ORGANISED crime syndicates trafficking drugs like ice and cocaine are now smuggling tobacco leaf and cigarettes and funnelling the cash back to terrorist groups.
With government taxes on tobacco set to rise again in May’s federal Budget, black market tobacco leaf and cigarettes are now as profitable as narcotics.
And such is the “low risk high return” market, Federal law enforcement now have credible evidence monies from tobacco trafficking are supporting terrorist groups in the Middle East.
Lead national crime fighting agency Australian Border Force intelligence has flagged a noticeable shift in the pattern of trafficking of tobacco which is rising exponentially, in ordinary postal mail alone by 10 to 15 per cent every year.
According to figures obtained by News Corp Australia, in January last year 3.6 million sticks of cigarettes and 435kg of loose leaf tobacco was intercepted at the nation’s main foreign parcel receiving facility in Sydney through which 75 per cent of all mail nationally passes through.
But this January, the latest monthly figure available, 5 million sticks and more than 1 tonne of loose leaf was intercepted.
Last year’s record average was 150 tonnes of loose leaf and 40 million sticks seized but this year that’s expected to be significantly eclipsed.
The difference has been the emergence of serious organised crime groups as opposed to opportunists taking over the trade almost in entirety.
“It’s all about the money,” one frontline ABF officer involved in the fight said.
“Those who were sending drugs are now involved, because the profit is there. We will recognise the mail coming through as being from the same criminal syndicate … over the last 12 months with tobacco we are actually seeing the exporters using the methodologies we would normally see with drugs.”
Such is the profit margin, ABF recently seized a teddy bear with just four packets of cigarettes sewn into it, a considerable effort for just $60 profit but in multiple individual teddy parcels it could be considerable.
Most of the illicit cigarettes, some of which ends up on the shelves of legitimate corner shops, is from South Korea, Japan, China and Hong Kong while loose leaf is mostly from Indonesia and the Middle East.
Some of it is manufactured legally but with the intention to import it specifically to Australia (evidenced in their plain packaging) to avoid duties or to fuel the black market with foreign markings and brands.
While the trafficking alone is a concern so to are its national security implications.
It has been learnt Australia’s multiagency counter terrorism agents, including the ABF, Australian Federal Police and ASIO, have been warned by overseas counterparts notably both US and French authorities and Interpol that the tobacco smuggling industry was being taken over by terrorist networks.
Specifically suspects linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Taliban in Pakistan, Hezbollah in Lebanon and elements linked with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghred (AQIM) in North Africa, Islamic State (ISIS) and even Colombian militant group FARC who traditionally have been involved almost exclusively just in cocaine production.
Australian authorities have intelligence of targets here believed to be in the tobacco smuggling trade and sympathetic and or indirectly linked to the Islamic extremist cause of both Hezbollah and ISIS.
Authorities have conceded the thresholds that have to be established for a prosecution with proof of knowledge and proof of origin are substantial and hard to make, not helped by suspected corrupt import brokers and freight handlers.
Earlier this month, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) told a parliamentary joint committee inquiry into illicit tobacco it was a “low risk high reward” trafficking industry and as such high-end criminals were using profits to fund into other criminal enterprises.
This included those with jihadist terror links, although sensitivities around element prompted a request for the evidence to be heard behind closed doors.
There was evidence just one successful import out of 20 attempts from the Middle East was all that was needed to turn a profit.
In 2015, the ABF recognised the rise in tobacco smuggling and the potential loss to government in tax revenue and created a dedicated strike team.
The level of illegal trafficking attempts is expected to rise significantly with a 12.5 per cent increase in excise and customs duties to come in this September under the Federal Government’s May budget, to make the average cost of a packet of cigarettes the most expensive in the world at up to $40 a packet.