Express & Star investigates: How bootleg cigarettes help fund terrorism

Huge profits from smokers who buy cheap and illegal cigarettes are ending up in the hands of criminal gangs and terrorists.

Express & Star investigates: How bootleg cigarettes help fund terrorism

Those who buy counterfeit and illegal tobacco are almost universally oblivious to the fact that they are part of an elaborate criminal network inflicting pain and misery on innocent people all over the world.

Cheap and counterfeit tobacco made in unregulated factories across the world has flooded the market in the Black Country, with up to 50 per cent of loose tobacco now believed to be fake.

The United Nations Security Council's investigative body has found that millions of pounds in illicit tobacco revenues are reaching al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist organisations.

It also established that funds generated through these sales have helped to finance Congolese rebels who recruit child soldiers and have been responsible for atrocities in the African state.

On a local level, smuggled tobacco is also assembled in warehouses on industrial parks or even in sheds and garages linked to the drugs gangs.

Europol – the European-wide law enforcement agency – estimates the wave of black market tobacco is depriving EU countries of €10 billion a year.

For criminals, tobacco smuggling is relatively easy.

Tobacco products come in small packages, are highly valuable and easy to transport; while the risks of detection, prosecution and conviction, though improving, are low relative to the huge profits. For example, a single container of illegal cigarettes can provide criminals with a profit of up to £2m.

Will O'Reilly is a former Scotland Yard Detective Chief Inspector who carries out test purchases to gather intelligence of the illicit trade in cigarettes across the UK.

He said: "Very worrying is the huge growth in illicit whites, unregulated cigarettes made predominately for smuggling. These are not brought back by visitors abroad but smuggled in by the container load by organised crime and terrorist groups.

"People don't necessarily understand the consequences of purchasing illegal tobacco.

"If you buy a cheap packet of cigarettes that money ends up supporting organised crime.

"Every cigarette funds the availability of drugs on our streets, gun crime or terrorist attacks, making our communities and our streets less safe.

"The widespread availability of illicit tobacco has a devastating impact on our local communities.

"It not only undermines legitimate retailers but leads to a knock-on effect in local crime generally, such as we have seen before with street dealing in drugs and how that can devastate a community."

1. High taxes mean illegal products will offer more profit because criminals can charge higher prices.

2. The retail display ban covers the tobacco gantry and blurs the distinction between fake and legitimate tobacco.

3. The EU's Tobacco Products Directive, which bans small packs, widens the price gap between legal and illegal cigarettes and loose tobacco.

Europol has warned that many countries in Eastern Europe and into Asia consider themselves 'merely' transit countries in the illicit tobacco trade. But criminal gangs set up warehouses, transport and financial support to move the illegal goods from source to the highly-profitable Western Europe.

In January 2011, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police estimated that 69 per cent of the 105 organised crime gangs they were investigating for tobacco smuggling were also involved in drug and weapons trafficking. Mark Yexley, media relations manager at Japan Tobacco International, said: "Law enforcement agencies across the world have identified links between tobacco smuggling and globalised crime.

"The man or woman in the street who sells illegal cigarettes could be the front for a criminal supply chain that can span the globe," he added.

"The £5 spent by a smoker on illegal cigarettes in the Black Country today can potentially fund major global criminals and terrorist organisations tomorrow."

Roger Critchell, Crimestoppers director of operations, said: "As a crime-fighting charity, Crimestoppers has a responsibility to tackle all types of crime, and working alongside JTI UK, we hope to be able to clean the streets of illicit tobacco.

"The link this trade has to serious and organised crime is very real, and with the help of information from the public on those supplying and selling these fake products, our aim is to ensure your community is a safe place to live."

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