Australia’s key role in stopping terror funding through drug smuggling

HMAS Toowoomba on patrol in the Middle East


The Australian military seized a massive shipment of illicit drugs off the coast of Iran, interrupting a crucial funding source for terrorists in the Middle East.

Three tonnes of hashish and heroin were discovered and removed from a suspect ship on March 19 by the crew of HMAS Toowoomba. The Australian frigate was operating in the Arabian Gulf as part of the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) but is now returning home following a six-month deployment.

According to the ship’s Commanding Officer Dylan Phillips, the work done by HMAS Toowoomba has “enhanced our relationships in the region, as well as having an impact on terrorist funding lines through the interception and disposal of illegal drugs”.

He continued: “Our crew worked tirelessly through the day and well into the night to search the vessel before seizing and destroying over three tonnes of drugs.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Australia’s participation in the IMSC in August 2019. The IMSC was formed to protect merchant vessels travelling through the Persian Gulf following six separate Iranian attacks on civilian tankers. The coalition includes the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and others.

In announcing Australia’s commitment, Morrison said: “Freedom of navigation through international waters is a fundamental right of all states under international law. All states have a right to expect safe passage of their maritime trade consistent with international law.

“It is in Australia’s interest to work with international partners to uphold these rights.”

Morrison emphasised that protecting safe passage through the Straits of Hormuz was in Australia’s national interest. Up to 16% of crude oil and 30% of refined oil destined for Australia passes through those waters.

As well as seizing the huge illicit drug haul, HMAS Toowoomba also safely escorted more than 180 merchant ships.

The United States State Department lists Iran as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Iran provides around US$1 billion a year to its proxies, including Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Houthis.

But Hezbollah, in particular, is also noted for its heavy reliance on drug smuggling to support its own violent activities, including positioning 150,000 missiles toward Israel and digging terror tunnels under the border shared by Israel and Lebanon.

With the US slapping financial sanctions on Iran due to its continued development of nuclear weapons in breach of the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran’s ability to provide financial support to its terrorist proxies has become more limited.

The fact that HMAS Toowoomba is now steaming for home having successfully completed its mission is a meaningful response to those who criticised the Australian Government’s IMSC commitment, arguing it was comparable to Australia’s support for the coalition that participated in the 2003 Iraq War. Others, including academic Amin Saikal, warned Australian military personnel would be placed in harm’s way if the deployment went ahead. Yet there have been no reported casualties.