From Syria to Libya: Inside the booming drugs trade thriving on regional chaos
An investigation by Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication, has shed light on a drug-smuggling network between Syrian and Libyan ports led by a convicted criminal with dual nationality who works in eastern Libya with the support of Khalifa Haftar's allies.
Between 16 July 2017 and 22 December 2020, Libyan authorities seized 71.95 tonnes of cannabis at an estimated market value of 1.79 billion Libyan dinars ($238 million), according to Libyan Customs Authority data on port shipment seizures.
The cannabis confiscated is estimated to be 30% of the total smuggled, according to Muhammed Faytori, who works in the Interior Ministry of the National Unity Government.
Drug smuggling into Libya happens through transatlantic networks, one of which was traced to Syria via a court case where a Syrian-Libyan dual national was convicted.
A security vacuum and regional fragmentation are being exploited to smuggle drugs from Latakia - a Syrian regime-held city on the Syrian coast - to Benghazi and Tobruk in northeastern Libya (under the control of Haftar's militias) and Al-Khums and Zuwara in Western Libya (controlled by the internationally-recognised government in Tripoli).
"A security vacuum and regional fragmentation are being exploited to smuggle drugs from Latakia in regime-held Syria to Benghazi and Tobruk in northeastern Libya"
Al Tayr shipping company
Documents from the 2019 court case in Benghazi revealed that four Syrians and three Libyans were accused of smuggling drugs from Syria to Libya. Two of the Syrians, Mohammed Mahmoud Sa'ad and Hashem Adel Ajjan were sentenced to death by firing squad, while Mahmoud Abdullah Dajj and Mohammed Hani Abdeen were sentenced to death in absentia. The Libyans were found innocent.
Dajj, a Syrian-Libyan dual national, owns the Al Tayr International Trading and Shipping Company headquartered in Latakia, which was implicated in the smuggling operation following multiple seizures of company containers carrying drugs, predominantly cannabis and captagon (a type of amphetamine), over two years.
A major drugs bust aboard the cargo ship Noka in Greek waters on 5 December 2018 on its way to Benghazi, led to the discovery of the operation. Al Tayr cargo on board led the Greek authorities to inform Libyan officials who raided the company’s Benghazi offices. Several staff members were arrested and cannabis and narcotics supplies seized, according to the Benghazi Customs Directorate.
Exploiting the security vacuum
Libya is a key transit point for drugs coming from Syria, Morocco, and Lebanon. Some of this is sold locally but large quantities are smuggled on to Egypt, southern Italy, and the Balkan and Sahel states, according to 'Shifting sands: Libya’s changing drug trafficking dynamics on the coastal and desert borders', a report by researcher Mark Micallef, from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.
National Unity Government official Faytori confirms that Benghazi, Tobruk, Al-Khums and Zuwara are the main ports where drugs enter and exit Libya due to the lack of state control over them.
The Syrian regime exploits this vacuum to fund its activities through smuggling Syrian drugs across the region. This was highlighted by former Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha in tweets posted in May 2020, accusing the Military Investment Authority affiliated to Haftar of establishing a black market economy in cooperation with Assad's regime using the land and sea routes it controlled.
#Haftar ‘s Military Investment Commission has long embarked on opening a maritime shipping and air route to create a black economy with the #Assad regime to help the regime evade sanctions and benefit financially. 3/5— فتحي باشاغا Fathi Bashagha (@fathi_bashagha) May 5, 2020
Abdel Hakim al-Bali'azi, a former spokesman of the Committee for Combatting Crime, states: "With the huge profits available from the drugs trade, in addition to the corruption and bribery which is endemic at the official level in the two regimes, and with the decline in sources of income for the government, it is only logical that drug smuggling is being conducted via Syria’s ports".
"With the huge profits available from the drugs trade... and with the decline in sources of income for the government, it is only logical that drug smuggling is being conducted via Syria's ports"
Influential people close to Haftar and the Gaddafi regime supported Al Tayr's work in Libya. Fawzia Al-Farjani is Chairman of the Council of Libyan Businessmen in Benghazi and advisor to Chief of General Staff of Haftar's militias, Abdel-Razaq al-Nadhouri. She played a significant role in developing the relationship between Haftar and Assad.
On 22 March 2018 she oversaw the establishment of a direct sea route between Benghazi and Latakia, before co-arranging a 'Made in Syria' exhibition with Al Tayr, held in Benghazi on 20 May 2018, aiming to bolster the economic ties between the Assad regime and Haftar-controlled eastern Libya.
Sponsors included the Syrian Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade, the Damascus Chamber of Industry, the Syrian Exporter's Federation and the Council of Libyan Businessmen in Benghazi. Al Tayr was tasked with transporting the participating traders' goods to Benghazi, according to Dajj.
At the exhibition, Dajj invited the Libyan businessmen to a second exhibition in Damascus which was to be held under the patronage of president Assad. Al Tayr sent invitations to the Libyan traders which included flight tickets and four days stay in a hotel free of charge in Damascus in February 2019.
Hiding the drugs
To smuggle the cannabis and captagon across Libyan ports it was hidden in cleaning and building materials, and in the bases of containers. This was proven in documentation detailing nine drugs seizures on ships anchored at Libyan ports before 22 Dec 2020, in addition to eight ships which had their drug shipments confiscated by the authorities of the Mediterranean basin countries between September 2018 and 5 January 2021, all who started their journeys at Latakia.
This included the six tonnes of hashish and 3.1 million captagon pills seized on the Noka, hidden in a glass cleaner called 'Gold Medal' and in the bases of shipping containers onboard. The company that manufactures Gold Medal is co-managed by Salim Daboul – a Syrian businessman close to the regime who founded projects to support and fund it, according to the report 'Funding War Crimes: Syrian businessmen who kept Assad going', published by 'Pro Justice' in 2020.
Close relations between eastern Libya and Assad
Despite Dajj's execution sentence, no international arrest warrant has been issued against him, and the Libyan authorities have not released his name and his company’s name to the land, sea and air ports to prevent them from dealing with him. Al Tayr is still organising trips to Libya, and the Syrian Civil Aviation Authority has granted Libyan airlines permission to resume flights from Benghazi to Damascus.
"The US Embassy informed the Libyan Foreign Minister of its concern over Cham Wings landing planes in Benghazi, and expressed the hope that Libya would blacklist the company considering it was under US sanctions"
Cham Wings Airlines (a Syrian company under American sanctions for transporting mercenaries, arms and equipment to eastern Libya on behalf of the Syrian regime) started running three weekly trips from Damascus to Benghazi from October 2020, arranged through its 'exclusive' agent, Al Tayr.
On 7 October 2018, Brigadier General Hussein al-Amari, head of the Relations and Cooperation Department at the Ministry of Interior sent a letter to Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha. It revealed that the American Embassy had informed the Libyan Foreign Minister of its concern over Cham Wings landing planes in Benghazi, and expressed the hope that Libya would blacklist the company considering it was under US sanctions. However, its trips have continued.
What is Dajj's response?
Dajj stated that the raid of the Al Tayr offices and the arrest of two employees in 2018 were intended to put pressure on him to pay a bribe for the employees' release and to close the case. He said that various Libyan authorities and entities had tried to blackmail him in this way but he had refused to respond.
He claimed to have voice recordings of them, which he had sent to the Syrian and Libyan authorities, who had held those people accountable. However, he did not publish these in order to protect his family's safety and the relations between the two countries.
Dajj states that his company was exonerated in the Noka case, and that the Benghazi case was fabricated.
As for his death sentence, Dajj stated that his lawyers had appealed and he would definitely be exonerated. However, the lawyer who spoke to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed said: "He has to give himself up to the Libyan authorities for a retrial in order to benefit from the appeal". This is because in accordance with Libyan law, no lawyer can file an appeal against the ruling against him because he was convicted in absentia.
This is an edited translation from the Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.
Translated by Rose Chacko