Yemen: A Dangerous Regional Arms Bazaar

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 12

Arms bazaar in Jihana, Yemen (Source: REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah)

Yemen is the second most heavily armed country in the world after the United States. Before the current civil war began, there were an estimated 54 guns for every 100 residents. [1] Now, the number of small and medium arms in the country is far higher. Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who are the primary external participants in the war, have flooded Yemen with weapons of all types. These weapons, which range from assault rifles to anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), are being provided to a range of disparate militias so that, in theory, they can fight the Houthis who control northwest Yemen. In reality, there are almost no safeguards in place to monitor the end-use of these weapons. [2] Consequently, many of them, including sophisticated medium arms like ATGMs, are sold on to whichever organization or individual will pay the highest price. [3]

Before the start of the conflict, Yemen was already a regional arms bazaar, but the country’s well-established smuggling networks have been reinvigorated by the influx of weapons. These networks have contacts throughout the region and move significant quantities of arms to Somalia and further afield, but it is not only Yemen’s arms dealers who are profiting from the inflow of weapons. Groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Somalia-based al-Shabaab are also benefiting. In the case of AQAP, the group has never been better armed or better funded. While al-Shabaab has long suffered from a dearth of weapons and materiel, this may not be the case for much longer. What is certain is that the consequences of indiscriminate weapons transfers to Yemen will have a profound effect not only on Yemen but also on the region as a whole in the months and years to come.

From Submachine Guns to Gently Used Tanks

Yemen’s arms markets are a paradise for organizations that want to stock up on anything from the latest high-end Heckler and Koch submachine guns to secondhand but barely used tanks. Even when Yemen had a functioning government, it was unable, and largely unwilling, to impede the illicit trade in weapons.

Yemen’s largest arms market is in the village of Jihana, a mere 40-minute drive from the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. There — and at other markets — buyers can find a dizzying array of small and medium arms. Heavy weapons — such as tanks, artillery pieces and armored vehicles — are also easily procured.

Most civil wars create a shortage of weapons and materiel, but Yemen’s conflict has resulted in a glut of arms. Prices for less desirable assault rifles, like the Steyr AUG used by Saudi forces, have plummeted. These rifles now cost less than $60. Of far more interest to most buyers are the advanced weapons systems that have only recently been made available. These include ATGMs and, perhaps most worryingly, surface-to-air missiles like the SA-7 Grail and its variants. However, it is the ATGMs that are most in demand by all sides in the conflict and have proved to be decisive in various battles around Yemen. Most of the more advanced weapons, like the third-generation ATGMs, have come into the country in the last two years. In addition to weapons, advanced kit like night-vision goggles, hand-launched drones and encrypted communication devices are also widely available.

There are numerous claims that Iran is providing weapons to the Houthis. However, it is the UAE and Saudi Arabia that are providing the vast majority of these more advanced weapons. While they may be intended for anti-Houthi militias and reconstituted units of the part of the Yemeni Army aligned with Yemen’s government-in-exile, the leaders of these forces simply sell much of it on the open market (Daily Star, May 1). These militias and army units are poorly paid — if they are paid at all — and the sale of weapons provides a source of funds for both the men and their officers.

There is a long history in Yemen of military units selling weapons and materiel. Between 2004 and 2011, during the Houthis’ six wars with the Yemeni government, led by then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the rebel’s primary source for weapons and ammunition was the Yemeni Army they were fighting.

While recently supplied weapons are being sold by the militias and army units, all sides in the conflict have seized weapons during battles and from Yemeni army stockpiles. These seized weapons, those that are deemed to be in surplus and not readily needed, are sold to arms dealers, third parties and, in some cases, even rivals.

AQAP and the Arms Trade

After the start of the Saudi intervention in Yemen, which began on March 26, 2015, AQAP went on the offensive across much of the southern part of the country. One of the organization’s primary objectives was the seizure of government stores of weapons. AQAP succeeded in seizing stockpiles of weapons from sites around the port city of al-Mukalla, among other towns, and captured weapons from fleeing Yemeni Army units.

AQAP’s leadership has been tied into the illicit networks that traffic everything from arms to people. These networks have ready access to Yemen’s long and unguarded southern coast, allowing them to move all manner of illicit (and licit) goods in and out of Yemen.

The weapons became a ready source of funds for AQAP. The organization kept and stockpiled the ones it most required and sold off those it did not. Unlike the Saudi- and UAE-funded militias and army units, AQAP’s operatives are generally well and consistently paid. While AQAP substantially boosted its funding when it seized an estimated $100 million from a branch of the Yemeni Central Bank in al-Mukalla, weapons sales and “taxes” imposed on smugglers are also significant sources of income for the group (Reuters, April 8, 2016). On top of this, AQAP uses its access to weapons, especially ATGMs and (potentially) surface-to-air missiles, as a way to build influence with other al-Qaeda franchises like al-Shabaab.

Regional Proliferation

Relative to Yemen, there are far fewer weapons available in Somalia. This is because Somalia has often acted as a conduit for arms and materiel to other destinations in Africa. As a consequence of this, and the decades of its own civil conflict, weapons command far higher prices in Somalia than in Yemen.

Access to adequate supplies of weapons and materiel has long been a problem for al-Shabaab, and in particular the organization has only ever had limited access to more advanced weapons. Greater access to ATGMs, advanced night vision equipment, lightweight man portable mortars and hand-launched drones would make al-Shabaab a far more lethal opponent.

The leadership of AQAP and al-Shabaab have exchanged top-level operatives, and both organizations have learned from one another over the past five years. AQAP has refined and expanded its intelligence wing, learning from al-Shabaab’s own intelligence organization, the Amnniyat. [4] It is almost certain that al-Shabaab will in turn benefit from AQAP’s increasing experience in operating and deploying a wider array of weapons. It is also likely that al-Shabaab will benefit from AQAP’s access to these weapons.

Al-Shabaab will not be the only group in Somalia to benefit from the outflow of weapons from Yemen. Somalia’s pirate gangs, which have had a working relationship with parts of the al-Shabaab organization, may also gain.

Somalia’s pirate gangs have been greatly weakened over the last four years due to the efforts of the international community and by the governments of Somalia and Somaliland. Meanwhile, many shipping companies have taken action, hiring armed security teams for their ships. Somalia’s pirates have historically been poorly armed, relying on assault rifles and RPGs. If these gangs were to gain access to ATGMs, which can be easily repurposed, or other advanced weapons, it could make them far more of a threat to ships transiting the Bab al-Mandeb and the Somali coast (al-Jazeera, March 15).


Al-Shabaab and Somalia’s pirate gangs are but two groups that stand to benefit from the availability of weapons in Yemen. Undoubtedly, as the war continues, there will be many more. Yemen’s coast is extensive and unguarded. Weapons and materiel are being exported with ease from Yemen to Somalia. It is likely that they are travelling even further afield.

Quite apart from the dangers posed by an unchecked outflow of weapons, including some relatively advanced armaments, the trade is a ready source of cash for al-Qaeda’s most capable franchise. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s large scale exporting of arms to Yemen will have grave repercussions for both them and the region as a whole.

While personal ownership of weapons in Saudi Arabia is highly regulated, a thriving black market for weapons exists there. Given that Saudi Arabia has little control of its border with Yemen, it is likely that some of the weapons there are making their way across the border to be re-sold in Saudi Arabia to terrorist cells and other organizations that oppose the House of Saud.

The war in Yemen and the weapons provided to its various actors have the potential to reshape and intensify piracy and other regional threats. The outflow of weapons from Yemen is itself of great concern, but knowledge and experience of how best to use them is also being exported. The policy of supplying tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars worth of weapons to ad-hoc militias in a country as unstable and strategically located as Yemen will result in a host of unintended and deadly consequences.




[1] See: Small Arms Survey. The US has 88.8 guns for every 100 residents. Yemen has 54.8 guns per 100 residents. These numbers only take into consideration small arms and not the medium and heavy arms that are readily available in Yemen.

[2] The US government lost track of 500 million USD worth of weapons and equipment that it provided to Yemen after the outbreak of civil war (Washington Post, March 17, 2015).

[3] Much of the information in this article is based upon multiple interview with a range of Yemen based analysts and journalists conducted in April and May 2017.

[4] See: “Fighting the Long War: The Evolution of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” CTC Sentinel, January 23, 2017.