Assault rifles supplied by Iran to Yemen’s Houthis are finding their way across the Gulf of Aden to Somalia, a Geneva-based think tank reported Wednesday.
Iranian Fingerprint?, a report from Global Initiative Against Translational Organized Crime, was based on information from more than 400 weapons identified in 13 locations in Somalia over eight months and on weapons carried by dhows intercepted by naval vessels.
Report author Jay Bahadur, formerly coordinator of the United Nations Security Council monitoring group on Somalia and Eritrea, notes Iran’s consistent denial of supplying weapons to Ansar Allah, who since 2014 have battled a Saudi intervention, but writes that “a preponderance of evidence points to Iranian state supply.”
With many of the identified weapons – mainly Type 56-1 automatic rifles – having batched serial numbers, they are likely to originated with a single supplier, the report says. One dhow seized by the US navy had a digital positioning system that recorded visits to Iran − including an anchorage near the naval base at Jask port − and southern Yemen, where its home port was Mukalla, an arms hub.
The report concludes that weapons from “the Iran-Yemen arms trade are being trafficked onward into Somalia itself,” although buyers and sellers along the way were unclear. Demand in Somalia would come from many armed factions jostling for position ahead of Somalia’s presidential election due later this yearbut repeatedly postponed, with the mandates of all federal authorities expired. Somalia also has the militant Sunni groups al-Shabaab and the Islamic State group (Isis).
Neither Iran, Ansar Allah or Somalia have commented on the report, which claims to be the first research into the scale of illicit arms smuggling from Yemen into the Horn of Africa country.
Gateway For Illicit Weapons
The report cross-references serial numbers of Type 56-1 assault rifles, a Chinese made model similar to an AK47, either found in Somalia, seized in four naval operations, captured by anti-Houthi forces in Yemen, or in one instance held by an arms dealer in Sanaa. In particular, the report obtained an inventory of weapons seized by the USS Monterey in May 2021 in the Arabian Sea.
“The documented materiel included 38 Type 56-1 assault rifles…that had likely originated in Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis,” the report says. “The majority of Type 56-1 rifles documented in this study were found in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in northern Somalia which has historically functioned as the gateway for illicit weapons into the country.” But the report “documented Type 56-1 rifles as far south in Somalia as Dolow, a town bordering Ethiopia…”
Iran is “only one party” sending arms to Yemen, the report says: “Arms and ammunition supplied to Yemeni actors by the Saudi Arabia, the UAE [United Arab Emirates], and even the United States have previously been diverted into illicit markets.”
The report notes that the spread of arms from the Yemen conflict has “potentially serious security implications” not just for Somalia, but for neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya, with Type 56-1 rifles “derived from the Iran–Yemen supply chain… documented in several towns bordering eastern Ethiopia and Kenya.” Ethiopia is locked in a civil war stemming from the crisis in Tigray.
While noting that the diversion of arms from the Yemen conflict has so far been confined to small arms, “the potential import of heavier weapons into Somalia – such as rocket-propelled grenades or anti-tank guided missiles…[could] enhance the capacity of al-Shabaab and ISIL [Isis] to challenge government forces, particularly in Puntland.”