Technology fuelling illicit trade

Technology fuelling illicit trade
Experts say recent technology has changed the fundamentals of trade, in both legitimate and illegal economies. (Getty Images/Shutterstock)
Updated 02 January 2019

Technology fuelling illicit trade

Technology fuelling illicit trade
  • With advancement in technology, more goods are easily exploited in illegal online markets

DUBAI: Emerging technologies and the dark web are fueling illicit trade, which is posing a growing threat to global economies. Middle Eastern nations are among the many countries that have failed to prevent criminals from exploiting loopholes to traffic illegal goods. 

As the Transnational Alliance to Combat Illicit Trade (TRACIT) points out, lying behind every sensational headline is another, often unreported, story which links to illicit trade. 

Take the North Korean nuclear crisis, which could spark a conflict costing hundreds of thousands of lives. Behind that story lies another about a criminal state that survives on counterfeit currency, arms and illicit goods such as cigarettes.

The refugee crisis ravaging Southeast Asia provides cover for human traffickers, while in the Middle East and North Africa, behind the uprisings and the humanitarian crises in war-torn countries like Yemen and Syria, lies another story about the illegal arms trade, a major factor in ongoing conflicts. 

“Illicit trade is a growing threat to economies around the world; the extent and nature of illicit trade is growing as new ways are being developed to supply illicit goods in new categories, bypassing traditional efforts to control it,” John Reiners from analysis firm Oxford Economics told Arab News. “The cost is not just lost revenues to legitimate businesses and tax authorities, but there is a link between illicit trade and organized crime. 

“Criminals fund illicit activity such as drugs and people smuggling, with proceeds from other illicit trades such as illicit cigarettes.”       

While such activities have been around as long as there have been borders, experts say recent technology has changed the fundamentals of trade, in both legitimate and illegal economies.

As Mark Shaw, director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, said: “The global revolution in telecommunications flattened organized crime structures, allowing for constant communication. And if you look at the data, it is almost amazing the degree to which illicit activities have matched licit ones since then.”

In her book, “Dark Commerce: How a New Illicit Economy Is Threatening Our Future,” expert Louise I. Shelley addresses illicit trade in tangible goods—drugs, human beings arms and counterfeits. In the past three decades, she writes, the most advanced forms of illicit trade have broken with all historical precedents and now “operate as if on steroids, tied to computers and social media.” 

Shelley says new technology, communications and globalization fuel the exponential growth of dangerous forms of illegal trade – the markets for narcotics and child pornography online, the escalation of sex trafficking through web advertisements and the sale of endangered species. These in turn have exacerbated many of the world’s destabilizing phenomena – the perpetuation of conflicts, the proliferation of arms and weapons of mass destruction, and environmental degradation and extinction.

Reiners said that technological change is having a dramatic impact on trade and provides vast opportunities for illegal trading. Along with globalization, opening borders and e-commerce, it has become easier than ever for forgers to organize and expand their business. While drugs, firearms and weapons of war are among the most widely publicized illicit trafficked goods, Reiners said other illicit products such as cigarettes and tobacco, alcoholic drinks and medicines also have serious implications for public health and often offer strong financial incentives for consumers to avoid official channels.

“Consumer behavior has changed. Buyers now are now after the lowest prices, not the legitimacy of goods. 

“Illicit trade is more likely to be online and carried out from the comfort of your own home, rather than haggling for goods in a dark alley, attracting more people to buying illicit goods, often unknowingly. “

Supply chains have become more international and complex, said Reiners, increasing vulnerabilities for illicit traders to exploit. “There are now vast volumes of small packages sent to consumers via the postal system, bypassing traditional customs points. As the economy becomes more digital, there are more opportunities for counterfeiters to create excellent copies and abuse intellectual property rights.”

Reiners also highlighted the complexities of enforcing controls on the dark net, where traders can easily switch jurisdictions. “Law enforcers have had some notable successes, but illicit traders are highly mobile. If you close down an illicit site, it pops up elsewhere. The dark web is heavily used for illicit trading, but more by hardened criminals that the average consumer.“

TRACIT annually produces its Global Illicit Trade Environment Index, which evaluates 84 economies on their structural capability to protect against illicit trade. 

Its recently published 2018 report found that, while some countries in the Middle East and Africa were praised in several indicators – such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia for its effective customs procedures – overall the MENA region scored the most poorly among regions globally, with countries including Libya and Iraq scoring among the most poorly globally. 

The UAE ranked second, after Israel, in the MENA region for its overall effectiveness in tackling illicit trade, out of 10 countries in MENA that were studied. Saudi Arabia ranked in fifth place. 

The report noted that many countries were failing to recognize the importance of fighting illicit trade. 

“Where economies aren’t under-resourced in customs or law enforcement, they may otherwise be indifferent or actively neglect illicit practices in order to continue reaping the economic benefits of being a global financial centre (like the UK) or a regional logistics hub (like Singapore, Dubai and Panama) or one of the world’s factories (like China and Vietnam) or a main source of narcotics (like Colombia). Or they may just be corrupt; corruption is far more pervasive than people appreciate, and it is by no means limited to the developing world.

“An international community of people – observers, experts, private sector executives and government officials – have identified the many ways in which illicit trade, in all its various forms, can be combated. Economies that are laggards on the issue can start small and build towards a better environment for preventing illicit trade. And the economies that are leaders should lead.”

Marco Cappellini, president of ViDiTrust and a member of the Coalition Against Illicit Trade, told Arab News that the damage to the global trade was rapidly rising toward €2 trillion and the emergency of evolving technologies, e-commerce and the dark web contributed to this figure.

“Over the last 15 years, the understanding that counterfeiting and illicit trade are scourges for developed countries has risen sharply across all stakeholders. Counterfeit goods exist in all markets, from fashion to spare parts and from toys to pharmaceutical products. The sale of counterfeit goods is on the rise year after year.”

In places like the the Middle East, which has a strong online focus and where e-commerce is expected to reach $48.8 billion, this shift online presents a new channel for illicit trade.

“Cyberspace is populated by honest sellers but also by criminal organizations,” Cappellini said. “There are several things that must be done to fight counterfeiting: Inform consumers about the risks associated in buying from dubious e-commerce stores. Inform brands that they can add security features to their products. Facilitate the cooperation between different countries to fight counterfeiting.”

Reiners said the biggest threats to global economies in the next decade, should governments fail to implement successful counteractive measures, include the substantial growth of illicit trade, loss of tax revenues, undermining of trust in the economy and trading systems, and the growth of organized crime.

He said a number of measures are needed, such as updating legal frameworks to be more relevant to the internet; monitoring and closing down illicit sites; encouraging and incentivizing major participants in e-commerce to take more responsibility for illicit trade; developing better ways of authenticating products and tracking them through the supply chain; and rerouting resources to match the new flows in trade, such as increased checks at parcel depots.

“Technology continues to provide opportunities for illicit traders and in the coming years, with advanced manufacturing, 3D printing and AI, this will continue. Those working to combat it need to invest in the latest techniques to keep up.”   

Afghan cease-fire ends amid calls for fresh peace talks

Afghan cease-fire ends amid calls for fresh peace talks
Updated 16 May 2021

Afghan cease-fire ends amid calls for fresh peace talks

Afghan cease-fire ends amid calls for fresh peace talks
  • Even as the Taliban and government signed on to the cease-fire, violence continues unabated in Afghanistan
KABUL: A three-day cease-fire marked by violent attacks – some claimed by the Daesh group – ended Sunday in Afghanistan amid calls for renewed peace talks between the government and Taliban.
Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the negotiating teams of the government and the Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban refer to their ousted regime, met briefly Saturday in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar. They renewed their commitment to finding a peaceful end to the war and called for an early start to talks that have been stalled, he said.
The US has been pressing for accelerated talks as it withdraws the last of its 2,500-3,500 soldiers and NATO its remaining 7,000 allied forces.
Even as the Taliban and government signed on to the cease-fire, which was declared to mark the Islamic holiday of Eid Al-Fitr, violence continued unabated in Afghanistan. A bombing Friday in a mosque north of the capital killed 12 worshippers, including the prayer leader. Another 15 people were wounded. The Taliban denied involvement and blamed the government intelligence agency. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.
Daesh, however, claimed it blew up several electrical grid stations over the weekend. That left the capital Kabul in the dark for much of the three-day holiday that followed the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
In posts on its affiliated websites, Daesh claimed additional attacks over the last two weeks that destroyed 13 electrical grid stations in several provinces. The stations bring imported power from the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The attacks have left nine provinces including Kabul with disrupted power supplies, said Sanger Niazai, a government spokesman. There was also concern that local warlords, demanding protection money from the government to safeguard stations in areas they control, may have been behind some of the destruction.
At least one local warlord was arrested last year after demanding protection money.
The seemingly unstoppable violence in Afghanistan has residents and regional countries fearful the final withdrawal of US and NATO soldiers could lead to further chaos. Washington said it wants its last soldier out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11 at the latest, but the withdrawal is progressing quickly and a Western official familiar with the exit said it is likely to be completed by early July. He spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the withdrawal are not being made public.
On Saturday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed concern about the rapid withdrawal of US and NATO forces in a phone call with Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
Wang called the withdrawal hasty and warmed it would “severely” impact the Afghan peace process and negatively affect regional stability, He called on the United Nations to play a greater role.

India records more than 4,000 daily COVID-19 deaths

India records more than 4,000 daily COVID-19 deaths
Updated 16 May 2021

India records more than 4,000 daily COVID-19 deaths

India records more than 4,000 daily COVID-19 deaths
  • India’s massive second wave of infections began in February, putting hospitals and medical workers under pressure

BENGALURU: India reported a smaller rise in daily COVID-19 cases for the third straight day on Sunday, but the number of deaths in 24 hours was higher than 4,000, taking the country’s death toll to 270,000.
Deaths grew by 4,077, while infections rose by 311,170 – the smallest rise in daily cases in over three weeks, health ministry data showed on Sunday. Total infections have risen by over 2 million this week and deaths by nearly 28,000.
India’s massive second wave of infections began in February, putting hospitals and medical workers under pressure. Cases have fallen steadily in states hit by an initial surge of infections, such as the richest state of Maharastra and the northern state of Delhi, after they imposed stringent lockdowns.
Federal health officials said on Saturday that the overall rate of positive cases per tests had dipped to 19.8 percent this week from 21.9 percent last week, sparking hopes that daily infections have begun to stabilize.
But surges have been seen in states such as Tamil Nadu in the south and rural areas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday called on officials to strengthen health care resources in rural areas and step up surveillance as the virus spreads rapidly in those areas after ravaging the cities.
Bodies of COVID-19 victims have been found dumped in some Indian rivers, a state government letter seen by Reuters said, in the first official acknowledgement of the alarming practice.
The world’s largest vaccine-producing nation has fully vaccinated just over 40.4 million, or only 2.9 percent, of its 1.35 billion population as of Sunday, according to data from the government’s Co-WIN portal.
India will have 516 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines by July, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Saturday.
The South Asian nation’s tally of infections stands at 24.68 million.

Malaysia, Indonesia urge UN Security Council to stop Israeli ‘violence’

Malaysia, Indonesia urge UN Security Council to stop Israeli ‘violence’
Updated 16 May 2021

Malaysia, Indonesia urge UN Security Council to stop Israeli ‘violence’

Malaysia, Indonesia urge UN Security Council to stop Israeli ‘violence’
  • The Security Council will publicly discuss the worsening violence on Sunday, diplomats said this week

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia and Indonesia on Saturday called on the UN Security Council to intervene and stop Israel’s strikes on Gaza, as the conflict between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants raged on.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said that in a phone conversation with Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, both leaders agreed that Israel’s “despicable actions” must be stopped immediately.

“We were of similar views that the international community, especially the United Nations Security Council, should act swiftly to cease all forms of violence committed by Israel, and save the lives of Palestinians,” Muhyiddin said in a televised address.

“To date, the UN Security Council has not issued any statement on the current situation in Palestine due to opposition from the United States of America,” he said.

Malaysia has long been a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, pushing for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders.

The Security Council will publicly discuss the worsening violence on Sunday, diplomats said this week. The 15-member council has met privately this week about the worst hostilities in the region in years, but has so far been unable to agree on a public statement, diplomats said.

Iran’s foreign minister canceled a visit with his Austrian counterpart to show displeasure that Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s government had flown the Israeli flag in Vienna in a show of solidarity, the Austrian Foreign Ministry said on Saturday.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was supposed to meet Alexander Schallenberg but had called off the trip, a spokeswoman for Schallenberg said, confirming a report in newspaper Die Presse.


• Iranian minister cancels Austrian visit over Israeli flag.

• Morocco to send 40 tons of aid to Palestinians.

• Egypt sends ambulances to evacuate Gaza wounded.

“We regret this and take note of it, but for us it is as clear as day that when Hamas fires more than 2,000 rockets at civilian targets in Israel then we will not remain silent,” the spokeswoman said.

In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told the semi-official news agency ISNA: “Mr. Zarif did not consider the trip beneficial in these circumstances, and therefore the travel arrangements were not finalized.”

The dispute comes during talks in Vienna to try to revive a 2015 accord with western powers in which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions. 

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has ordered 40 tons of aid for Palestinians to be shipped to the West Bank and Gaza following recent violence.

The aid includes food, medicine and blankets and will be carried by military aircraft, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Morocco also denounced “the violent acts perpetrated in occupied Palestinian territories,” and reiterated support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Morocco resumed ties with Israel in December as part of a deal brokered by the US that also includes Washington’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Egypt opened its Rafah border crossing with Gaza to allow 10 ambulances to transport Palestinians seriously wounded in Israeli airstrikes to Egyptian hospitals, medical officials said.

Egypt “exceptionally opened the Rafah crossing to allow 10 Egyptian ambulances into the Gaza Strip to transport wounded Palestinians ... to be treated in Egypt,” a medical official said.

The grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar mosque and university, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, has launched a campaign on social media in “support the Palestinian people.” Stop the killing, he said.

“Enough with silence and double standards if we are really working toward peace.”

Shear luck: Afghan karakul traders lament decline of ‘Karzai cap’

Shear luck: Afghan karakul traders lament decline of ‘Karzai cap’
Updated 16 May 2021

Shear luck: Afghan karakul traders lament decline of ‘Karzai cap’

Shear luck: Afghan karakul traders lament decline of ‘Karzai cap’
  • Tradition risks being lost as lamb stocks deplete and anger grows over ‘pelt peeling’

KABUL: For generations, the pelts of newborn karakul lambs were one of Afghanistan’s major export items, sought after at home and abroad to produce the iconic caps worn by rulers, statesmen and trend-setters — prized fashion items that sold for up to $3,000 each.

However, in recent years, there has been a drastic decline in demand for the eye-catching headwear due to the special breed of sheep that produces the pelt becoming endangered.

“In the past 10 years, the industry has gone bankrupt. There is no market for it now,” Mohammad Salim Saee, head of the agriculture department of northern Balkh, one of the key production areas of karakul sheep, told Arab News.

At its peak in the 1970s, the volume of karakul sheepskin exports to the West stood at 10 million pieces, he said, adding: “You cannot compare it in terms of the percentage now with what we used to produce and export.”

It is now difficult to find a single shop selling karakul sheepskins among the dozens of stores lining the famous avenue of Shahe-Do-Shamshera in the Afghan capital Kabul, where former president Hamid Karzai used to source his trademark hats.

The karakul cap became so synonymous with Karzai that US designer Tom Ford once named him “the chicest man on the planet” for his sartorial choice.

Besides Karzai, regional leaders such as Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and other rulers in Central Asia and across Russia have been seen donning the popular fashion accessory.

Mohammad Aref, head of the agency for karakul production in Balkh, said that Afghanistan exported almost 500,000 skins to the West and across the region just four years ago.

However, there has been a gradual decline in volume since then, with just 17,000 pieces exported to Uzbekistan last year.

Mirwais Ibrahimi, a karakul trader in Balkh, said: “Until a few years ago, 280 shops were selling karakul skins, but now only three or four are left.”

He traces the decline to growing opposition, both at home and abroad, to the “barbaric” practice of ripping the skin off newborn lambs to source the fur.

“In Afghanistan and abroad, the killing of the newborn lamb is regarded as a cruel act. That is why there isn’t much desire for it as there was some years ago,” he told Arab News.

Soon after the birth of a lamb, dealers peel the pelt from its skin before it is fed by the ewe, “because it affects the quality of the skin.”

Rahmat Shah, a dealer in Jowjzan, another key karakul region, said: “Some butchers in the past would even cut through the abdomen of a pregnant sheep to take its baby, but the practice was stopped as it was considered too cruel.”

Kazim Hamayoun, a senior official in Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, said that no regulation or law bans the practice, “which is a concern.”

He added: “Indeed, it is a major concern. The younger a karakul, the higher its value, and the quality of the fur will be finer, too. It is a serious threat to wildlife.

“We do not have anything preventing this — no law or directive. We have distributed leaflets informing dealers about it, but have not done a poll to determine its impact. We hope to launch a national dialogue on this.”

However, Shah lamented the loss of business and the end of an Afghan tradition.

“There is no business at all. We do not know how we and the government can save this industry and tradition from being buried in history forever.”


Indian state in lockdown after ‘super spreader’ poll

Indian state in lockdown after ‘super spreader’ poll
Updated 16 May 2021

Indian state in lockdown after ‘super spreader’ poll

Indian state in lockdown after ‘super spreader’ poll
  • Daily deaths across country stay near 4,000 as total cases reach 24.37m

KOLKATA: An Indian state stricken by coronavirus after mass rallies were held for a key election ordered a two-week lockdown on Saturday in a bid to halt the spread.

All offices, stores and public transport in West Bengal were told to close for 15 days after the region reported its biggest spike yet in deaths and infections.

West Bengal along with a host of southern states are bearing the brunt of a COVID-19 surge in India that has taken the nation’s infection total to nearly 25 million with more than 265,000 deaths.

The strain of the virus responsible has been declared a variant of “global concern” by the World Health Organization.

West Bengal accounted for 21,000 of India’s 326,000 new cases reported on Saturday and hospitals in the state say they are swamped with patients.

In the past 24 hours, India tally of COVID-19 cases reached 24.37 million, with 3,890 deaths, for a toll of 266,207, Health Ministry data shows.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi drew tens of thousands of people to rallies in the region last month ahead of state elections in which his ruling nationalist party failed to unseat Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Banerjee also staged major rallies ahead of the polls and on Friday her brother died from coronavirus in hospital.

Many experts have said the election campaign was a “super-spreader.”

In the resort state of Goa, more than 70 people have died in four days from medical oxygen shortages at hospitals, an opposition party in the region said.

A court ordered emergency supplies of oxygen to be sent to Goa Medical College Hospital to prevent more deaths.

The state’s main opposition party said the patients died from a lack of oxygen but the government said the cause of death had not been determined.

Goa authorities nevertheless said they had asked the central government to nearly double the state’s oxygen supply to 40 tons per day.

Coronavirus restrictions in Goa had been relatively relaxed until the current wave of infections. 

The virus is now causing more than 60 deaths a day in the region and Goa has one of India’s highest infection rates.

In Geneva, the World Health Organization’s chief said India was a huge concern, with the second year of the pandemic set to be more deadly than the first.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s remarks to an online meeting came after Modi sounded the alarm over the rapid spread of the disease through the vast countryside.

India reported its smallest daily increase in coronavirus infections in nearly three weeks on Saturday, with deaths still near the 4,000-mark, but federal health officials said cases and fatalities are rapidly stabilizing in this wave
of the pandemic.

The overall rate of positive cases per tests had dipped to 19.8 percent this week from 21.9 percent last week, federal health officials said in a briefing, but warned that cautiousness must continue.

The slow growth may also reflect test rates that are at their lowest since May 9.

Randeep Guleria, director of AIIMS Hospital in Delhi, warned that secondary infections like mucormycosis or “black fungus” were adding to India’s mortality rate with states having reported more than 500 cases recently in COVID-19 patients with diabetes.

Earlier in the day, Modi told officials to focus on distributing resources including oxygen supplies in the hard-hit rural areas, according to a government statement.

He also called for more testing in India’s vast countryside, which is witnessing a rapid spread of the virus, it added.

Four thousand WHO-supported oxygen concentrators arrived in Delhi on Saturday and will be rushed to states over the next 2-3 days to support the COVID-19 response, Tedros tweeted.

During the past week, the south Asian nation has added about 1.7 million new cases and more than 20,000 deaths in a second wave of infections that has overwhelmed hospitals and medical staff.