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U.N.: Missing weapons in Somalia pose risk

A United Nations report on violations of the arms embargo against warring factions in Somalia paints a portrait of nation states and private dealers arming the now deposed Islamic Courts Union with a rich variety of arms, big and small. NBC's Robert Windrem reports.
Militiamen with the Islamic Courts Union walk in Balad, Somalia, in June, just months before Ethiopian troops invaded the country to crush the movement.
Militiamen with the Islamic Courts Union walk in Balad, Somalia, in June, just months before Ethiopian troops invaded the country to crush the movement.Karel Prinsloo / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

A United Nations report on violations of the arms embargo against warring factions in Somalia paints a portrait of nation states and private dealers arming the now deposed Islamic Courts Union with a rich variety of arms, big and small.

Although Ethiopian forces captured a lot of the weaponry when they invaded Somalia in December, much of it remains unaccounted for — in a region the U.S. fears could become a new terrorist haven.

The report says that more than 700 Somali Islamists were sent to Lebanon last summer to fight with Hezbollah against Israel as an apparent quid pro quo for military support.

The 83-page “Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia” was written in November 2006 before Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia and scattered the Islamic Courts Union. But in the months before the movement collapsed, the report stated that it had received “aggressive support from seven states,” including several that had fought Islamist insurgencies in their own countries. The U.S. quietly assisted the Ethiopian military in their invasion, “synchronizing” operations so that the U.S. could track down suspected al-Qaida terrorists as they tried to escape from the Ethiopians.

“Behind the scenes, large cargo aircraft and ocean-going dhows have been clandestinely delivering arms and other forms of military support from states, arms trading networks and others, almost on a daily basis,” reported the monitoring group, adding that the list of weapons included “surface-to-air missiles — military materiel, motor vehicles — trucks and land cruisers used as mobile weapons platforms.”

The monitoring group cited suspected embargo violations by the governments of seven states, several of which are allies of the U.S. The report describes in detail violations by Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran and its client, Hezbollah, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The most aggressive in supplying arms, according to the report, was neighboring Eritrea, which has fought several wars with Ethiopia, which in turn supported the rival government in Baidoa.

In page after page of detailed descriptions of arms movements that often cite aircraft tail numbers and arrival and departure information, the group listed not just the weapons systems acquired, but discussions among the Islamic Courts Union and military and political leaders in each of the countries cited. Several of the states denied violations in letters to the group.

Typical of the level of detail was this description of an arms shipment through Eritrea:

“On 20 July 2006, an Airbus A-310-300, operated by Daallo Airlines, departed from Assab, Eritrea, destined for Somalia. Onboard the aircraft were a variety of arms, as follows: B-10 anti-tank guns; heavy (large calibre) machine guns; PKM machine guns, with magazines and telescopic sighting devices; AK47 assault rifles; G3A3 assault rifles; Browning .30 calibre machine guns; 120mm mortars; rifle fired grenades.”

The report also laid out specifics regarding proposed training of Islamic militia by several of the nations, citing “the recruitment of new fighters and volunteers from foreign countries, and establishing military camps and conducting formal military training.” The report also states millions of dollars were sent to the Islamic militants by Iran and Saudi Arabia.

William Hartung, a senior research fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York, describes the group’s report as “a good case study of how the arms business is completely out of control.”

Hartung says that a “a lot of them [the nation states] supplying the arms are U.S. supported, so what you have is a boomerang effect. Almost every arms sale now is part of the GWOT, the Global War on Terror. Yet you can’t control how they are used.  It’s about as out of control as you can get. When they (U.S. allies) get new equipment as a result of GWOT, there is this supply of weapons from stockpiles that can now be sold.”

The report contends that senior Egyptian military officers, along with others from Libya and Eritrea, met in July with the ICU finance chief to discuss setting up a military training center and in September welcomed the first trainees. Egypt denied that any of its military officers participated in such training, calling the charges “false” and “baseless.”

Hartung says none of this should be a surprise. “In addition to some of the Gulf states, Egypt is one place where these deals are channeled though. … For a country that is getting $2 billion a year in U.S. military aid, this is a pretty horrifying element.”

Vicki Huddleston, who until November 2005 was acting U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, says each country’s decision to help the Islamic militants may not seem logical — considering how many are fighting their own Islamic insurgencies — but the Horn of Africa is a volatile region and geopolitical considerations often trump everything else.

“The ICU’s backers were various and often at odds with each other,” says Huddleston, now an NBC News Africa analyst. "Why Egypt and Libya … both states that hate al-Qaida? Egypt fears Ethiopian hegemony in the Horn and Nile waters, which by old U.K. treaties give all to Egypt. Why Libya? Because Ethiopia won't participate in Moammar Qadafi's African Security Group.  But again, this is also North Africa-Middle East fearing a strong African power. And it is the old Arab vs. sub-Saharan Africa — some say black vs. white — but more complex in the Horn because Somalia and Ethiopia are mixtures.”

The arms trade was not a one-way street either, according to information developed by the group. It lays out details of Somali help to Hezbollah in its war last summer against Israel. 

“During mid-July 2006, the ICU sent approximately a 720-person strong military force to Lebanon to fight along side of Hezbollah against the Israeli military," the monitoring group's report said. "The Somali force was personally selected by the ICU Youth Movement’s Aden Hashi Farah 'Eyrow.' As part of the criteria of the selection process, individuals were chosen based on combat experience that might include Afghanistan.”

“A number of the fighters also remained in Lebanon for advanced military training by Hezbollah. And, further, between 8 and 10 Sept. 2006, about 25 Somalis returned to Somalia accompanied by five members of Hezbollah.”

“Eyrow,” also known as "Ayro," has been identified as one of the U.S. targets in AC-130 attacks on al-Qaida and al-Qaida-linked terrorist groups Jan. 6 in southern Somalia. The bloody passport and jacket of “Eyrow” were found by U.S. special operations forces on the ground near where the gunship blasted a group of men believed to be terrorists. Nearby was a trail of blood as if a body had been carried away.

As for the private arms dealers, the monitoring group laid out details on the flights of aircraft with changing registrations and call signs. One was particularly colorful, the case of an aged Boeing 707 that delivered arms and material to the Islamic militants:

"The B-707 was smuggled out of Egypt on 5 July 2006 and was at the time of its flights from Massawa, Ertirea to Mogadishu, Somalia on 8 and 10 October operated by Euro Oceanic Air Transport, a company based in Bahrain. This company used the registration number, Air Operator Certificate and call sign without authorization from Sky Jet Aviation (U) Ltd.,” noted the group, stating that Sky Jet, a legitimate carrier, had been unaware of the expropriation.

The group called the operation typical of the arms dealers’ ruses, saying "clandestine measures” included adding different commercial layers of participants between the source of the cargo and the eventual recipients, the filing of false and deceptive flights, including declaring the wrong destinations and even avoiding any contacts with air traffic controllers. Published reports have said that Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer with a long history in Africa, had been active in supplying the ICU.

Hartung says operations like this are likely to continue and accelerate. He says that while the world’s leading arms dealers — the U.S., Russia and France — were not mentioned in the report, it is their efforts to arm the Third World that is providing the raw material.

“I think a lot of it was pre-existing. Since the end of the Cold War, large stockpiles have been supplied to rebels in Afghanistan, southern Africa, Latin America, the Middle East,” Hartung says. “Then you had sales associated with the global war on terror. Ultimately, this stuff winds up being sold, and where it goes from there is anyone’s guess.”

Robert Windrem and Tim Sandler are investigative producers for NBC News based in New York.