Mohamed Abo-elgheit (Egypt)
“The End User: How did western weapons end up in the hands of ISIS and AQAP in Yemen”
ARIJ website - February 28, 2018
International criticism mounts against the bombing campaign in Yemen — but other aircraft attracting less attention and no protest continue to fly vast amounts of weapons into Yemen.
Much of it is supposedly banned by laws and agreements stipulating that the military in the countries importing the weapons are to be the “end user”.
The Saudi-led coalition has ignored that condition not only by giving these weapons to third parties in Yemen, but also because some of those parties were militias operating outside the control of the Yemeni state and army. Those weapons made their way into the hands of terror groups and caused more civilian casualties. These weapons were also found for sale in arms markets.
For more than a year, we analysed thousands of pieces of materials in open sources and on closed internet groups, and we worked with local sources on the ground who supplied us with exclusive materials.
We have documented cases of arms and vehicles from the United States, Britain, Germany, Spain, Austria, Belgium and Switzerland, as well as from Serbia and Bulgaria.
Germany: E-Shopping Heaven For Weapons
In January 2016, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) broadcast a video showing a battle against the Houthis in Taiz. It appeared to show a fighter using German MG3 machine guns. The question was: How did such gun reach Yemen?
A resistance fighter in Taiz told us that the Saudi army handed out to allies, the machine gun that the Yemenis had nicknamed “The fish,” al-samaka.
The Saudi army uses the MG3 and MG4 machine guns, both manufactured by Heckler & Koch. The company granted Saudi Arabia a license to manufacture the G3 assault rifle, and later the newer G36 version.
We spotted dozens of these four guns in the possession of Yemenis in various provinces.
Nic Jenzen-Jones, a weapons expert and director of Armament Research Services (ARES), calls these German guns “flag items” that refers to visually distinctive arms that indicate diversion after the conflict began.
Only three months after the start of Operation Decisive Storm, Germany became the first European country to officially ask Saudi Arabia about supplying German weapons to a third party.
This happened after a video revealed the Houthis had received G3 assault rifles dropped from a plane. The German manufacturing license requires that the last user of these rifles be the Saudi Army.
Also in April 2015 the same rifle was found in boxes of weapons dropped by airplanes in Aden, and the name of Saudi Arabia appeared on them.
We tried contacting the German government. The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy did say that it “has no valid evidence that military equipment exported from Germany is being used in Yemen… The Federal Government takes tangible evidence regarding non-compliance with the end-use certificate very seriously.”
In January 2016, the same month in which the German MG3 were spotted with AQAP in Taiz, the United Nations Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Yemen issued a report warning that “lax accountability measures on the part of the coalition and the legitimate Government of Yemen may have resulted in the diversion of weapons into the hands of radical groups and to the black market.”
We interviewed Ahmed Himmiche, coordinator of the experts panel, who said that it learned from sources that some Yemeni fighters had sold their weapons , especially at times when they did not receive their wages. The panel also monitored cartridge prices and noted that they were stable or declining, demonstrating that the supply was increasing massively.
In order to collect evidence, we created social media accounts with Yemeni names and phone numbers to be able to enter informal trade networks. On the Telegram app, which offers encrypted conversations, we found a wide variety of illegal trade including artefacts and heavy weapons.
We documented dozens of these German guns being sold. In some cases, the seller would stress that the rifle was brand new and had never fired a single bullet.
We posted a request to buy an MG3, and easily received an offer.
We asked both Heckler & Koch and the German government to track MG3 and MG4 serial numbers. The company did not respond, and the ministry ignored our tracking request and again said there was no valid evidence. When we asked what kind of evidence would be valid, the ministry stopped answering.
Introducing SHEIKH Abu al-Abbas
In discussing AQAP in Taiz, the first person who must be introduced is Sheikh Adel Abdo Farea Abu al-Abbas.
In October 2017, he was listed on terror watch list for the United States, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The US Department of the Treasury said that this was for his “acting for or on behalf of AQAP” as well as for providing financial and material support for AQAP and ISIS-Y.
Early in 2015, Abu Abbas founded his battalions in Taiz as one of the “Popular Resistance” in support of President Abdrabu Mansour Hadi, against the alliance of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Iranian-linked Houthis.
Early on, the Abu al-Abbas group’s relationship with al-Qaeda has been debated.
We interviewed Brigadier General Mohamed al-Mahmoudi, undersecretary of the Ministry of the Interior, who previously served as Taiz’s security director until January 2018. He was in this position in January 2017, when there was a bloody attack against the security headquarters, by the forces of Abu-Abbas joined with AQAP, whose men raised the black flag, he said.
“The security personnel were killed in cold blood, and the wounded were denied aid.”
A spokesman for the Abu al-Abbas Brigades, Radwan al-Hashidi, denied these accusations. However, he said that AQAP has been involved from the beginning in the battles with the popular resistance. “Everyone knows this and all factions deal with them.”
Al-Hashidi even said that members of AQAP protected the United Nations delegate during his visit to Taiz and some of them appeared in pictures taken of him.
Through tracing weapons we found clues strongly linking Abu al-Abbas’ group with AQAP. In March 2016, AQAP published a video showing an RPG-32 anti-tank grenade launcher. The Jordanian company Jadara makes this weapon, equipped with a laser range finder, with a Russian partner. The company has announced one customer: the United Arab Emirates.
Footage shows the Abu al-Abbas Brigades repeatedly and exclusively using this weapon. No other faction in Yemen has been spotted using it.
However, the Brigades’ spokesman denied his group had passed any weapons.
Belgium: The Prime Minister Has No Time
The same mentioned AQAP video featured another western-made weapon, the FN Minimi machine gun, designed by the Belgian company FN Herstal.
Many Yemeni factions were spotted with Minimis.
In February 2018 we obtained an exclusive video showing a member of the Abu al-Abbas Brigades holding one, with the barcode visible.
FN Herstal is a holding company that owns firms in other countries, including the UK and the US. This means the gun in itself is not evidence of the country of manufacture.
However, in February 2016 a video broadcast by Houthis about their spoils from the Yemeni army in the Northern Province Hajjah, showed data on ammunition box stating it was imported from Belgium to Saudi Arabia.
We also found Minimis being sold in markets, the company’s name and serial numbers clearly visible.
The company and the Belgian ministry of defense did not respond. The office of Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel sent a brief reply saying that “his schedule does not permit interviews” then ignored our emails.
Switzerland: “Yes, These Are Our Weapons”
We found clues for another weapon in an area close to where the Belgian gun was spotted.
The Swiss hand grenades HG 85 appeared in an exclusive video we obtained showing a fighter from Abu al-Abbas Brigades placing it in his belt in April 2017. It appeared also with another fighter in a photo posted on Facebook.
Then we interviewed an Abu al-Abbas local field commander, who showed this grenade as a sample of weapons the resistance used, which allowed us to identify the serial number.
He denied passing any weapons to AQAP. However, he spoke positively of AQAP’s role. “God knows how much they fought and sacrificed,” he added.
The Swiss company RUAG, confirmed that the grenade we asked them to track “can clearly be allocated to a delivery to the UAE from 2003.”
The Swiss government confirmed that “Each export of weapons to a state entity requires an End User Certificate (EUC).”
“Switzerland is not aware of Swiss weapons being used in the conflict in Yemen,” the government said, adding that an investigation is underway based on our information.
In September 2018 three grenades, of the same lot number, were spotted in the West Coast front, in a video released by the Houthis for their spoils from the Emirati-backed “Giants brigades”. It appeared again in the same way in November 2018.
Switzerland had declared in July 2012 a temporary halt on exporting weapons to the UAE. This came after publishing of photos of these grenades in the possession of Syrian armed factions. After the tracking, it was proved that the grenade was one of a quarter million exported to the UAE in 2003. We found it in Yemen too.
Spain: Weapons by Airmail
How did the weapons entered Taiz despite the strict Houthi-imposed siege on the city? The coalition announced many times that it dropped weapons in Taiz by air.
In April 2016 Yemini activist Hisham al-Omeisy published images on Twitter showing weapon boxes that accidentally fell into the yard of a friend’s house in Taiz. Two boxes contained Spanish C90 rocket launchers.
Dozens of these rocket launchers were spotted in the hands of Yemeni fighters, especially in the Northern Province of Hajjah, and there we spotted in January 2016 a C90 box with a production date from 1990.
According to the Armament Research Services, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the region that bought this weapon during the 1990s.
The province of Hajjah is also the only location where we spotted another piece of Spanish military equipment: BMR-600 armored vehicles.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s database, since 1985, Saudi Arabia has received 140 of these armored personnel carriers.
We received no answer from any Spanish entity.
Austria: A Gift to ISIS
When the war in Yemen started, the Gulf states were experiencing a period of amity. This was reflected in Yemen.
Thus, an understanding was reached between the Abu al-Abbas Brigades and their rivals from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islah Party.
In a Yemeni press interview in October 2016, Sheikh Abu al-Abbas said that he was responsible for passing money and weapons in Taiz. He provided details about 35 million Saudi riyals (US $9.3 million) out of which he passed 11 million riyals to Hammoud al-Makhlafi, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood’s Islah Party leader in the city.
In February 2016, al-Makhlafi appeared in a video receiving a battalion armed with dozens of Austrian Steyr AUG assault rifles.
A month later, Mohammed Yfrosi, alleged colonel in the Yemeni army, wrote on Twitter ‘Thank you for the Saudi Kingdom and its King’ as they supplied Taiz with 600 Steyr Aug rifles.”
This is a distinctive weapon for the Saudi army. They became some of the most common weapons in the hands of fighters and in informal arms markets.
We even documented a case of its being used by a resistance child fighter on the Nihm front, only 16.
The Austrian sniper rifle Steyr SSG 69 was also spotted in many locations in Yemen including the province of al-Baidah in the Popular Resistance’s possession, as well as that of ISIS. In June 2017, the rifle appeared in pictures ISIS published of sniper training.
The Austrian government did not respond to a request to track the serial numbers.
The United States: Armored Vehicle Chaos.
In November 2015, the Abu al-Abbas Brigades celebrated the receipt of three American Oshkosh M-ATV armored vehicles.
This type of vehicles became widespread in Yemen.
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute data shows that Saudi Arabia and the UAE purchased 2,600 of these vehicles between 2011 and 2014.
In the second year of the war in Yemen, the forces of the Security Belt and the Hadrami Elite Forces were formed in Aden and Hadramout. They were made up of supporters of the secession of the south into an independent state.
In February 2018, the Security Belt and the Hadrami Elite Forces, made up of supporters of the secession of the south, raised the South Yemen flag on another US-made armored vehicles, the BAE Caiman.
International reports have accused these forces of human rights violations, including enforced disappearances and torture, though the coalition denies it.
Later, the southern resistance formed the forces of the “Giants brigades”, which received dozens of American armoured vehicles of the type “Maxx Pro”.
The United Arab Emirates bought these vehicles in a 2014 deal that included 1,150 Caimans and 3360 Maxxpros. There was a clear determination that the recipient would protect the sensitive technology.
Although the contractor is BAE Systems in Texas, this is a subsidiary of BAE Systems Plc, a British company.
Only the southern forces use these MRAPs. This is consistent with the map drawn by the Security Council Panel of Experts on the areas of influence in Yemen, between Saudi Arabia in the north, and the UAE in the south.
Pentagon spokesman, Johnny Michael, responded to our questions saying: “We are aware of these reports and are seeking additional information. Recipients of U.S.-origin defense equipment have signed an obligation to adhere to end-use requirements.”
He added: “Military action alone will not restore stability to Yemen. ”
The United Kingdom: “This is All Propaganda!”
Another prominent Salafist (fundamentalist Islamist) leader in Taiz: Sheikh Adnan Rouzik, founder of the Hasm Brigades , which has been accused of human rights offenses.
In November 2016, Sheikh Rouzik received a special gift: a British Aardvark JSFU mine-clearing sweeper. Pictures show him inside this vehicle marked with Saudi army signs.
The vehicle later appeared in July 2017 at the Battle of al-Tashrifat military camp against Houthis.
The vehicle appeared also in the possession of Yemenis in other provinces, including the battle for control of Al-Mukha port, west of Yemen, in January 2017.
We contacted UK company Aardvark, which initially welcomed us and referred us to the office of the company manager, but he stopped responding.
The British Department for International Trade said that companies do not need a license to export minesweepers, but did not answer questions about the legality of passing them on to a third party.
Graham Jones, head of the UK Parliament’s Committees on Arms Export Controls, declined to discuss the matter.
“The main problem is Iran to Yemen, not the west to Yemen which is nothing more than a political agenda,” he said.
We interviewed Colonel Abdul Baset al-Bahar, a spokesman for the army loyal to President Hadi in Taiz, who complained that the army did not receive sufficient arms support from the coalition. “We are talking about 22 Mechanized Brigade which is supposed to have armored vehicles, but does not have a single vehicle.”
Canada: Saudi Arabia is Changing its Rules.
Since the beginning of the war, it seems that the Saudi army has established a rule that Canadian weapons would not be given to Yemenis. The only Canadian weapons spotted in the war were PGW sniper rifles (Coyote, LRT-3, and Timberwolf) used by the Saudi border guards, and also the National Guard’s Lav-25 armored vehicles. These were spotted only on the Saudi side of the border.
However, by the beginning of 2018, the Saudi army began to invade the northern province of Saada, the main Houthi stronghold, with the help of Yemeni allies. With this shift, Canadian arms began being passed.
In June and July of 2018, Brigadier General Abdullah al-Ajabi, commander of Storm Brigade 3 of the Yemeni army in Saada, appeared in two videos holding the Canadian-made PGW sniper rifle, and interestingly, in one video the soldier next to him was also carrying the German G36 assault rifle, providing additional proof of Saudi-supplied armaments.
The Canadian Lav-25 armored vehicle also spotted six times in the border provinces of Hajjah and Saada, as part of a Yemeni convoys. At least twice it appeared that the letter “N” referring to the Saudi National Guard had been erased and replaced by the letter C.
The armored vehicles’ manufacturer, General Dynamics, replied briefly to our inquiries saying “We decline to comment,”
PGW, which manufactured the sniper rifle, responded by asking for more details, which we offered. At that point they stopped replying.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Allison Lewis replied, “Should Global Affairs Canada become aware of evidence that the authorized end use of an export is being violated, the Minister of Foreign Affairs has the authority to cancel or suspend the associated export.”
When we sent our evidence and asked what exactly the Foreign Ministry would consider sufficient to open an investigation, we received no response.
The Gulf Crisis: The Moment of Truth
The internationally recognized Yemeni government merged its allies into the army through numerous decisions.
As a result, Abu al-Abbas Brigades became part of the Armored Brigade 35 and Sheikh Abu al-Abbas received the rank of colonel.
In addition, groups affiliated with the Islah Party were merged into the 22 Brigade, while Sheikh Adnan Zureiq received the rank of Brigadier General and became commander of Brigade 5 of the presidential guard in Taiz.
However, clashes still occasionally erupted between members of the groups on the basis of old affiliations. In February 2016, the people of Taiz took to the streets to protest when a poor banana vendor was killed during clashes between the Abu al-Abbas Brigades and another group.
This integration of resistance forces faced a real test. In June 2017 the Gulf crisis erupted, and the effects reached Yemen. Many violent clashes broke out between the Abu al-Abbas Brigades and the Islah Party.
In the south, the most violent clashes broke out in Aden in January 2018. The southern Security Belt took over most of the city and surrounded the government headquarters in the Maasheq Palace. The camp of Brigade 4 of the presidential guard loyal to Hadi fell, and its commander, Brigadier General Mehran Qabati, told a local channel that “The separatists arrived on armored vehicles owned only by the UAE.” Local press reported that the Saudis intervened to stop the invasion.
Amid this turbulence, the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE decided to place the Abu Al-Abbas Brigades on the terror watch list, which was surprising to Brigadier General al-Mahmoudi, “It is strange for an entity to be classified as a terrorist organization, while being supported by those who classified it as such.”
However, al-Hashidi said that Qatar and the US were able to include the Abu al-Abbas Brigades on the list at the last minute, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia were not able to remove it, but they will in the upcoming days.
The Abu al-Abbas Brigades even claimed that declaring it a terrorist organization did not change how the Arab coalition deals with it. “Nothing has changed. The weapons and financial support are still the same as before,” he stressed. He added that they have been invited to a meeting in Saudi Arabia.
Eastern Europe: Syria is Not the Only Destination
In March 2016 AQAP in Taiz used M79 Osa rocket launchers for the first time. The resistance, including Hasm Brigades, appeared also holding them.
It was surprising to spot this distinctive Yugoslavian weapon in Yemen that was not used by armies of the Arab coalition.
The Armament Research Services confirmed that M79 Osa and also M80 Zolja had not ever been spotted in Yemen before the war.
However, both have been in use in another war in the region: Syria.
This led us to a dramatic investigation published by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) in July 2016.
“There were approximately €1.3 billion worth of Soviet style weapons, that the Saudi military doesn’t use. The question was why suddenly they’re interested?” BIRN editor Lawrence Marzouk said. His explanation was that these weapons are “much less problematic.”
Through BIRN, we obtained end-user certificates for Saudi Arabia weapon deals in 2013, including the import of 3,500 OSA and 12,000 Zolja rocket launchers.
In June 2017, a Twitter account of the “hacktivist” group Anonymous published a massive leak from the Azerbaijani embassy in Bulgaria. The documents reveal an arms trade network that used diplomatic flights on the Azerbaijani state-owned Silk Way Airlines, which ensures the flights are tax-free and not inspected.
From January 2016 to April 2017, the documents show more than 100 flights to Saudi Arabia and the UAE carrying weapons from Serbia, Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovakia.
The documents reveal an arms trade network that used diplomatic flights on the Azerbaijani Silk Way Airlines.
One of the most prominent cases was that Saudi Arabia received three flights carrying 50,000 mortar shells produced by the Serbian Krušik factory.
Document of diplomatic cargo flight carrying 40 tons of M05 rifles from the city of Nice in Serbia to Riyadh Air Base in Saudi Arabia, February 2017.
These were spotted with both the popular resistance in Baydaa and ISIS, like the Austrian rifles.
And again, these shells had been spotted in Syria, even with the same lot number as the ISIS-Y ones.
Tracing the dates of manufacturing provide evidence of the flow, as we spotted shells manufactured in 2012, 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Another shipment took place in March 2017 from Belgrade to Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia carrying 27,000 Plamen A missiles and 400 M84 rifles. Both appeared in Yemeni hands. The same shipment included RAK-SA-12 multiple rocket launchers, a Croatian distinctive weapon that appeared in Syria.
Another distinctive weapon was the Serbian M05 assault rifle. Two shipments in the beginning of 2017 carried tons of this rifle.
Since then, it became one of the most widespread rifles in the hands of Yemeni forces, which work with the Saudi Army in the northern provinces, while the Austrian and German assault rifles became less visible.
We received no response from any Serbian entity.
Bulgaria — Advertising in Arabic
In November 2015, the M9 and M9F Arsenal rifles appeared in photos published by the UAE media showing a parade of a Southern Resistance group trained by the UAE. These rifles appeared many times later.
The same pictures also featured the UAE-made Caracal pistol. Both weapons were found for sale in Aden.
We also spotted many Bulgarian RPGs, obtained some of their serial numbers. Some of them were brand-new. The Bulgarian authorities did not respond.
It is interesting to note that the Bulgarian arms company Armaco offers its products on its website in only three languages: Bulgarian, English and Arabic.
Does The Coalition Know?
Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE responded to our repeated correspondence, but when we asked the former Saudi Brigadier General Hassan al-Shahri about the “leakage” of weapons, he said:
“We have transparency in the coalition to say yes, although it is partial and not influential. The Yemeni situation is stressful and there are clashes between parties and tribes.”
The brigadier general, however, focused on Iran’s violations of the international arms embargo against the Houthi-Saleh alliance by supplying the Houthis with ballistic missiles and drones.
The undersecretary of the Yemeni Ministry of the Interior also confirmed that the coalition knew. Brigadier General al-Mahmoudi said: “An investigation was started by the coalition about a ‘leakage’ of a weapon that was handed over to a resistance faction in Taiz, and was leaked to AQAP in Aden.”
In July 2018, The Belgian Supreme Administrative Court suspended eight FN Herstal licenses for arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
Recently Germany has moved to cut arms exports to countries involved in the Yemen war.
Some Yemenis, such as Brigadier General al-Mahmoudi, demanded that all armaments go directly to the Yemeni national army to support the control of the central Yemeni state.
In contrast, some international organizations welcomed these steps to ban exports completely.
Patrick Wilcken, Amnesty International’s Arms Control and Human Rights researcher, says international agreements such as the Arms Trade Treaty and regional agreements such as the EU Common Position on arms exports contain provisions that prohibit changing the end-user in arms sales, and makes it the states’ responsibility to assess the risk of their weapons reaching terrorist groups or groups involved in violations of human rights.
On the ground, though, the experience in Syria and Yemen has shown that there is still much to do.
This investigation was carried out with support and supervision from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ)