The Yemeni Arms Trade: Still a Concern for Terrorism and Regional Security

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 9

The November 28 2002 attack on an Israeli airliner in Mombassa, Kenya, focused attention on Yemen and it arms markets. A UN report tasked with assessing arms trafficking to Somalia found that the shoulder fired missiles used in that attack likely originated from Yemen. Furthermore, follow-up reports cite Yemen’s weapons availability as a significant risk factor for al-Qaeda’s procurement of arms.

Yemen’s efforts at internal control started after 9/11 with the new international focus on terrorism. The Yemeni government embarked upon a widely known weapons buyback program, hoping to disarm the tribes and thus neutralize the threat they posed to government control, in a non-confrontational manner. Sources connected to the markets believe the tribes have largely participated, relieving themselves of artillery, missiles, tanks and other forms of heavy weaponry. Surprisingly, the widespread rumor of American financing of the buyback program seems to exercise little impact on the tribes’ willingness to participate.

Weapons purchases in the markets have fallen drastically since 1999, a period coinciding with a marked decrease in intertribal violence. Tribal mini-wars created a market for weapons of all sizes and varieties, leading to a flourishing trade in arms. The decrease in activity led to a drop in supply accompanied by significant price hikes. Currently, the market’s major customers are tribesmen hoping to adorn themselves with rifles or pistols, as is customary in Yemeni tribal tradition. Anything heavier, and ammunition in general, is in low demand as no large customer groups have any great need for such items.

This decrease in demand has accompanied other limited Yemeni government efforts to affect control over weapons in Yemen. The government implemented a ban on carrying weapons inside major cities. The results did not reach their intended marks with tribal cities like Marib and al-Hazm, though more urbanized areas such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz successfully implemented the ban.

Yemeni internal efforts have likely interfered with the free trade of weaponry with the closing of the weapons market at Souq al-Talh and Ma’rib. Souq al-Talh used to be the largest arms market in the country. It served local tribal needs and acted as a distribution center, supplying markets not easily supplied by border or maritime smuggling to places like Jihana, a major market about 250 km southeast of the capital. [1] Souq al-Talh closed in spring 2004 as a result of the al-Houthi rebellion due to a heavy government crackdown and its continued presence within the market. The Ma’rib market closed approximately six months prior to the al-Houthi rebellion, though the circumstances surrounding its closing and what provoked it remain ambiguous.

A November 2003 trip to Souq al-Talh revealed how the market concealed its full selection. When purchases of heavy weapons were involved, the market served merely as a meeting point for buyer and seller. Sellers maintained small stores in the market stocked with pistols, rifles and ammunition. Other items, such as RPGs, missiles and heavier weapons were available off-site if one found the right dealer and if buyer and seller established enough trust. Interviews with arms dealers proved impossible due to security concerns, but people connected to the market insisted that nearly any conceivable conventional weapon was obtainable through the right contacts.

The al-Houthi rebellion serves as an excellent guideline to the status of Yemen’s weapons markets in the spring of 2004. Al-Houthi managed to arm his supporters by simply visiting weapons markets across the country according to a Yemen-based journalist who covered the Houthi rebellion extensively and wishes to remain anonymous due to current employment with a Western embassy. Flush with cash from decades’ worth of khums (a Shi’i religious tax) al-Houthi and his followers encountered little difficulty in financing the operation. They apparently were able to purchase all the materials for their uprising from within the country. What remains unclear, however, is the type of weaponry employed in the rebellion and whether al-Houthi managed to acquire heavy arms or not.

Significant levels of arms trading appear to continue in these areas despite the market closures. Note, for example, the March 19 2005, killing of al-Houthi followers as they attempted to acquire weapons in Souq al-Talh despite the closure of the weapons section. Numerous sources insist that the market is indeed closed. A likely scenario is that the market, while closed, still serves as a covert rendezvous point for buyers and sellers. Alternatively, as Sana’a University professor Abdullah al-Faqih points out, closing the markets only drives such activity underground, potentially doing away with the need for open markets altogether. The government presence also is unlikely to have significantly interrupted existing dealer-client relationships.

Ma’rib also appears under limited control. The government only managed to officially implement the ban on carrying weapons inside the city in January 2004, years behind most other cities. [2] That effort has not gone smoothly either. Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper reported on February 2 2005 a clash between security forces and tribesmen attempting to bring their personal weapons into the city. The conflict escalated further when the tribesmen retaliated, attacking government buildings and checkpoints. Continued tensions between the Abeeda tribe, whose members were exclusively involved in the incident, and the security apparatus are near certain as both parties took casualties in the violence. The Abeeda tribe is the same tribe accused of sheltering Abu Ali al-Harithi, the al-Qaeda leader assassinated by the CIA in November 2002. [3] Others in the city complain of unequal application of the law, saying that some days weapons are permitted past checkpoints while on others the law is enforced.

Yemen’s extensive boundaries provide a further challenge to limiting the flow of weapons into and out of the country. The nation’s incipient coast guard still lacks anything close to enough resources to effectively patrol nearly 2,000 km of coastline. American support has enhanced their capabilities, building the coast guard’s numbers of ships and men at a modest pace. At the present time, however, the coast guard remains unable to implement a significant presence.

The country’s land boundaries prove equally challenging. The Saudi governor of Jizan, Prince Mohammed bin Nasser bin Abdul-Aziz, complained publicly in August 2003 that Saudi authorities captured Yemeni arms smugglers on an hourly basis. The two nations only recently demarcated an official location for the border. Perhaps the greatest problem is the geography of the border itself. The border runs 1,458 km with Saudi Arabia through the Empty Quarter, an area nearly devoid of inhabitants and permanent settlements. Patrolling such an area is a near impossible task for the government and its limited resources.

Many people believe that Yemeni military officers bear responsibility for the distribution of weapons in the country. Arms can flow legally into Yemen for the legitimate purpose of supplying the army. Military officials, most of whom are paid under $100 per month, stand to gain a great deal by illegally selling supplies of weapons under their care. Moreover, they have little to fear from government recordkeeping and are unlikely to face weapons inventory inquiries. A conversation unrelated to smuggling with an officer in the military police highlights the government’s dilemma of balancing officials’ pay with their responsibility. He noted that on his official salary he makes YR 9,000 per month, a little more than $45. When bribes are factored in, he estimates an income of YR 60,000-70,000, about $320-370. Such corruption is rampant throughout the government.

The Yemeni government itself suffers from inadequate commitment to the weapons issue. The Yemeni Parliament cannot resolve its differences over a proposed law to thoroughly regulate arms distribution and ownership in the country. The speaker, Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, remains unenthusiastic about the proposal. Most of the tribal elements feel likewise. They are reluctant to cede on an issue where enhanced government control is an almost certain outcome. Instead, they point to the current 1992 law as satisfactory, despite major shortcomings like the government’s inability to seize weaponry even after an offender commits a weapons violation.

The Yemeni government’s progress on weapons availability is weak. The buyback program has taken significant quantities of heavy weapons out of private hands, though those groups were unlikely to use those weapons against the government in the first place. Otherwise, they would not willingly disarm. Knowledgeable individuals who visited the Jihana market late last year noted that the heaviest weaponry on offer in the stalls were RPGs and their launchers. They were apparently of near unusable quality given their extreme age. Such signs are encouraging though they are partially negated by the now even more discreet trade of heavy weapons due to the market closures and continued hostility between the government and the tribes. Reopening the markets to monitor weapons traffic seems an unfeasible option. The government has made little progress in improving its relations with the tribes since the country’s unification in 1990. There seems to be little reason to believe the government will gain control over the weapons situation and the factors affecting it anytime within the next few years. Consequently Yemen will likely remain a potential supply source for weapons to interested parties for some time to come, including al-Qaeda.

Shaun Overton is an independent analyst specializing in the Arab World. He has just returned from nine months of research in Yemen.



2. “Hamla amniyya li-mana’a haml as-silah fi madinat Ma’rib”,, January 8, 2004

3. al-Jarbani, Hussein, al-Yemen: “Maqtal sita ashkhas baynahum jundiyan fi ishtibak bi Ma’rib”, ash-Sharq al-Awsat, February 2, 2005