On Sept. 26, Jordan dealt a double blow to drug traffickers by intercepting two drones packed with crystal meth from Syria. But this is just the tip of a rapidly growing iceberg. In the past two months alone, Amman has thwarted four more drones, each laden with a deadly cocktail of drugs, arms, and explosives. This surge illuminates a disturbing evolution in the tactics of smuggling networks operating in southern Syria.
For years, Jordan has battled attempts to funnel narcotics across its 375-kilometer (233-mile) desert border with Syria, where a sprawling multimillion-dollar drug trade has thrived amid the turmoil of civil war and with regime complicity. Yet, what makes the recent events truly unsettling is the soaring reliance on drones to carry out these covert operations — a trend that has surged since June.
Drones create a new and unprecedented challenge. They slip under the radar, evading detection and interception far more effectively than their ground-bound counterparts. This unsettling development does not merely amplify the trafficking of contraband; it introduces a whole new frontier of security challenges that Jordan cannot afford to ignore.
Open-source data offers scant insights into the utilization of drones for smuggling between Syria and Jordan. Nevertheless, conversations with local sources reveal that land-based smuggling routes have been the method of choice due to their established efficacy. Although there have been previous trials with drones, their use in smuggling has been limited, primarily due to a lack of significant demand. Drones were predominantly employed for training and reconnaissance purposes, particularly for surveying routes before or during smuggling operations.
However, the increased threat posed by Jordanian forces to smugglers inside Syria over the past few months has been a game changer. Jordan has taken significant steps to bolster the security of its northern border with Syria, aiming to curtail the flow of drugs. Despite Jordan’s considerable success in countering smuggling operations, smuggling groups have continued to exploit it as a transit country, largely due to the protection and facilitation provided by the Assad regime’s security agencies and military forces.
The turning point came on May 8 when airstrikes believed to be orchestrated by Jordan targeted drug-related operations within Syria. These strikes marked a significant departure in Amman's approach to its war on drugs; they represented the first known external actions taken against narcotics trafficking networks inside Syria.
The consequences were immediate. Fearing they could be the next targets, many smugglers went underground or temporarily suspended their illicit activities. To underscore that the May attacks were not an isolated incident, another airstrike, also attributed to Jordan, struck an alleged drug production facility in southern Syria near the Jordanian border in late August.
Recent reports suggest that Jordan may even consider altering its rules of engagement to potentially include ground operations against drug traffickers within Syria. This looming possibility further amplifies the threats emanating from Amman.
In response to these developments, drug traffickers operating within Syria are reportedly exploring ways to make their operations and structures less conspicuous. In the past, they operated semi-openly, confident in the protection provided by the Syrian regime. However, the current external pressure has forced them to seek ways of enhancing their secrecy and resilience.
The surge in drone activity, anticipated by Jordanian authorities, underscores the direct link between heightened Jordanian cross-border anti-drug activities and this emerging method. So far this year, Jordan has managed to thwart 11 drones, only one of which occurred before May. The remaining 10 incidents took place between June and September.
This surge in drone use reflects a notable shift in approach. Several factors contribute to this, chief among them being drones' reportedly significantly higher success rate when compared to traditional smuggling operations carried out on foot or by vehicle, where roughly one-third of attempts achieve their objectives and get through. This higher success rate should come as no surprise, given that drones pose a formidable challenge for radar systems due to their minimal radar signature. Given the lack of special technology, governments in developing countries primarily rely on spotting them by the naked eye. However, the drones' capacity to fly autonomously at night makes intercepting them even more difficult.
Local sources have also revealed that certain smugglers employ a diversionary tactic to boost their chances of success. This involves sacrificing a low-cost drone to divert authorities' attention from a more significant operation. Notably, the drones intercepted on both June 28 and Aug. 28 were reportedly found to be empty, implying that they may have served as diversions from another operation employing multiple drones loaded with drugs.
In addition, drones offer a unique advantage for smugglers due to their cost-effectiveness and ease of operation. Examining the images of the intercepted drones reveals that these devices are priced at $1,000 or less, representing a relatively modest investment compared to the potential profits derived from illicit activities. It is worth noting that some, if not all, of these drones are equipped with autonomous return functionality, ensuring they return to their operators after completing a delivery, thereby maximizing cost-efficiency as they can be reused.
Significantly, it has come to light through multiple sources that the Syrian regime, particularly the 5th and 4th brigades, as well as certain Hezbollah affiliates, play pivotal roles in facilitating the acquisition of these drones and providing initial training to smugglers affiliated with them on their operation. This level of support streamlines the procurement and utilization of these unmanned aircraft, making them more accessible to smuggling networks.
In contrast to conventional ground-based smuggling operations, which tend to follow established routes and border crossings, drones offer unparalleled flexibility. They can be launched from virtually any location within their operational range, providing smugglers with the ability to constantly shift their operation sites. This makes it exceedingly challenging to predict and intercept their activities. Moreover, the intrinsic difficulty in tracing the origin of drone operations creates plausible deniability, as direct links to the Syrian regime become tenuous compared to terrestrial smuggling, whether by foot or vehicle.
Open source data shows that the cargoes transported by the intercepted drones primarily consist of highly addictive drugs, explosives, and weapons, significantly heightening the threat to Jordan's national security. Notably, out of the nine intercepted drones transporting cargo, six were found to be carrying crystal meth. This emphasis on trafficking crystal meth is rooted in its substantially higher street value compared to other illicit substances. According to informed sources, its market worth is approximately seven times that of Captagon and about 25 times that of hashish. Some sources also stated that crystal meth, usually transported in powdered form, can be adulterated with other common substances, such as caffeine and theophylline, to create counterfeit Captagon pills. Consequently, the increased supply of crystal meth to Jordan raises concerns about a potential transformation of the nation from a transit hub into a consumption market or, equally worrisome, a production hub for this particularly addictive drug.
In a separate vein, the remaining three drones were found to be transporting weaponry, including M4 rifles, hand grenades, and TNT. It is essential to underscore that arms smuggling from Syria to Jordan has not been a prevalent issue in the past. Consequently, the presence of these weapons raises significant questions about their intended use and the potential for them to undermine Jordanian security. Whether these arms fall into the hands of criminal organizations or terrorist groups, their presence in Jordan represents a substantial security risk.
Despite Jordan's success in intercepting 11 drones this year, insights from well-informed sources strongly suggest that numerous others have managed to evade detection and reach their intended targets. Furthermore, it is reasonable to anticipate that smugglers' tactics and capabilities will continue to evolve as this method of illicit transport becomes more refined. Consequently, the United States and its key allies must consider bolstering Jordan's technical capacities and enhancing its intelligence gathering capabilities to effectively counter the multifaceted threats posed by these drones to its national security.
Dr. Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a consulting fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.
Photo by KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP via Getty Images
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