An investigation into weapons being used in the war in Yemen has shown numerous examples of arms supplied by the UK and the US, among others, ending up in the hands of militias including those linked to al-Qaida and Isis.
In an apparent abuse of trade agreements by the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition, sophisticated armoured vehicles, rocket launchers, grenades and rifles are among the weapons being purchased from European and US companies and reaching local factions and groups.
As international concerns continue to rise over the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the report by journalist Mohamed Abo-Elgheit and the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalists (Arij) alleges that not only are weapons being openly passed to militias aligned to the Saudi coalition but also to marginalised and feuding groups fighting their own territorial battles.
The details, to be aired in an Arabic-language documentary, The End User, came from analysis of thousands of broadcasts, social media and closed internet groups, alongside intensive research to verify the origins of weapons.
“Where we found abuse of the end user certification system, we sought explanations from the arms companies and government who authorised the sales to the coalition. Many simply turn a blind eye,” said Abo-Elgheit.
The documentary accuses the Saudi coalition, weapons suppliers and governments of a sustained breach of “end user” certification laws stretching back to the beginning of the conflict in 2015. In 2016 UN Security Council issued a warning over “lax accountability” on the part of the coalition, and expressed concern that weapons may be diverted to the black market.
No penalties have ever been levied for breaches. Certificates are meant to provide an assurance to those selling arms, or authorising their sale, that weapons will be used only by the buyer, and not passed or sold on.
Abo-Elgheit and his team compiled evidence that calls into question the credibility of such certificates signed by Saudi Arabia and UAE.
Germany became the first EU country to officially raise the issue with Saudi Arabia, after footage revealed the Houthis in possession of G3 rifles that had been air-dropped into their region.
In the historical south-western city of Taiz, an absence of state or security services has allowed Aqap (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) to step into the vacuum. In 2016, Aqap broadcast footage of a battle in Taiz against the Houthis, in which their fighters used German MG3 machine guns.
“We spotted dozens of these guns in the possession of Yemenis in different provinces. A resistance fighter in Taiz told us that the Saudi army had handed them out to its allies,” said Abo-Elgheit. The gun is made by Heckler & Koch, who also licence Saudi Arabia to make G3 and G36 assault rifles.
Germany and Belgium have now refused to authorise arms export to parties involved in the Yemen conflict, but others refute allegations of diversion breaches, including the UK.
A complex splintering and merging of factions has made the situation in Yemen particularly volatile, said Abo-Elgheit. “Since the start of the war, the Saudi-backed government in Yemen has continued to merge popular resistance forces into the army, including Abu al-Abbas Brigades, which became part of the Armoured Brigade 35 in Taiz,” he said. “By arming these groups the coalition is in breach of international law, fuelling all-round conflict and human rights abuses.”
Abu al-Abbas is on the terror watchlists of many countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Brigadier General Mohamed al-Mahmoudi, former director of security in Taiz, said, “It is strange for an entity to be classified as a terrorist organisation, while being supported by those who classified it as such.” A Brigade spokesperson said: “Nothing has changed. The weapons and financial support are still the same as before.”
“Data shows that between 2011 and 2014 Saudi Arabia and the UAE purchased 2,600 Oshkosh M-ATV mine-resistant ambush-protected (Mrap) vehicles from the US. In 2015, the Abu al-Abbas group received three such vehicles whilst others have fallen into the hands of other Yemeni factions or the hands of Houthis,” Abo-Elgheit said.
In November 2016, Sheikh Rouzik, prominent fundamentalist Islamist leader in Taiz, received a British-made Aardvark JSFU mine-clearing sweeper. Pictures depict Rouzik sat inside the vehicle clearly marked with Saudi army emblems.
In April 2017, the investigators obtained footage of an Abu al-Abbas Brigades fighter in Taiz placing Swiss-made grenades on to his belt, and a photograph posted on social media in May 2017 depicted a soldier holding the same branded grenade.
An Abu al-Abbas commander in Taiz showed the investigators grenades the resistance was using. Swiss makers RUAG confirmed that the grenades were part of a consignment delivered to the UAE in 2003.
In February this year militias fighting for an independent state in Yemen’s south raised the South Yemen flag on US-made armoured vehicles, the BAE Caiman Mrap. The same southern resistance later joined forces with the UAE-backed Giants Brigade and received dozens of US-made MaxxPro armoured vehicles. In 2014 the UAE spent $2.5bn (£1.95bn) on 1150 Caiman and 3360 MaxxPro vehicles from the US. This deal included a technology protection clause and end user certificate. The supplier of Caimans in this case was UK-based BAE Systems, although the contract was procured via its subsidiary in Texas.
The vehicles have been sighted on numerous occasions on all sides of the conflict, leading to Yemeni army officials’ complaints of being less well equipped than the resistance groups.
Last month a video released by the Houthis depicted arms seized from the Giants Brigade. Among the spoils were the Swiss grenades.
Ahmed Himmiche, coordinator of the Security Council Panel of Experts on Yemen, said: “We learned from sources that some Yemeni fighters had sold their weapons, especially when they did not receive wages.”
He said battlefield weapons leaking into domestic arms markets increased the terror attack risk globally.
Monitoring the black market, Himmiche said prices were stable or declining despite the increased demand due to war: a clear and worrying indicator that diversion into the black market was rising, because of the resulting glut that reduced prices.
Abo-Elgheit used pseudonyms and encrypted message services to reach online networks operating in Taiz. They found a variety of illegal arms trading, documenting dozens of brand new German rifles being sold.
Posing as potential buyers, they confirmed the German origins and serial numbers for authentication. Also being offered were Minimis, clearly stamped with the manufacturer name FN Herstal.
“At one stage, Canada seemed to be the only country whose weapons were not diverted to the Yemenis,” said Ab-Elgheit. That changed this year, when with Yemeni allies, the Saudi army invaded the Houthi stronghold of Saada. Brigadier General Abdullah al-Ajabi, a Yemeni commander in Saada, appeared in videos holding a Canadian-made PGW sniper rifle. Another soldier carried a German assault weapon.
Between July and October Canadian Lav-25 armoured vehicles were spotted six times in Yemeni convoys in Hajjah and Saada. In several cases apparent attempts had been made to erase Saudi markings.
Abo-Elgheit approached manufacturers and governments with his findings to ask what actions would be taken against Saudi Arabia and UAE. H&K failed to respond, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy said it “has no valid evidence” that exports were being used in Yemen but insisted it takes non-compliance seriously. Belgian authorities refused to comment regarding FN Herstal.
In response to questions over BAE and Aardvark, the UK’s Department for International Trade said export licences are not required to export minesweepers.
BAE did not respond to a request for comment.
“The main problem is Iran to Yemen, not the west to Yemen, which is nothing more than a political agenda,” said Graham Jones, chair of the UK committees on arms export controls.
Canadian manufacturer General Dynamics declined to comment, but a foreign ministry spokesperson, Allison Lewis, said the government had the power to cancel or suspend export permits, should they “become aware of evidence that the authorised end use of an export is being violated”.
The Swiss government said it was unaware of Swiss weapons being used in Yemen and would be investigating the findings. The US defence department also said it would be seeking to investigate. A spokesman added: “Recipients of US-origin defence equipment have signed an obligation to adhere to end-use requirements as outlined in agreements concluded with the United States government. This is to make sure that those articles are used in the manner intended and consistent with our legal obligations, foreign policy goals, and values.”