The hijacking of the Panama flagged MV Al Mezaan, in-bound to Mogadishu on the 8th November, served to lift a corner of the veil which obscures the arms trade to Somalia.  The United Nations imposed a total arms embargo on the territory under U.N. Security Council Resolution 733, adopted on the 23rd January 1992; this resolution implemented “a general and complete embargo on all deliveries of weapons and military equipment to Somalia until the Security Council decides otherwise.”  The Security Council has never decided otherwise, and the resolution still stands.

But, this resolution has been mainly honoured in the breach. Over the last 17 years all the players in the territory of what was once Italian Somalia (we will disregard the independent state of Somaliland in this discussion) have been able to arm themselves at will from a selection of effective weaponry.  The bulk of the arms have traditionally been Soviet-era; the AK-47s, and and RPG-7s carried by the well-equipped Somali clansman.

In September 2008 Amnesty International published a report, “Blood at the Crossroads: Making the case for a global Arms Trade Treaty”, which said that “Amnesty International has documented the toll that the use of artillery, rockets and mortars has taken on the population of Mogadishu, resulting in wide-scale deaths and injuries – sometimes of entire families as artillery shells destroyed their houses – and the displacement of the population of entire districts of the city. Some 6,000 civilians were reportedly killed in fighting in the capital Mogadishu and across southern and central Somalia in 2007.”  In April 2008 a report by the UN Monitoring Group stated that, “Weapons sent to all parties of the Somali conflict originate in some of the same States as previously reported, namely Eritrea, Yemen and Ethiopia. The routes are, however, more covert, and weapons reach Somalia either by a larger number of smaller vessels, or through remote locations along land borders.” In the same report The Monitoring Group noted that prominent security officials of the Government, Ethiopian officers and Ugandan officers of the African Union Mission in Somalia were selling arms in the Mogadishu arms markets, including weapons originating from their own stocks and arms seized during battles with insurgents. The arms traders told the U.N. that the biggest suppliers of ammunition to the markets were been Ethiopian and TFG commanders, who divert boxes officially declared “used during combat”. In a subsequent report in December 2008 (S/2008/769) the U.N. team concluded that, “Somali armed forces and groups remain in possession of fairly limited arsenals, consisting principally of small arms and crew-served infantry weapons. At the low end of this range are AK-47s, pistols and hand grenades; at the high end of the range are anti-aircraft cannons, anti-tank weapons, and medium mortars. There are a small number of functioning armoured vehicles, artillery pieces and rocket artillery, which are rarely used in combat.” Interestingly, from an anti-piracy viewpoint, this report also noted that, “Exorbitant ransom payments [the result of piracy] have fuelled the growth of these [pirate] groups, including the procurement of arms and equipment and the maintenance of militia establishments in violation of the arms embargo. Although there is some evidence of linkages between piracy, arms trafficking, and the activities of some armed opposition groups, the Monitoring Group is currently more concerned about the apparent complicity in pirate networks of Puntland administration officials at all levels.”

The U.N. Somalia Monitoring Group then went on to examine the types of weapons being used in Somalia, they noted that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were being used and that the growing sophistication of these devices suggested that there had been “the importation of expertise and the transfer of skills through training”.  They concluded that, “The conduct of five simultaneous, coordinated suicide bomb attacks in Hargeosa and Bossaso on 29 October 2008 represented a qualitative leap over previous improvised explosive device operations.” Interesting, in light of the current arguments over the cargo of the Al Mezaan, the Monitoring Group noted that there were “reports of a small number of more advanced anti-tank weapons”, but they said that they had at that time found no evidence of functional wire-guided anti-tank weapons, although there were “small numbers of man-portable surface-to-air missiles, and the growing use of night-vision equipment.” In the last year it is likely that things have moved on, but the existence of night-vision equipment, which is an invaluable aid to pirates making night attacks, and man-portable surface-to-air missiles, which could protect motherships from helicopter attacks, highlight the military assets that are potentially available to Somali pirates.

As the U.N. noted earlier Somali militias received weapons and training from neighbouring states, including Eritrea.  The December 2008 U.N. report stated that, “deliveries of arms and ammunition by small boat, originating in Eritrea, continue to occur on a fairly regular basis.”  Yemen was, in 2008, the primary market for commercial arms imports to Somalia; the U.N. reported that, “Weapons from Yemen continue to feed Somali retail arms sales, as well as the needs of armed opposition and criminal groups. Insurgent groups in Ethiopia also procure arms and ammunition from Yemen, which then transit Somalia.”  Weapons were also delivered from Eritrea to Somalia using an IL-76TD aircraft, which made a number of flights.

In 2009 the United States was publically identified as a weapons supplier to Somalia, although given the interest of the U.S. in the territory it is likely that it has been clandestinely supplying arms over a long period. In August 2009 a US State Department official said that the United States planned to double the amount of arms and ammunition that it provided to Somalia’s transitional government, he said the plan was to double supplies of arms and ammunition from 40 to 80 tonnes. News reports state that forty tonnes of arms were supplied in June 2009, but that within a short period much of that consignment was on sale in Mogadishu’s arms markets, the locals keenly buying up new types of weapon, available for the first time. The U.S. officials obviously had not taken the time to read the U.N. Monitoring Group’s reports, or they would have had second thoughts about supplying “The Transitional Federal Government”, and would have anticipated such an outcome.

The United States has identified Al-Shabab, as “an Al-Qaeda inspired Islamist group.” However, as always in Somalia, nothing is ever that simple. Somalia is seen within by some in the United States as another territory in which to fight “The War on Terror”, a view that is not held by the rest of the world.  To call “The Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) a national administration is to be seriously misled, it is another militia group with limited support, within the conflict-zone that is Somalia.  For most Somalis the TFG is just another militia, which they see as being controlled primarily by the Darod clan.  The fact that the TFG had conducted operations with Ethiopia, Somalia’s traditional enemy, in 2007 and 2008 ensured that they would not enjoy universal support.  In fact the TFG “President” and other leaders moved to Mogadishu in January 2007 with Ethiopian military support. The United States appears to be making the same mistakes that it has made in Afghanistan.

During the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia the United States gave military support; on 7 January 2007, a US Air Force AC-130 gunship attacked Hayo village near Afmadow town, killing at least 30 civilians.  The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), also said that “there were also unconfirmed reports of casualties around Bargal in Puntland, following the reported US military airstrike on the area on 1 June 2007.”  On the 1st May 2008 a US air strike on Dusamareb, was alleged to have killed at least 11 people, including Aden Hashi Ayro, a leader of Al-Shabab. U.S. military attacks continue, on the 14th September 2009 US helicopters shoot dead Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in Southern Somalia, he was linked to the Al-Shabab movement.  Al-Shabab is of course an unpleasant group which wishes to impose a very strict form of Islamic law on Somalia. But, it is merely one of the many militias that fights over the ruins of Somalia. They do have the interesting idea of banning bras and lashing women who by wearing such garments, “deceive men”.  They obviously have a thing about women with mobile beasts.

In 2007 and 2008 the behaviour of the TFG forces gave grave cause for concern; Amnesty International (AI) states that it “received multiple reports indicating that among all parties to the conflict, the conduct of TFG forces had, until mid to late 2007, been widely perceived as [being] unprofessional, and prone to theft and looting.” AI added that, “TFG soldiers were regularly reported to have been involved in incidents of sexual violence, including rape and the unlawful killing of civilians as well as theft and looting.” This is hardly the ally that is going to restore peace and democracy to the territory.

Now, to return to the saga of the Al Mezaan. According to a report in Lloyds List (10th November 2009) this vessel may have been carrying short- and medium-range missiles. It was reported that its cargo was being unloaded off Garacad, near to Eyl.  It is unclear precisely what the cargo was, or who is was intended for, suggested recipients vary from Al-Shabab, to the African Union to the TFG.  It is unclear who loaded the ship, which appears to have transited from the Persian Gulf, it is Dubai-owned.  IF, and it’s a big if, the ship was carrying missiles the most likely types are ex-Soviet short-range anti-tank wire-guided missiles like the 9K11 Malyutka, also known as the AT-3 Sagger, or the radio-guided 9K114 Shturm, also known as the AT-6 Spiral. There are also numbers of the Franco-German Milan missile, which is wire-guided, available, but the Soviet-era stockpiles were vast, the Ukraine alone holding huge stores of such equipment. The Soviet Union produced about 25,000 Saggers a year during the 1960s and 1970s.

Neither the Sagger, nor the Spiral is easy to use, and prolonged training is required to use these weapons effectively.  They are also far more potent weapons than the RPG-7 having a warhead of 2.5 kilo+ (5.3 kg in the case of the Spiral). Our guess is that there may be some Saggers in the cargo and that they were meant to be delivered to the TFG or the African Union.  If this is the case they could be deployed on board pirate vessels, difficult to impossible to fire from a small skiff, but relatively easy to fire from a mothership or large skiff, and with a three kilometre range they could frighten the life out of any Master unfortunate enough to have one fired at his ship.  It’s not clear that they would seriously damage a large merchant ship, certainly a much bigger firework than the tried and trusted RPG-7, although not a close-in weapon (they have a relatively large minimum range of about 500 to 800 metres). We hope that the report in Lloyds List is wrong and that the finding of the U.N. Monitoring Group is still relevant, that there are no operational wired-guided missiles in Somalia.

From the point of view of mariners, any country which ignores the U.N. embargo is potentially putting weapons in the arms of pirates. This message needs to be clearly understood, and IML believes that the threat to maritime lines of communication is of paramount importance and that all military involvement by the international community in Somalia should cease (all the militias are at the end of the day interest groups with different clan links), and that an effective arms embargo on the territory should be imposed by the naval forces deployed in the region.  The danger, highlighted by the case of the Al Mezaan, is that more sophisticated weapons could end up in the hands of pirates.  We will probably never know the truth of this case, but we can see the dangers at sea on a daily basis and we must protect the lives of our seamen and the lines of maritime communication on which the world economy depends. Beside this involvement in the snakepit of Somali politics is an irrelevance we can ill afford.