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Transnational Crime Unit

NCIS Working with Partner Navies to Disrupt International Trafficking Networks in Middle East

by Jeff Houston, Naval Criminal Investigative Service
08 November 2018 On average, 115 Americans die from an opioid overdose each day in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country has been grappling with a worsening drug epidemic for decades. In 2016, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids was five times higher than in 1999, for example. From 1999 to 2016, more than 630,000 people died from drug overdoses nationwide, including in communities where Navy personnel live and operate. Many of those drugs come from overseas. According to the United Nations, nearly 80 percent of the world's heroin is exported from Afghanistan. The majority is transported to the coast of Pakistan and then loaded onto maritime vessels, destined for East African countries and, eventually, the United States.

The Bahrain-based Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) Transnational Crime Unit, or TCU, is helping with the counternarcotics fight in the waters of the Middle East by deploying special agents aboard multinational Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150) warships during maritime security operations in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.

This team of highly skilled special agents patrols the high seas aboard ships from the United States, France, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Agents, who spend up to 90 days at sea at a time, provide law enforcement expertise and collect intelligence during interdictions of illicit narcotics aboard suspicious vessels found in areas known for drug trafficking operations.

They have participated in the seizure of nearly 10,000 kilograms of heroin and 30,000 kilograms of hashish over the past five years. Over that period, seizure totals have also grown significantly, from 755 kilograms of heroin and 5,588 kilograms of hashish in 2014 to 2,647 and 32,987 kilograms, respectively, in 2018. These operations have also resulted in the seizure of more than 2,000 weapons.

These interdictions deny funding for terrorism, said NCIS Director Andrew Traver, so the TCU contributes significantly to the National Defense Strategy. It also strengthens military readiness by keeping illicit narcotics from reaching service members and their families throughout Europe, Africa and the United States.

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Agents also assist in the boarding of suspected stateless vessels and advise in the search for illicit items, which are usually found in secret compartments that can take days to locate. They ensure evidence is collected properly for laboratory analysis and, eventually, for successful prosecution.

Most importantly, NCIS provides expertise in the tactical questioning of crew members, according to TCU Special Agent Darryl Tamash, who has deployed with the Royal Australian Navy nine times over the past two years. The intelligence gathered from interdicted crew members is quickly relayed to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Regional Narcotics Interagency Fusion Cell (RNIFC) in Bahrain.

This cell collects intelligence from law enforcement, intelligence and military organizations from partner countries, then disseminates that intelligence to CTF-150. An analyst assigned to TCU cross-references the incoming intelligence with previously collected intel, allowing NCIS and CTF-150 to analyze trafficking trends in real time.

Intelligence gleaned from every part of the boarding and seizure process — from what the crew members divulge to the way the drugs are packaged and branded — provides valuable insight into drug trafficking operations in the region, said Tamash. When they're not engaged in interdictions, the special agents are working with the RNIFC to identify and locate other suspicious vessels likely carrying illicit narcotics.

“Doing the actual seizures has value because it denies that contraband from reaching consumers in whatever market it's destined for, but [by] just doing that, we're not solving the problem — we're just slowing it down,” said Traver. “By interviewing crew members, we can gain really critical intelligence that helps law enforcement detect and eventually disrupt the transnational criminal organizations that are perpetuating these trafficking schemes.”

Special agents also conduct subject matter expert exchanges with military and law enforcement partners in the region, including those belonging to the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Tanzania, Seychelles and South Africa. This helps ensure that smugglers who use the sea to transport illegal products are identified, biometrically enrolled in international law enforcement databases, and, eventually, prosecuted.

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“Since its 2009 formation, the TCU has established a reputation in the Middle East and East Africa regions as the premier maritime law enforcement subject matter experts,” said Sean Devinny, TCU division chief. “At the request of CTF-150 and Combined Maritime Forces, TCU agents provide briefings to command staff of new warships assigned to CTF-150. Agents also regularly provide pre-mission briefs to other U.S. and coalition navy entities.”

In the past year, the TCU has further enhanced its reach by conducting a seminar for the Republic of Korea ship Chungmugong Yi Sun-Sin, which regularly executes counterpiracy missions on behalf of Combined Maritime Forces. The seminar covered boarding, search techniques, hidden compartments often used to store illicit drugs and weapons, and tactical questioning. The TCU also recently met with regional directors responsible for the Indian Ocean and Afghanistan from the United Kingdom's National Crime Agency. They addressed strategies for combating transnational organized crime in those regions.

“From 2009 until 2015 or so, we pretty much focused on collecting intelligence and destroying the illicit narcotics we seized. Now, in the last couple years, we've really taken the focus more toward prosecuting these individuals,” said Devinny. “What we're trying to do now is work with the United States Attorney's Office or work with other countries in the region to prosecute them, although that process takes time because of the complex law enforcement and legal partnerships that must be solidified first. We plan to work hand-in-hand with countries throughout the entire process, to the point where these criminals are brought to court for trial.”

The Middle East Field Office also has access to a warehouse maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard that features a popular, traditional Indian Ocean sailing vessel that NCIS special agents and partners can use to simulate maritime security operations for training purposes.

“It's critically important that we work with our foreign partners,” said Traver. “Without their support, without their partnership, it would be virtually impossible for us to have the success that we've been able to attain over the last several years. ... It's a tremendous benefit not only to the United States and NCIS, but also our foreign partners.”

Editor's Note: Learn more about NCIS TCU here.