Canadian troops in Bahrain bust drug runners on the 'hash highway'

Combined Task Force 150 members Master Cpl. David Jackson, Cpl. Robert Pottage, Cpl. Marc Delaney and Cpl. Timothy Schultz stand in front of a satellite on Naval Support Activity Bahrain, January 23, 2019. The team made up of 30 Canadians and seven Australians work with 10 other Canadians running the Unclassified Remote-Sensing Situational Awareness satellite system. URSA monitors maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf and the historic narcotics ''smack track'' in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.


By JOSHUA KARSTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 28, 2019

MANAMA, Bahrain — Zeroing in on a small fishing dhow loaded with heroin in 2 million square miles of ocean is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but a crew of mostly Canadian troops has helped find six in the past two months, hauling in nearly 16 tons of illicit drugs.

The number of uniformed troops wearing maple leaf flags who are taking part in the 33-nation naval partnership here is small, but their area of responsibility is enormous, spanning the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean and Gulf or Oman, including some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Just before Christmas, they helped lead the British destroyer HMS Dragon to a pair of dhows carrying nearly 11 tons of illegal drugs, about $6.5 million worth — the most in any bust since the Combined Maritime Force here transitioned from a U.S. force to a multinational counterterrorism and maritime security coalition after 9/11.

In all, their efforts have yielded six drug busts totaling 31,585 pounds since they took over the reins for Combined Task Force 150 from the Saudi navy in December on a four-month rotation.

The task force focuses on disrupting terrorist activities in the region by preventing them from transiting the region’s waterways, which includes the narrow choke points at the Strait of Hormuz, Bab el Mandeb and the Suez Canal.

The drug trade is one way that terrorist groups and extremists throughout Central and South Asia raise the funds they need “to buy weapons, to recruit people, to train people and ultimately to disrupt and act,” said CTF 150 boss Commodore Darren Garnier.

Afghanistan, the world’s leading producer of opium poppies, is a prime example, he said. Revenues from opium, heroin and hashish are funneled into the Taliban’s coffers, while the narcotics spread through arteries linking Asia, the Middle East and East Africa have been favored by traffickers for centuries.

Most of the fishermen and merchant sailors are not criminals, he said, but they become traffickers through coercion or desperation.

“We’re trying to understand what’s out there, how we can interdict it, how we can stop it, how we can perhaps change the culture of the people that are doing this business,” Garnier said. “It’s a big long education process and that takes time.”

In addition to drugs and weapons, traffickers have also been shipping charcoal from Somalia, where the United Nations banned its export in 2012 in an attempt to cut off a key revenue stream for the al-Qaida-affiliated militant group al-Shabab.

An estimated 3 million bags of charcoal were exported last year. Much of it was repackaged into white bags labeled “Product of Iran,” loaded onto Iran-flagged dhows and shipped to Dubai, according to U.N. monitors.

An estimated $150 million in Somali charcoal is imported to UAE each year, the monitors said. There it sees wide use in cooking and in smoking hookah water pipes.

Charcoal has only recently become part of their mandate, he said, and his team of 30 Canadian sailors and seven Australians has yet to find any charcoal shipments.

Aiding the mission is a team of 10 other Canadian troops who operate the Unclassified Remote-Sensing Situational Awareness satellite system, which monitors maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf and the “smack track” in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.

“We’re looking at shipping patterns of life, how commerce, fisherman, people who do legitimate commerce on the seas every day, how that flows historically,” Garnier said. “When you see ships operating outside of that ... they then become of interest to us.”

Developed in 2011, the mobile, deployable URSA system can download imagery from commercial satellites passing over operational theaters in about 30 minutes, providing up-to-date mapping and surveillance capabilities, the Canadian military has said.

Because the high-resolution imagery comes from commercial sources, it can be shared outside the military for use in disaster relief or other civilian purposes, or — as in CTF 150’s case — with partners outside the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing network made up of the U.S., Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

“It contributes to building and maintaining situational awareness and pattern of life that’s happening at sea,” said Cmdr. Mathias Plaschka, the URSA team lead. “Patterns get built, the data is kept. You get a sense of what is normal and what is not normal.”

After a potential target is identified for a closer look, a coalition ship interdicts it, boards and seizes any illicit cargo. Drugs are typically destroyed and crews released.

Success isn’t measured just by the number of drug busts, Plaschka said, but in how the 33 countries of the CMF work together to make them happen.

URSA is a unique part of that cooperation, Master Cpl. David Jackson said.

“We get to contribute information that no other part of CMF is able to contribute,” Jackson said.

Twitter: @joshua_karsten

A Combined Task Force 150 satellite tracking system displays a fishing dhow in the Persian Gulf at Naval Support Activity Bahrain, Jan. 23, 2019.