News / Africa

Weapons Flowing to Somali Militants

A February, 2011 photo shows al-Shabab fighters on parade with their guns during military exercises on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia.
A February, 2011 photo shows al-Shabab fighters on parade with their guns during military exercises on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia.

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Joe DeCapua
The military offensive against the al-Shabab militia in Somalia has made major advances over the past year. However, al- Shabab has not been defeated. U.N. monitors reportedly say the group is receiving weapons from distribution networks with ties to Yemen and Iran.


Reuters quotes sources who say U.N. monitors report weapons are entering Somalia through Puntland and Somaliland in the north. From there they are transported south where al-Shabab is battling AU, Somali and Kenyan forces.

The news agency says the weapons include IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, and machine guns and that the weapons were made in Iran and North Korea.

Among those weighing what the U.N. monitors are reported to have said is Jonah Leff, of the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project.

He said, “Most of the new weapons that are entering the Horn are in fact coming into Somalia. A great portion of those are coming from Yemen. Of course, these are not conducted by the state of Yemen, but by individual arms dealers, but with the complicity of security officials both in Yemen , but also in Somalia - and mainly in the northern region of Puntland - so along the northern coast of Somalia, where shipping vessels deliver weapons to a number of small ports along the coast there.”

Leff said that he cannot confirm reports that some of the arms smuggled into Somalia were manufactured in Iran.

“But we do know that there’s a close link between Iran and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. It’s been documented that Iran has supplied those rebels with weapons and also financial support. So, it’s quite likely that some of those weapons could have been diverted or have been sold outside of Yemen and into Somalia. Now even though Iran may be supplying them with weapons, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re supplying them with Iranian-manufactured weapons, which kind of complicates the situation when documenting those weapons in Somalia,” he said.

He said it may be easier to smuggle weapons into Somalia than many other countries.

“It has an enormous coastline, which is very difficult to monitor and to regulate. And given the fact that Somalia doesn’t quite have a fully functional security apparatus it’s very difficult to interdict weapons shipments that are coming into ports. Puntland has made some progress. They do have a growing naval security force that has been supported by a lot of Western donors,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said, Puntland’s security resources are limited. He added that many security officials at Somali ports have been bribed to allow weapons shipments in.

“Most of the weapons that are going into places like South Sudan or Congo or parts of Kenya - a good number of those weapons are originating in Somalia, which is just awash with weapons,” said Leff.

The United States is lobbying for an end to the U.N. arms embargo on Somalia. It’s been in effect since 1992. Some other countries are opposed to lifting it or want to see it gradually lifted. Jeff Leff of the Small Arms Survey says lifting it would be premature.

Leff said, “There’s still a lack of oversight and command over the country and ability to intercept or to regulate the illicit flow of weapons. I believe that lifting the arms embargo would only make it easier for some of these traders to continue selling arms into Somalia. And without some kind of robust system or mechanism for curbing those transfers, I think the embargo needs to remain in place.”

The United Nations Security Council is expected to address the situation in Somalia over the next several weeks. 

U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland it would not be a surprise if Iran is involved in supplying weapons to al Shabab.

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