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How ISIS Is Shaking Up The Once-Predictable Mediterranean Drug Trade

Swaths of cannabis in northern Morocco. The U.N. estimates 80,000 families in the rugged northern Rif mountains make their living from growing marijuana. Their efforst have made Morocco the main hashish supplier for Europe and the world.
Abdeljalil Bounhar
/
AP
Swaths of cannabis in northern Morocco. The U.N. estimates 80,000 families in the rugged northern Rif mountains make their living from growing marijuana. Their efforst have made Morocco the main hashish supplier for Europe and the world.

Since 2013, European Union officials have seized hundreds of tons of hashish, worth more than $3 billion, from 20 ships traversing a lucrative drug trafficking route across the Mediterranean.

The drugs flow through multiple countries – Morocco, Libya, Egypt, and some Balkan states – and even areas controlled by self-proclaimed Islamic State militants, who are taxing the shipments as it goes through their territory.

“These countries, Libya in particular, these are not countries that are known for taking drugs, or for taking hashish,” said University of Oklahoma College of International Studies assistant dean Rebecca Cruise, who’s a security studies expert and a regular contributor to KGOU’s World Views.

“This is a form of payment. It's not necessarily to be sold on the streets of Libya,” Cruise said. “It's to be sent elsewhere.”

Drug trafficking through the Mediterranean is nothing new, but these massive cargo ships are an anomaly. Usually the drugs are transported by speedboat or personal watercraft. And as The New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi reports, these football field-sized ships had no cargo on board other than the hash:

That the smugglers were willing to operate so inefficiently — Mr. Catania compared it to using an 18-wheeler to transport a single pack of cigarettes — is testament to the value of the cargo. Considering that hashish sells for €10,000, about $11,200, per kilogram once it reaches Europe’s streets, the Adam’s cargo alone was worth at least €150 million. And shipments seized later were even bigger — including a load of hashish aboard the freighter Aberdeen, boarded in the summer of 2014, that was estimated to be worth €420 million — or about $472 million. After seizing the Adam, investigators in Italy interrogated its crew members, who insisted that they did not know that hashish was in the 591 plastic bags investigators had found on the ship’s deck. The ship’s captain testified that he believed he was transporting humanitarian aid, brought to the ship by the crew of a speedboat that approached them off the coast of Morocco and insisted that they take the bags, according to a transcript of his statement to investigators.

Cruise has done extensive research into illicit trafficking, which is often used by terrorist to fund their operations. Italian authorities are used to dealing with organized crime – but unlike the Sicilian Mafia – ISIS terrorists can be unpredictable.

“For the Mafia…their main motivation is to make money. For ISIS or terrorist organizations, this is their secondary motivation. They’re making money to support their main motivation of some sort of political chaos or overthrow or whatever it might be. So anything is still on the table, and that's what officials are concerned about, particularly in Italy,” Cruise said. “They know what the Mafia is capable of. They don't know what these groups are capable of, and that's pretty scary.”

KGOU and World Views rely on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service with internationally focused reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.  

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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