The US Takes on the Underworld On the Trail of Weapons Smugglers

US diplomatic dispatches reveal American efforts to stop covert weapons deals.

US diplomatic dispatches reveal American efforts to stop covert weapons deals.

Part 2: The Ever-Watchful Americans

Another major player on the illegal weapons market is Yemen. The US believes that arms dealers such as Ibrahim Abu Haith, a member of the Rashaida tribe, have their own ships that they use to supply arms to Al-Shabaab terrorists in Somalia, to Sudan and to Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

In the summer of 2009, the State Department sent its ambassador in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, to sound out the possibilty of using unmanned drones and helicopters to monitor smuggling routes, such as the Red Sea. But, as the ambassador wrote back to Washington soon thereafter, the Yemeni government expressed "discomfort" with allowing American aircraft to monitor its territory.

Out-Maneuvering the Competition

On Dec. 7, 2009, a meeting took place in Sanaa that shows just the kind of machinations the weapons business involves. The Bulgarian Embassy there discretely informed then-US Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche that Yemen had signed a contract with a company in Cyprus in October of that year. The contract allegedly involved a shipment of sniper rifles, ammunition, artillery shells, anti-aircraft guns and howitzers for just under $100 million (€75.3 million). According to the Bulgarians, though, the company was just serving as a front for the Serbian arms trafficker Slobodan Tesic, who was being sought on an international arrest warrant for making illegal arms shipments, including to terrorists. The Bulgarians asked if America could help block the deal.

Eager to put Tesic out of business, the Americans took action. At first, it appeared as if the American intervention had been successful: On December 27, Yemen's Deputy Finance Minister Jalal Yaqoub notified the Americans that the Tesic deal had been blocked. But, the next day, the Bulgarians subtly informed the Americans that the deal was still secretly on and that Yemen's defense minister in Sanaa had just instructed the country's central bank to wire $97 million to the company in Cyprus.

The Bulgarians, though, had a selfish motive. They wanted to sell Yemen 20,000 assault rifles as well as RPGs and ammunition worth a total of $55 million (€41.4 million). They asked American diplomats for sympathy because "the difficult economic situation made the offer extremely attractive to domestic arms producers."

Ever-Watchful with Allies

Even extremely small arm shipments do not escape the notice of watchful US eyes. In September 2008, for example, German authorities reportedly blocked a shipment of 40 TPG-1 model sniper rifles from the Bavarian company Unique Alpine from being shipped to Iran via France.

The Germans prevaricated. Although sales of military hardware must be approved, one official from the Ministry of Economics in Berlin explained to the Americans, the sniper rifles were not military hardware because they could also be used for sport.

But the Americans did not agree. They pointed out to the Germans that on the Unique Alpine website, it said the TPG-1 rifle was a "tactical precision weapon of the newest generation" designed for use as a "highly integrated weapons system … for the professional user." The US wanted the shipment blocked, and the Germans finally relented.

Unique Alpine said in a statement that the company has never received such an inquiry or order and has never attempted to make such a delivery to Iran via France nor has the company intended to do so.


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