THE smokers buying cheap, illegal cigarettes in Newport could be funding terrorist operations around the world – that’s the message from those looking to crack down on the trade.

Millions of dollars in illicit tobacco revenues are reaching terrorist organisations including the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, according to the United Nations.

A recent report also said funds were helping finance Congolese rebels, known for recruiting child soldiers.

Two weeks ago, the Argus revealed around illegal tobacco worth £250,000 – both counterfeit and illicit – was found hidden in three city centre shops.

The haul was the biggest ever found in the city.

A specialist trained dog was vital in discovering the products, which were hidden in secret compartments, behind false walls and under floorboards.

The Argus’ investigation found a pack of 20 illegal cigarettes being sold for £3.50 and 50g packets of counterfeit tobacco for £4.00.

Law-abiding retailers are being undercut by this rogue industry spreading across the city and told the Argus: “It affects everybody.”

The huge profit margins and softer penalties – compared to drug offences – are making the illegal tobacco trade a popular business options for organised crime rings.

A spokeswoman for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), said: “Tobacco smuggling is a global, highly profitable business controlled by organised crime groups.

“The proceeds from smuggling tobacco products are often used to fund other forms of serious and organised crime such as smuggling of drugs and weapons, and human trafficking.”

Mark Yexley, media relations manager at Japan Tobacco International, said: “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.

“The £5 spent by a smoker on illegal cigarettes in Newport today can potentially fund major global criminals and terrorist organisations tomorrow.”

Retailers caught selling illegal tobacco can face criminal prosecution and a sentence of up to seven years, as well as fines up to £5,000 for selling tobacco not bearing UK duty paid markings.

Following successful prosecution, retailers can also have their alcohol sales license revoked and National Lottery terminal removed.

Gwent Police say there are unaware of illegal tobacco being linked to organised crime in Newport.

Anyone with information on people selling illegal and counterfeit products is urged to contact Trading Standards on 01633 656656.