SANA'A – Yemen is stepping up its coast guard patrols, seeking to interrupt what has become a full-fledged flood of illegal weapons that is seen as a threat to the nation’s security and stability.
According to sources in Yemen, most of the illegal arms originate in Turkey and Iran, underscoring the regional struggle for influence.
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The Yemeni defense ministry recently announced the seizure of trucks carrying Turkish-made guns in the southern province of Taiz after the shipment cleared the Mokha Port. It was the second time in a month and the sixth time in six months that Turkish-made weapons were seized. The ministry said an investigation into the source of the shipment was underway but gave no further details.
In early May, a Yemeni coast guard vessel situated along the strategic Bab el-Mandeb strait seized a boat carrying 20,000 Turkish-made pistols following a pitched gun battle with the ship’s crew. According to the defense ministry website, the ship’s captain was detained but his crew escaped capture.
Iran is also a player in the arms game. Earlier this year, Yemeni and American forces together seized an Iranian ship carrying sophisticated weapons that included surface-to-air missiles, explosives and rocket-propelled grenades. The arms appear to have been destined for Yemen's Houthis, a Shia insurgent group backed by Tehran. The shipment seized was similar to an arms cargo seized last year.
As the poorest Arab state with the second-highest rate of gun ownership after the United States, Yemen is an attractive market for weapons smugglers. Its population of 24 million owns an estimated 60 million firearms.
Among Yemen’s security challenges is the presence of what is considered to be the most dangerous franchise of the global al Qaeda terrorist organization. As well, experts assert that tribal leaders, government officials and intelligence officers are all involved in the business of gun smuggling.
Too little, too late
While Yemen ostensibly acts to halt the gun-smuggling, many believe it’s a case of “too little, too late.” So while Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammed Al-Mawri said naval patrols were increased along Yemen's coasts, stretching from the Arab Sea, Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, “to secure the country from arms infiltration,” analysts argue that the task was almost impossible.
Most seem to agree that the recent seizure of illegal weapons indicates some security vigilance, but the interdictions are also seen as evidence that arms smuggling is increasing and that many illegal arms are being successfully brought in.
“The authorities talk about the arms shipments they have seized, but nobody knows how many shipments managed to make it into the country,” Muaad Al-Maqtari, chairman of the Bab Al-Mandab Center for Studies, a think tank concerned with Yemen's maritime issues including weapons smuggling, told The Media Line. “We believe that the cargoes captured by the government are very little when compared to those that managed to get in,” he said.
After each weapons seizure the government says it will open investigations, but usually no details emerge, including from where the shipments originated or for whom the shipments are destined.
“Yemen has a coastline of about 2,200 kilometers (about 1,400 miles) on the Red and Arab seas and this makes the country a volatile area for arms smuggling. This long coastline works in the smugglers' favor as it makes their job easier,” Al-Maqtari said.
“In contrast, it makes the authorities' job of securing the coasts almost impossible. This is especially true in Yemen's case, given that the country's coast guard forces lack basic training and equipment…They don't even have enough working boats to patrol the territorial waters.”
Retired brigadier general and military analyst Mosheen Khasroof agreed with Al-Maqtari’s assessment that many illegal arms cargoes have probably made it into the country. He said he believes, “organized bodies are behind the recent persistent Turkish and Iranian arms smuggling into Yemen, discounting the notion that regular gun dealers are to blame.
“Yemen's national security is clearly targeted by these smuggled cargoes. If the smuggled weapons were like those widely distributed and owned by Yemenis, there would be no reason for grave concern. But these illegal shipments include pistols and rifles equipped with silencers and night vision scopes, as well as RPGs, etc,” he told The Media Line. “In short, these are assassination instruments aimed at stirring violence and destabilizing the country.”
“Obviously, there are domestic and foreign sides standing behind these smuggling operations. Those behind the smuggling are against the reconciliation, and aim to drag the country into violence,” political analyst Mohammed Shamsan told The Media Line. He was referring to the ongoing National Dialogue Conference, where 556 participants are debating Yemen's future.
“Yemen has to make wide-ranging diplomatic efforts and try to establish cooperation with its neighbors to put an end to arms smuggling,” according to Shamsan. “These efforts have to be coupled with serious talks with Iran and Turkey regarding these illegal arms. The government in cooperation with these countries has to find out exactly who shipments; whom they are destined for; are behind these arms and the purpose of sending them to Yemen,” concluded Shamsan, an opinion Khasroof shared.
While Teheran and Ankara have both repeatedly denied the charges emanating from Yemen, the Turkish government has hinted that some figures from the Turkish private sector are involved.
Earlier this year, Turkish ambassador to Yemen Fazli Corman said at a news conference in the capital Sana'a that the owner of a gun factory had been arrested in connection with weapons smuggling to Yemen. The illegal arms, though, keep coming in.
This article was written by Abdulrahman Shamlan
Courtesy of The Media Line
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