An ocean of weapons: arms smuggling to Somalia

Rather than relying on foreign navies, Horn of Africa countries must lead in stemming illicit arms inflows.

On 6 January, United States (US) command forces intercepted a dhow in international waters between Iran to Yemen carrying over 2 000 AK-47 assault rifles. Shipments of thousands of illicit weapons from the Iran-Yemen arms trade are reportedly transported via maritime routes to Somalia. There they are sold to the violent extremist groups Islamic State in Somalia and al-Shabaab. 

The weapons smuggling network allegedly extends to al-Shabaab-linked armed groups in Kenya, Ethiopia and Mozambique – threatening security in an already volatile region. It violates United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) sanctions and the renewed UN Security Council arms embargo on Somalia. The illegal arms trade also undermines gains from the decline of piracy in the region. 

The Horn of Africa has great economic, geopolitical and security value to Africa and the world. It is near key waterways vital to international trade. The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait connects the Mediterranean and the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea in the Indian Ocean. Oil and natural gas exports from the Persian Gulf transit Bab-el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz en route to the Suez Canal.

Somalia has the longest coastline on the African continent, but its maritime borders are porous and affected by insecurity on land. Weapons smuggling and trafficking of drugs and other goods are relatively common here. However, the proliferation of Iranian weapons bound for Yemen that end up in Somalia shows the transnational nature of maritime crime in the Horn.

The proliferation of Iranian weapons smuggled to Somalia shows the transnational nature of maritime crime

Maritime crime has spread because of inadequate monitoring, patrolling and enforcement capabilities by the region’s navies. This, coupled with internal conflicts and the war in Yemen, has exacerbated regional instability, threatening the international oil trade and energy security.

With their vested economic and security interests, major powers such as the US, China and Saudi Arabia have stepped into this maritime security vacuum and lead efforts to patrol these waters. Over the past few years, US naval forces have sporadically intercepted arms shipments bound for Somalia.

But Africa should not transfer its maritime security role to external actors. States in the Horn must take charge. The policies exist that enable them to do so despite implementation challenges.

Regional initiatives such as the Djibouti Code of Conduct (through its Jeddah Amendment) already list illegal activities at sea, including arms smuggling, as a significant threat. War-torn Yemen adds to the security risks. However, states have been slow to implement the code, and the amendments are not legally binding.

The US, China and Saudi Arabia have stepped into the Horn’s maritime security vacuum

Proactive joint action by Horn countries is possible through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Task Force on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, established for maritime security cooperation.

The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) is doubling-down on efforts to stop arms trafficking, and maritime security is a vital step in its Silencing the Guns programme. These strategies must however be linked and aligned with national and regional maritime policies – a task that requires setting up a maritime advisory group in the AU Commission.

Another challenge is the diverging aspirations of African and Gulf countries in securing the waters of the Gulf of Aden. Several maritime task forces in the area have overlapping memberships, and African interests in these initiatives have not been clearly articulated.

Without effective African-led operations, foreign navies with military facilities in Djibouti could step in to tackle smuggling at sea. Despite the drop in piracy off Somalia's coast, the EU’s decision to extend Operation Atalanta – its military exercise in the Horn – shows its commitment to security beyond piracy.

An East African maritime task force could combat arms trafficking and secure the Horn’s vast maritime domain

Three practical steps could secure the region’s maritime domain. First, expand the mandate of plans such as the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia to include other maritime crimes, such as arms smuggling.

Second, align regional instruments such as the Nairobi Protocol for Prevention, Control and Reduction of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes Region, the Horn of Africa and the Bordering States with the AU’s Silencing the Guns initiative. This would help achieve Target 16.4 of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals on reducing illicit arms flows. Better alignment would enable the pooling of resources and joint accountability for action.

Finally, maritime activities could foster political and security cooperation that the Horn desperately needs. The IGAD task force comprises both littoral and non-littoral states. With a shared vision, the AU and IGAD could steer multilateral engagements to the benefit of maritime security governance in the region. An East African maritime task force could combat arms trafficking and secure the Horn’s vast maritime domain.

Left unchecked, weapons smuggling to Somalia will continue to threaten regional peace and prosperity. Securing the maritime domain in the Gulf of Aden will require all hands on deck.

David Willima, Research Officer and Tshegofatso Johanna Ramachela, Intern, Maritime, ISS Pretoria

Image: © U.S. Navy Photo

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