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Narco-Drones: Chinese Technology and the Evolving War on Drugs

Narco-Drones: Chinese Technology and the Evolving War on Drugs

Marcus Andreopoulos – Senior Research Fellow at the International Policy Assessment Group of the Asia-Pacific Foundation and Dr Sajjan M. Gohel – International Security Director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation and Chairman of NATO’s DEEP Global Threats Advisory Group.

In 2021, the U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) stated that Da Jiang Innovations (DJI), the Chinese drone manufacturing company, posed a direct national security threat. The fear is that DJI-made drones could be used to gather information, data, and facilitate the targeting of critical infrastructure for the benefit of the Chinese government. The DoD pointed out that DJI’s contributions to the military-civil fusion strategy of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) posed significant risks and subsequently blacklisted the company for its ties to the country’s military. 

The years that followed have witnessed a global proliferation in the use of DJI drones, not yet to target critical infrastructure, but instead for illicit activity, mostly to enhance the narcotics trade in the Middle East, North America, and South Asia. DJI has also been at the forefront of supplying drone technology to the Russian war effort in Ukraine. Despite no explicit proof implicating the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the supplying of DJI drones to international drug cartels, the use of such technology appears to further Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions.

Throughout 2023, Jordan has been grappling with this new threat. Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF) who, since 2011, have been tasked with preventing violence and instability from permeating through the country’s 375-kilometre border with Syria, have now diverted their attention to the skies. Syria, once a hub of Islamist extremism during the 2010s, has transitioned into a production and distribution base for narcotics, including methamphetamine and the synthetic, amphetamine-like captagon. Criminal groups affiliated to both the Assad regime and Iran are trafficking small quantities of crystal meth over the border into Jordan via cheap, civilian drones. 

Unlike captagon, which still requires trafficking on the ground to move the considerable amounts required for the trade to be profitable, just a few grams of methamphetamine are enough to make drone smuggling cost efficient. Between August and the start of September, the JAF had shot down four drones carrying narcotics. These included lightweight and relatively cheap Chinese-made DJI drones. By the end of the month, a further two narco-drones were downed over Jordanian air space. 

In the midst of the devastation caused by over a decade of war, this narcotics trade, particularly of captagon, has offered Bashar al-Assad a much-needed financial lifeline. In 2021, seizures alone of the synthetic drug in the Middle East and Mediterranean, most of which originated in Syria or Lebanon, had an estimated value of $5.7 billion. But this lucrative narcotics trade is only as secure as its trade routes and as major regional powers, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, become more attune to the threat, there is a risk that Syrian smugglers will get cut off from their pathways into Europe. Thus, by diversifying the type and mode of drug exports, through the utilisation of new technologies, Syrian smugglers are increasing the resilience of an illicit industry that rivals the country’s own GDP.

Using drones to traffic narcotics also adds an extra layer of plausible deniability to Assad, whose re-entry into the Arab league pivoted on a promise to clampdown on domestic drug production. The remote nature of operating such drones allows gangs with affiliations to the regime, to operate free from the risk of detection, allowing the process of normalisation between Syria and the rest of the Arab world to proceed uninterrupted. 

New technology has also allowed Assad to destabilise regional adversaries. For over a year now, Jordan has had to contend with rampant drug abuse among its own population. Unlike the captagon trade, much of the crystal meth being transported into the country via drone is intended for local use rather than wider regional and transcontinental distribution. 

More worryingly for Amman, the narco-drones shot down in the past three months were not just carrying crystal meth, but also weapons and explosives. This raises the prospect that Assad is seeking to arm militant groups in Jordan, as well as escalating the country’s pre-existing drug problem. For this ambition, the DJI drones can serve an additional purpose, equipped with cameras that can allow drug and weapon drop offs to double as reconnaissance missions. At the end of January there was further drone-related escalation along the Jordanian border with Syria, although this time neither Assad nor DJI were the culprits. The drone strike, which hit an American military base in the north east of Jordan killing three U.S. troops, was coordinated by the Iran-backed militia Islamic Resistance in Iraq. Such attacks further demonstrate the ease with which relatively unsophisticated technology can be used to greatly inflame tensions and destabilise regions.

The issue of narco-drones is not exclusive to the Middle East, however. In the U.S., law enforcement has also been confronted with the same problem for nearly a decade, with the Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas warning that this technology could be a ‘force multiplier’ for drug smugglers. Cross-border narco-drone operations between the U.S. and Mexico have their roots back in 2013, coinciding with the release of the first DJI consumer drone. Much like in Syria, the availability, low cost, and ease of usage of such drones presented cartels in Mexico with an opportunity to expand their means of drug trafficking. Although, it has not just been the cheaper DJI models that have been intercepted transporting drugs throughout the U.S.; in 2017 a DJI Matrice 600 Pro costing $5,000 was recovered by a U.S. border patrol in California.

Through customisation and enhancements, drug cartels have upgraded ordinary DJI drones, increasing their capacity to carry larger quantities of drugs. Such drones can now traffic up to 10 kilograms of cocaine over distances of nearly 100 kilometres – more than enough to cover the required distance over the U.S.-Mexico border. Furthermore, the longstanding links between Chinese actors and Mexican drug cartels raises the prospect that drones are being directly supplied from China to Mexico, with the intention of destabilising the U.S. China has long played a key role in the trade of the synthetic opioid fentanyl throughout North America. Despite briefly working to combat domestic production in 2019, China has remained the primary source to the U.S. of fentanyl and its precursor chemicals, and drones may well be an expansion of these grey zone tactics adopted by the CCP to exacerbate domestic drug issues in the U.S. 

The method of cartels moving narcotics by using Chinese drones has also been adopted along the India-Pakistan border. This has resulted in the proliferation of the narcotics trade with drones enhancing an already hybridised threat of weapons smuggling, terrorism, and homicides. The Babbar Khalsa terrorist group, which is proscribed in Europe and North America, is at the forefront of this illicit enterprise. Provided with safe sanctuary inside Pakistan by state elements, Babbar Khalsa has sought to target political and religious leaders in India’s Punjab state by availing of cross-border consignments of weapons via DJI drones. It is unclear how the terrorist outfit acquired such drones, however, with links to the Pakistani state, who in turn share a special relationship with China, it is easy to trace a pipeline from Beijing to the Punjab.

Chinese company DJI is not just the go to manufacturer of choice for narcotics gangs but has also played a crucial role in supplying the Russian army in Ukraine. Since Russia’s invasion of the country, China has sold $12 million worth of drones and parts to the country, mostly from DJI and other, smaller companies. The world-leading drone manufacturer is quickly becoming a vessel through which China is exporting its technological influence and dependency throughout the world. Elsewhere in Europe, for nearly half a decade, the continent has been looking toward China and DJI to meet its own military demands, despite concerns from the U.S. over the protection of sensitive data. DJI has long insisted that it does not share data with the Chinese government, however, documents reviewed by the Washington Post in early 2022 revealed ‘obscure’ funding ties between the company and the CCP. 

The fact that DJI has been called upon to help supply the Russian war in Ukraine does indicate that the CCP holds some level of influence over the company. Funding links discovered in 2022 all but confirm this. The implications of Chinese involvement in the company suggest that there is a very real possibility that the CCP is using the drone manufacturer to further its geopolitical ambitions elsewhere. While there is no overt suggestion that the Chinese government is providing Assad with DJI drones, it remains in the interests of Beijing and Moscow to keep the autocrat in power, standing as an anti-Western bastion in the Middle East. 

Similarly, in North America the CCP stand to gain from destabilising the U.S. through the narcotics trade. The fact that Chinese actors connected with the state have previously supplied fentanyl and fentanyl pre-cursor chemicals to cartels in Mexico shows that there is precedent for such interference. The same notion can be extended to South Asia and Beijing’s rivalry with New Delhi as well. China has frequently leant on grey zone tactics to assert dominance over, and to coerce, regional and international rivals. It should therefore not come as a surprise if the CCP have added narco-drones to their repertoire in the Middle East, the United States and South Asia.

To the U.S. and its allies, including Jordan and India, the escalating surge in drone-assisted drug smuggling and its convergence with armed militant operations poses grave risks. There is, therefore, a need for comprehensive countermeasures and efforts by nations to combat these threats. The potential role of state actors, such as China and Iran, in these incidents complicates matters further and underscores the geopolitical dimensions at play as well as the potential difficulties that could arise when dealing with such a sophisticated adversary. As drones continue to blur the lines between the civilian and military domains, proactive measures are crucial to bolster national security.

The opinions expressed are those of the contributor, not of the RSAA.

Read more from Dr Sajjan M. Gohel

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