic and religious disharmony pose a national security risk in Sri Lanka, increasing its vulnerability to new terrorism. Third, a lack of national strategies have prevented Sri Lanka from harnessing the instruments of national power to the fullest effect.
A case study evaluates al Qaeda and the Abu Sayyaf Group as potential examples of a TOC-new terrorism nexus. The thesis statistically proves the increasing TOC trends and provides evidence on the emerging roots of Islamic radicalization that might lead to new terrorism, which could cause serious threats for the national security of Sri Lanka.
Dr Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharjee of the Indian Council of World Affairs pointed out that terrorism stands out to be a method of combat in which random or symbolic victims serve as instrumental targets of violence.
In his research paper, Narco-Terrorism and South Asia, he said Narco-terrorism could be defined as the “use of organised terror to secure control over a state by another state or organised criminal networks or by insurgents or by a combination of any or all of them to achieve fixed political, economic or social objectives based on organisational and financial empowerment through drug trafficking”.
The involvement of the LTTE in narcotic transactions in the 1980s included bulk delivery of heroin and cannabis from producing areas in Asia via transit points to destinations in consuming countries, conveying relatively small consignments of heroin concealed in personal baggage from suppliers in Asian countries to intermediary contact persons in the Middle East, North Africa, South Africa and western countries, the operation of drug distribution networks dealing in consuming regions or countries and working as couriers between dealers and distributors.
Contraband trade between India and Sri Lanka
Contraband trade between India and Sri Lanka has, for long, been a lucrative commercial enterprise, controlled, for the most part, by gangs operating from both sides of Palk Strait. While Velvettiturai is considered to have served as the foremost centre of the smugglers from Sri Lanka, on the Indian side, Chennai, Tuticorin, Pattukotai, Rameshwaram, Tiruchendur, Ramnad, Nagapatnam, Cochin and a host of smaller localities inhabited by fishing communities have figured prominently among the smuggler bases and hideouts.
The experts say although terrorism is not a recent phenomenon and has been playing an important role in the world since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, terrorism since the 1960s is the child of the war created by the imperialist powers. The current Islamic terrorism is by and large a byproduct of the conflicts initiated by Western powers to control countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Iran.
The Indian Coast Guard seizure of the drugs and arms consignment on March 25 was not the first such instance. Early March, there was another seizure. Indian security sources told Media that one Dubai-based smuggler was working for a multi-national drug smuggling racket, and the money from this has been used to create unrest, and fund extremism. They said the money was used for the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter bombings, fuelling the farmer protest in India. According to Rakesh Asthana, the Director-General of the NCB, this network has cells in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Dubai, and East Africa.
In January this year, M.M.M. Nawas, a Sri Lankan national was arrested by the Narcotics Control Bureau along with his compatriot Mohamed Afnas for alleged involvement in an international drug trafficking racket. They had travelled to Gulf nations on a fake Indian passport.
“Investigations are underway to determine the facts. Both were living in Chennai under assumed identities after they fled Sri Lanka,” a Customs official said.“Nawas is wanted for an attempt to murder the Sri Lankan narcotics control bureau’s inspector, Rangajeeva, on May 9, 2017. He went underground thereafter,” the official added. Nawas is said to be a key associate of Kanjipani Imran, now lodged in jail.
The accused arranged vessels to transport drug consignments from the Gwadar port through maritime routes to transit points in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Payments were made through the ‘hawala’ channel via Dubai.
Imran worked with Sri Lankan underworld figure Makandure Madhush. Madhush was killed in a crossfire between the police and some drug peddlers in October last year. They had earlier operated from Dubai, where they were arrested in 2019 and extradited to Sri Lanka. “In the recent past, some point-men for drug smugglers in Sri Lanka have been found operating from Tamil Nadu,” Indian security officials said, adding that a probe was underway to find out if Nawas had developed links with local criminal gangs for logistics support.
Last year, the drug enforcement agencies found that another Sri Lankan national, Angoda Lokka, a notorious drug trafficker and associate of Madhush, had been living in India since 2017. He died under mysterious circumstances in Coimbatore in July 2020. Lokka had fled Sri Lanka following an attack on a prison bus in February 2017, in which rival gang leader ‘Samayan’ was killed along with five other jail inmates and two prison officials. According to Indian NCB, the drug trafficking network involving Nawas has links in Afghanistan, Iran, the Maldives and Australia.
The Indian Coast Guard and NCB announced that there were 6 Sri Lankans in the boat ‘Ravihansi’ seized with heroin, five AK-47 guns and ammunition had on March 25, off the coast of Vizhinjam in Kerala. The suspects, LY Nandana, HKGB Dassppriya, AHS Gunasekara, SA Senarath, T Ranasingha and D Nissankawere remanded to judicial custody.
*The writer is Director (International Media), Presidential Secretariat, Colombo.