The conflict in Somalia is now growing international linkages as some of the arms that Iran supplies to Houthi rebels in Yemen fighting an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia are finding their way into eastern Africa.
This proliferation of illicit arms diverted from Yemen into Somalia, has potentially serious security implications for the country, and for neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya.
Farther afield, the arms flow to al-Shabaab (not related to the Somalian militia) in northern Mozambique since conflict broke out in Cabo Delgado region in 2017, has become more sophisticated and finding its way into southern Tanzania.
These were the findings of a report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC) released March 14, showing an overall increase in organised crime in eastern and southern Africa since 2019, as illicit arms fall into the wrong hands that are engaged in transnational crimes — poaching, terrorism, drug, and human trafficking.
GI-TOC is a global network with 500 Network Experts around the world that provides a platform to promote debate and innovative approaches as building blocks for a global strategy against organised crime.
In this year’s Risk Bulletins on eastern and southern Africa, the GI-TOC says that in South Africa, where failed institutions such as South Africa’s Central Firearms Registry) allowed guns from state sources to get to criminal networks.
They found arms flows to Somalia as a spillover of illicit arms shipped by sea from Iran to rebels fighting in Yemen.
Smugglers and shipments
In December 2021, US naval forces intercepted a dhow in the northern Arabian Sea. Believed to have been en route to Yemen, the dhow carried 1,400 assault rifles and over 200,000 rounds of ammunition.
“Our team documented weapons at various locations in Somalia, which appear to have been sourced from shipments originally destined for Yemen, thereby demonstrating how one conflict can have a destabilising effect on others and a wider region,” the report says.
The Enhancing Africa’s Response to Organised Crime project, which published the Organized Crime Index for 2021, shows an overall increase in organised crime in eastern and southern Africa since 2019. In southern Africa, AK-47s were smuggled into northern Mozambique from the Great Lakes region (Burundi and the DRC) to feed demand among ivory poachers operating in the Niassa Reserve and the Quirimbas National Park during the peak years of Mozambique’s elephant poaching crisis.
Some analysts believe that criminal networks have made use of northern Mozambique’s historical smuggling routes transporting commodities such as drugs, illegally procured gems and timber.
The Yemeni angle is now a cause of concern for the region. Between December 2020 and August 2021, GI-TOC field researchers documented a total of 417 small arms and light weapons in Somalia in a survey of 13 different locations.
Some 38 of these (9.1 percent of the total) were Type 56-1 rifles and were found in eight of the locations. The serial numbers of the Type 56-1 rifles found in Somalia clustered around those documented in various maritime seizures, suggesting a common source.
A portion of this Iranian support has consisted of deliveries of small arms and light weapons to Yemen, 24 carried out by sophisticated, transnational maritime trafficking networks.
Frequent meetings and transshipments between dhows of Iranian, Yemeni and Somali origin disguise the provenance of weapon shipments and evade detection.
The analysis of the serial numbers of Type 56-1 rifles seized in February and May 2021 shows that the numbers run almost consecutively, which suggests that they could have formed part of a state-to-state transfer from China (where these weapons are manufactured) to Iran.
The northern Mozambique conflict – which since mid-2021 has seen the intervention of SADC and Rwandan forces attempt to stabilise the troubled region – has governments around the region concerned about its effect on regional stability.
In November 2021, for example, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa and Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta jointly called for increased cooperation to counter terrorism in Mozambique, arguing that this is a regional, rather than national, threat.
GI-TOC research in late 2021 concluded that the bulk of the insurgents’ weaponry comes directly from Mozambican military sources, and includes weapons captured from security-force camps, border posts, and police armories in towns and villages overrun by the insurgents and abandoned by Mozambican security forces in retreat.
“The 2021 results can lend an insight into how organised crime has changed over the past two years in eastern and southern Africa. This, in turn, can show how trends may continue to develop into 2022,” it says.