Published in Information (Denmark)

27nd January 2004

Posted at



Meagre arms seizure off the Horn of Africa




As part of an expensive operation, western warships have for two years hunted gunrunners and terrorists off the Horn of Africa. However, virtually nothing has been seized

By Bjørn Willum,
Correspondent of the Danish daily Information




BRUSSELS - Two Soviet surplus missiles from the cold war opened for real the world's eyes to the terror threat from the East African arms market.

Transported from Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, across the sea to lawless Somalia and further on by boat to Kenya, according to a UN panel, they were employed in November 2002 by presumed members of an East African al-Qaeda cell against an Israeli charter plane.

The missiles whistled close by the cockpit shortly after the plane's take-off from Mombassa, Kenya's old holiday town and port. But seen through the eyes of the terrorists, the operation was not a complete failure as fellow conspirators a few minutes earlier had succeeded in blowing up an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombassa, resulting in 17 casualties.

Lots of gunrunners
In the name of the global war on terror, countries like Italy, France, Spain, Germany and the US in November 2001 began sending warships to patrol the shipping lanes between East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

According to a spokesman from the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, coalition ships have established radio contact with passing ships more than 18,000 times since February 2002. More than 80 times, suspicious vessels that were unable to provide a satisfactory account of the contents of their cargo or destination were boarded.

But the seizure has been meagre. "To date, no explosives, weapons or ammunition have been seized during these maritime patrols," a spokesman of the US Naval Forces Central Command Public Affairs, which directs the US part of the naval operation at the Horn of Africa, told Information. Not that there is any lack of gunrunners on the East African coast or on the seas between the so-called Horn of Africa countries and the Arabian Peninsula. This area has in generations been a paradise to smugglers, who typically use so-called dhows, traditional single-masted, wooden Arab boats, for transporting cargo between the ports along the coast of East Africa or to and from the Arabian Peninsula.

"On average, dhows carrying arms and ammunition arrive in Somalia from Yemen 2 to 3 times a week," concluded a UN report written by a panel of experts in November last year. Owing to these wooden boats, countries like Kenya are awash with illegal weapons. The point of transit is often Kenya's neighbouring country Somalia, where the last government that exercised control over most of the country, fell from the pinnacle of power in 1991.

Goes for the big ships
There is a simple reason for the meagre capture, according to a Western intelligence official. "You can stop all the ocean-going vessels you like, the real stuff goes by dhow," the official told Information. It is easy, cheap, informal, and requires no paperwork.

"Coalition warships monitor all traffic during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) maritime interception operations," was nevertheless the brief comment offered by the US Naval Forces spokesman contacted.

However, another explanation is offered by Lieutenant Commander Sven Holzerland, spokesman for the deployed German navy contingent that until recently was in command of the international naval operation in the area, known as Combined Task Force 150 or just CTF-150. Sven Holzerland emphasized that primarily suspicious, named ships on a list updated by US intelligence services are searched for.

Following a US tip-off, the Germans made their first - and so far only - capture in November last year: a couple of machine guns, an unspecified number of handguns, ammunition and a single 20 millimetre gun found on two fishing trawlers in the Gulf of Aden.

The trawlers, which came from Somalia, were not seized - the forces do not have authority to do so - but escorted to their destination port in Oman on the Arabian Peninsula, where local authorities , alerted by the Germans, arrested the crew and confiscated the cargo.

But had the trawlers not been so carelessly displaying their names on the stern, maybe the story would have had a different ending. Those dhows that do not have radio and name - and there are a lot of them - are not searched for, Sven Holzerland said. "You are happy, if the dhows have radio contact. It happens very often that they do not have radio contact. Then you let them sail off."

According to the German, the German operation cost five million euro a month last year. In addition to this, the other countries' contributions should be added, so the cost for CTF-150 mounts up to hundreds of millions of euros a year. Still, the German navy counts the operation a success: "It is first and foremost an operation of presence. It has a discouraging effect and brings stability," said Frigate Captain Reinar Kümpel, the German navy's spokesman, who compared the naval patrolling with police officers in the streets, which, he said, are effective, "even though they do not arrest criminals every day… How many crimes do they prevent? I cannot quantify that."

This opinion is shared by the editor of the Jane's Fighting Ships magazine, retired British Commodore Stephen Saunders. He did not wish to estimate the cost of the total operation but said it was surely worth the effort to patrol naval chokepoints like the Gulf of Aden which is located on the approach to the Red Sea and thus also the Suez Canal. "It is an important part of the war on terrorism," Saunders said.

In addition, the international naval spokesmen stressed that it is not unusual for coalition warships to save sailors in distress - the local boats are often in a lousy condition - and that their presence has put a stop to piracy.

But as for the gunrunners, the question is, whether they simply haven't adjusted to the new naval police officers. In the beginning, there was a "certain discouraging factor", said Edward Howard Johns, who has ten years of experience working in Somalia and as naval expert in a UN panel that recently inspected violations on the UN's arms embargo against Somalia. "The volume in terms of large cargo diminished. But the number of smaller ships increased."











Unguarded ports open for any business
Half-hearted anti-terrorism efforts