Searching for weapons
Yemeni police search vehicles for weapons at a check point in Sanaa © Khaled Fazaa - AFP
Searching for weapons
Last updated: April 29, 2013

Smugglers turn Yemen into regional arms traffic hub

Yemeni authorities revealed on Thursday they intercepted a shipment of weapons at the seaport of Aden while performing an inspection of the cargo hull, after suspicions arose. The ship had remained unclaimed for over two months when Yemen Customs authorities decided to alert the District Attorney and obtain a search warrant.

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It turned out the shipment, labeled under plastic materials, contained concealed weapons. Although the weapons were made in Turkey and the container loaded and shipped from Turkey, no evidence, other than circumstantial, link Ankara to the firearms.

Carefully disguised under layers and layers of wrapped up plastic sheets, Yemen Customs officers discovered 115 "toy look alike rifles”. Made to look like toys and therefore conspicuous, the rifles were actually manufactured as traumatic weapons, meaning they were meant for shooting blanks, not real live ammunition. Such weapons are not lethal and do not qualify as fire arms per se, hence they benefit from relax import-export regulations.

Russia for example has been known to use traumatic weapons as part of its crowd control strategy.

Moreover, some 110,000 small handguns, also traumatic, were found as part of the shipment. Again, such weapons do not fall under the lethal weapon category and just like the rifles they can quite easily be bought by private companies and individuals around the world and be shipped internationally without much difficulty.

That being said, a Yemeni security expert explained that although the cargo found in Aden could not in its current shape be labeled or described as weapons, clever engineering could turn them into lethal instruments.

While Saba - Yemen News Agency - quoted Mohammed Ziman, Head of the Customs Authority, as saying “According to preliminary information, the cargo included about 3780 machine guns, T14 type,” it failed to explain that the weapons were non lethal and perfectly conform to international trading standards.

Turkey Ambassador Fazli Corman who upon being notified by Yemeni officials of the discovery of yet another shipment of weapons, bearing a relation to Turkey, was keen to offer his support and absolute cooperation. He flew on Friday to Aden where he met local officials and personally inspected the ship.

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Ambassador Corman noted that while the Yemeni authorities could rest assured of his support, he felt the two months delay in between the arrival of the ship to Aden and the inspection could now prove detrimental to forensic experts and therefore impede the inquiry.

Ambassador Corman also criticized the "hasty conclusions" some members of the press felt compel to publish, stressing that none of the evidence found so far could in any way shape or form involve Turkey in a smuggling plot.

Troubling Conclusions
Security experts close to the matter pointed to the troubling possibility of Yemen being turned into a weapons smuggling hub for criminal organizations or terror groups in the region. By its geography and 2000km of coast, Yemen sits at a crossroad between the Middle East, Africa and Asia, a perfect transit area.

"The weapons found are very unlikely aimed at the Yemeni market. Yemen has one of the world’s highest ratio of weapons per inhabitant, and traditionally Yemenis go for much more powerful firearms; small handguns are not your typical weapon of choice around here," said a retired security officer.

But what is now puzzling experts is the idea that criminals could be trying to turn traumatic weapons into live ammunitions-shooting firearms, using their toy-looking exterior to pass them off as such, fooling foreign countries into allowing them into their territory.

An officer recently retired from the Central Security Forces said that in her mind there was no doubt the shipment was either destined to be transported by road across Yemen's borders to another region altogether or meant for local terror group such as al-Qaeda.

"The amount of small guns does not fit the militia theory - individuals in Yemen theorized Turkey is arming factions in Yemen to spread instability - but could be used by terrorists to carry out an attack or infiltrate a public area without alerting the attention of the authorities."

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Catherine Shakdam
Catherine is a freelance writer and political risk consultant for Yemen, Her writing appeared in Foreign Policy Association, the Guardian and Majalla among many others. Based in the UK she worked in collaboration with Yemen Human Rights Minister on shaping new policies to protect women rights.
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