It comes as no surprise, illicit arms and weapons have been flowing into the war in Yemen with numerous examples of such weapons supplied by arm sellers, such as China, UK and the U.S., ending up in the hands of militias including those linked to ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
In what appears to be an abuse of trade agreements by the Saudi led coalition, sophisticated weapons including, grenade launchers, armored vehicles, rifles, rocket launchers and other weapons, purchased from U.S. and European companies are ending up in the hands of local factions and groups. This is resulting in clear violation of international humanitarian law, since using these weapons, parties in the war are bombing residential areas, markets and hospitals.
Thanks to the illicit arms, Huthi forces continue to commit violations, which include firing of advanced missiles at civilian targets in Saudi Arabia as well as planing internationally banned anti-personnel landmines.
According to a report prepared by Mohamed Abo-Elgheit, a journalist, along with the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalists (Arij), weapons are not only openly being passed on to militias that are aligned to the Saudi coalition but also to marginalized and feuding groups which are fighting their own territorial battles.
“Where we found abuse of the end user certification system, we sought explanations from the arms companies and government who authorized the sales to the coalition. Many simply turn a blind eye,” said Abo-Elgheit.
The documentary accuses weapons suppliers, the Saudi led coalition, and governments of a sustained breach of “end user” certification laws which have resulted in the flourishing of illicit arms, which can be traced back to the beginning of the conflict in 2015.
Despite receiving a warning in 2016 from the UN Security Council over “lax accountability” on the part of the coalition, on November 11, 2018, the UAE stewarded ground offensive pounded cities held by Huthi forces, including the al-Thawra hospital which led to patients and staff fleeing in terror.
According to a medical worker at al-Thawra hospital, “I heard many explosions, and either bullets or shrapnel was hitting the metal roof of the hospital entrance, falling like rain. I could still hear explosions as I got out of the hospital, but I couldn’t focus on it. We were all too afraid for our safety.”
Penalties have yet to be levied for the breaches. Certificates are meant to provide an assurance to arm sellers that weapons will be used only by the buyer, and not result in illicit arms sales. Abo-Elgheit and his team have compiled evidences that calls into question the credibility of such certificates signed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Germany is the the first EU country to have officially raised the issue with Saudi Arabia, after footage revealed that Houthis were in possession of the G3 rifles that had air-dropped for Saudi Arabia.
In the historical city of Taiz, due to the absence of state security, a faction of the al-Qaeda, Aqap has come into prominence. In 2016, Aqap broadcast footage of a battle in Taiz against the Houthis, in which their fighters are seen using German MG3 machine guns, which clearly underscore the prevalence of illicit arms.
“We spotted dozens of these guns in the possession of Yemenis in different provinces. A resistance fighter in Taiz told us that the Saudi army had handed them out to its allies,” said Abo-Elgheit. Incidentally, the MG3 machine gun is made by Heckler & Koch; Saudi Arabia has a license to make the G3 and the G36 assault rifles.
Civilians trapped in the conflict are paying a heavy price. The illicit arms sales, driven by intermittent fighting over the control of the port, has slowed down the movement of vital supplies from reaching starving population. As a result there has been a mass exodus of nearly 1 million civilians from the Hodeidah governate.
“It was really a difficult trip. By God we suffered. There were rockets flying above us. Someone would stop us and say there are landmines, and we would just scream,” said a 25-year-old woman from Qataba.
“I heard many explosions, and either bullets or shrapnel was hitting the metal roof of the hospital entrance, falling like rain. I could still hear explosions as I got out of the hospital, but I couldn’t focus on it. We were all too afraid for our safety”, said a medical worker at al-Thawra hospital.
While Germany and Belgium have refused to authorize arms export to parties involved in the Yemen conflict, other countries, including the UK have refuted the allegations of illicit arms sales.
In southern Yemen, the UAE has propped up an entire security structure that runs parrallely to the Yemeni government. While factions and militias within the UAE created structure are funded, trained and equipped, they typically have competing agendas and are dogged by infighting.
Theater of war
In May 2018, so as to bring more credibility into reports investigating these illicit arms sales and in order to investigate the UAE-backed secret detention centers and facilities, Amnesty International traveled to Aden.
In its report titled ‘God Only Knows if He’s Alive’, Amnesty International detailed stories of torture with electric shocks, detention at gunpoint, sexual humiliation, waterboarding, prolonged solitary confinement, hanging from the ceiling, inadequate food and water and squalid conditions.
The dynamics and fluidity of ground realities have made this theater of war extremely complex. The splintering and merging of factions have added to the volatility in Yemen, said Abo-Elgheit.
“Since the start of the war, the Saudi-backed government in Yemen has continued to merge popular resistance forces into the army, including Abu al-Abbas Brigades, which became part of the Armoured Brigade 35 in Taiz. By arming these groups the coalition is in breach of international law, fuelling all-round conflict and human rights abuses,” said Abo-Elgheit vis-a-vis illicit arms sales.
Incidentally Abu al-Abbas is on the terror watchlists of many countries, including Saudi Arabia.
“It is strange for an entity to be classified as a terrorist organization, while being supported by those who classified it as such,” said a spokesperson for Brigadier General Mohamed al-Mahmoudi, former director of security in Taiz. “Nothing has changed. The weapons and financial support are still the same as before.”
“Data shows that between 2011 and 2014 Saudi Arabia and the UAE purchased 2,600 Oshkosh M-ATV mine-resistant ambush-protected (Mrap) vehicles from the US. In 2015, the Abu al-Abbas group received three such vehicles whilst others have fallen into the hands of other Yemeni factions or the hands of Houthis,” said Abo-Elgheit with reference to illicit arms sales.
Illicit sale of weapons
As the complex ground war evolves, weapons continue to be passed on to completely unaccountable Coalition-allied militias, many of whom stand accused of war crimes.
Case in point: in November 2016, Sheikh Rouzik, a prominent fundamentalist Islamist leader in Taiz, received a British-made Aardvark JSFU mine-clearing sweeper. Documentary evidence in the form of photographs shows Rouzik sitting inside the vehicle clearly marked with Saudi army emblems. Illicit arms sales pose a significant threat to the region and Yemen as a whole.
In April 2017, investigators obtained further footage of an Abu al-Abbas Brigades fighter in Taiz placing Swiss-made grenades onto his belt; in May 2017, another photograph posted on social media depicts a Abu al-Abbas Brigades fighter holding the Swiss-made grenades. Swiss arms makers RUAG has confirmed that the grenades were part of a consignment delivered to the UAE in 2003.
Conflict Armament Research has also documented similar sale of illicit arms. In February 2019, militias waging a battle for an independent state in southern Yemen raised the South Yemen flag on US-made armored vehicles, the BAE Caiman Mrap. This faction later joined forces with the UAE-backed Giants Brigade and received dozens of US-made MaxxPro armored vehicles.
In 2014, the UAE spent $2.5bn for purchasing 1150 Caiman and 3360 MaxxPro vehicles from the US. The contracts for these deals included a technology protection clause and end user certificate aimed at mitigating risks which includes imposing responsibility on the buyer to ensure that such weapons do not contribute, to illicit arms sales. The supplier of Caimans, in this case, was UK-based BAE Systems with the contract routed through its Texas subsidiary.
As per Ahmed Himmiche, coordinator of the Security Council Panel of Experts on Yemen, “We learned from sources that some Yemeni fighters had sold their weapons, especially when they did not receive wages.”
Himmiche highlighted the fact that the sale of illicit arms continue to leak into the domestic arms markets which significantly increases the risks of terror attacks, globally.
“At one stage, Canada seemed to be the only country whose weapons were not diverted to the Yemenis,” said Ab-Elgheit. However, that changed this year, when with Yemeni allies, the Saudi army invaded the Houthi stronghold of Saada. Brigadier General Abdullah al-Ajabi, a Yemeni commander in Saada who has appeared in several videos online, is seen holding a Canadian-made PGW sniper rifle while another soldier is seen carrying a German assault weapon.
Between July 2018 and October 2018, Canadian Lav-25 armored vehicles were spotted 6 times in Yemeni convoys in Hajjah and Saada. In several cases, in order to hide the sale Saudi illicit arms sales, several apparent attempts had been made to erase the Saudi markings.
When Abo-Elgheit approached manufacturers and governments with his findings asking what actions would be taken against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy stated, it “has no valid evidence” that exports were being used in Yemen while insisting that it takes non-compliance very seriously. In response to issues raised over BAE and Aardvark, the UK’s Department for International Trade stated, export licenses are not required to export minesweepers.
“The main problem is Iran to Yemen, not the west to Yemen, which is nothing more than a political agenda,” said Graham Jones, chair of the UK committees on arms export controls.
A major conduit of illicit arms sales is the UAE.
According to a foreign ministry spokesperson of the Canadian government, the government had the power to cancel or suspend export permits, should they “become aware of evidence that the authorized end use of an export is being violated”.
In a statement, the Swiss government said, it was unaware of illicit arms sales of Swiss weapons in Yemen and would investigate the findings.
A spokesman for the US defense stated, it would also investigate the findings while adding, “Recipients of US-origin defense equipment have signed an obligation to adhere to end-use requirements as outlined in agreements concluded with the United States government. This is to make sure that those articles are used in the manner intended and consistent with our legal obligations, foreign policy goals, and values.”