The New Merchants of Death

He can easily pass off as just another soft-spoken, designer-clad businessman. But a handful of arms dealers and their sinister network of routes are ensuring a steady and deadly supply of arsenal in the hands of those out to destroy land and lives in the name of war

Published: 03rd August 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd August 2014 05:29 PM   |  A+A-


There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That’s one firearm for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?”

That was Nicolas Cage in Lord of War, portraying the role of a lifetime—arms trafficker Viktor Bout alias Boris. The real dealer has not only trafficked sophisticated arms worth billions of dollars to conflict-ridden Africa and the Middle East but also facilitated transportation of surface-to-air missiles bought from Russian and Ukrainian military stock to Somalia. His logistics network is so strong that even the US government availed his services to ship arms during the Iraq invasion in 2003.

From the May massacre of 317 villagers by Boko Haram to the July genocide of 700 people within 48 hours in Syria by Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), the terrorists’ pursuit for Armageddon powered by weapons pumped in through the flourishing global arms black market has turned two-thirds of the global map into a fiery pyre. With access to surface-to-air missiles like PZR Grom and BUK, which was used to shoot down MH17 over Donetsk in Ukraine killing 298 air passengers, the lethal combination of escalating conflict and widespread availability of sophisticated weapons has renewed fears of some regions being wiped from the face of world maps forever.

In the last one year, according to British risk assessment consultancy Maplecroft, around 18,668 people have been killed by these illegal arms procured through an extraordinary secret network of arms dealers, politicians, criminals, war profiteers and drug-runners spread across the world, clocking approximately 30 per cent increase in causality compared to the last five years. The orgy of killing recorded 9,471 terror strikes—the world witnessed 26 terrorist attacks a day, which is one terrorist used the illegal weapon to carry out an attack every hour.

Notwithstanding the glare of monitoring groups of the United Nation Security Council, the soft-spoken, designer-clad, globe-trotting arms dealers have ensured trigger-happy jihadists are kept busy in conflict zones by piling them with arms worth $60 billion, says a research by World Policy on Arms. This translated means every person on this planet contributed $9—enough to buy grenade from the merchants of death who rose to prominence after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

26.jpgThe likes of Bout, Adnan Khashoggi and Leonid Minin shipped out tonnes of arms from Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Moldova and Ukraine to the badlands of Africa and Middle East. According to an estimate by the Westlaw Study Report, 20 per cent of the total legal arms trade ends in the grey market dominated by arms agents. India too is a fertile market for buyers and dealers. Being the world’s biggest legal arms importer, India is threatened by Pakistani gun-runners operating in Darra Khel and Chinese gun-runners in Myanmar, in a bid to fuel insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir, the Northeast and Left Wing Extremism-hit states.

Indian security agencies in January recovered Chinese-made remote-triggered landmines in Nagaland, revealing the vulnerability of porous routes. The now-defunct LTTE effectively used the sea route in South-East Asia, through which arms agents transported 10 SA-18 launchers and 20 missiles to Jaffna in 2006. With the US pulling out of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s rogue intelligence agency ISI is all set to illegally trade missiles and weapons as it had done earlier in 2004 when it bought Stingers from Afghanistan for $80,000 a piece.


Yemeni arms trafficker Fares Manna has a special connection with the lethal attacks wracking Nigeria, Gaza, Liberia, Sudan and more recently, Syria and Iraq. Known as the “trouble shooter”, Manna is a seasoned gun-runner in the world of black arms who is held solely responsible for arming Somali Islamists who have killed over 5,000 people in Somalia and Kenya over the last couple of years.

Manna, active in the second oldest profession since 2003, is both loathed and admired by terror outfits for his sheer ruthlessness and secrecy. Adept at supplying weapons to all sides, he once provided arms to two rival groups in Sudan, but never revealed to the other that a cache of Soviet-made missile launchers was supplied to shoot down an old Army chopper he just sold to the arch-rival.

Map.jpgUsing his shadowy network of drug traffickers, politicians, transporters, petty criminals and despots, Manna has sold sophisticated weapons, including surface-to-air missiles MANPADS, AK-47s, anti-tank guns and millions of rounds of ammunition to Islamist militant outfits operating from Darfur to Afghanistan.

Manna’s alliance with the political leadership is so “unholy” and “deep” that weapons procured by the Yemen defence ministry ended up in his catalogue within weeks. Manna also enjoys considerable support among influential Yemen leaders and despite a ban on his activities, still possesses political legitimacy in the country. He is said to have sold anti-aircraft missiles to Houthis, a Shia insurgent outfit, responsible for shooting down two fighter jets and a civilian aircraft in 2009. Unlike Khashoggi, another legend of his tribe, Manna operates under the guise of legitimate business conducted through front companies and refuses to become a legitimate agent of global arms companies.

Apart from Manna, Abdullah bin Maeli, a Yemeni Member of Parliament, is also a key player in the arms market, which has been arming thousands of Islamist terrorists in the region. Under the shadow of his long and protective political arms, another Yemeni national, Jarman Mohammed, too is learnt to be operating a lucrative gun-running industry in the Middle East. Besides, there is Zimbabwe-born John Bredenkamp, who sold arms to both Iraq and Iran, and continues to operate in the region. Then there are others like Mohamed Said alias Atom who serves only a special client. Atom is the principal supplier of arms and ammunition to Al-Shabaab, a jihadist group based in Somalia.

With 159 terrorist outfits operating worldwide, the secret links of these arms dealers extend from political leaders to international crime and drug syndicates in order to meet the insatiable demands of Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, Taliban, ISIL and Hamas.


Untitled-2.jpgIn the first week of February 2005, Yemeni deputy foreign minister Al-Dhabbi, who once publicly criticised the gun-running network and brought upon himself the fury of the strong illegal arms lobby, sat down to lunch with a US official in his compound in Sana’a. Dhabbi told the US official over desserts that the Yemeni household’s right to own multiple AK-47s is as entrenched as the right to bear arms in the US and confided that after pressure from gun-runners backed by so-called holy warriors, he himself bought 14 AK-47s for protection.

There are at least 10 major black markets for arms in the world, including Mogadishu in Somalia, Jihana and Saada in Yemen, Baghdad, Kirkuk and Basra in Iraq, Lebanon and Ismaid in Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  According to intelligence officials, all sorts of weapons ranging from missiles to mortars are available in these markets connected to a never-ending international supply route. Arms dealers in China, US, Russia, North Korea and Eastern Europe are said to have been shipping weapons, including guns, bullets and rockets, worth billions every year for despots in the Middle East through reliable and legal routes.

An intelligence official, who earlier served in conflict zones, says due to radicalisation and sprouting of militant outfits, prices have gone up manifold in the wholesale markets of Eastern Europe to retail outlets in Yemen. The AK-47 which was easily available in the grey market for $800 is being sold for $1,700-18,000. Even the prices of ammunition, landmines and RPGs have gone up due to growing demand. An M-16 or M-4 can be brought in Jihana or Kirkuk for $1,000 and $2,500 respectively. Similarly, 120 mortars are up for sale for $1,500, but a grenade still costs a mere $7.

According to a secret US cable, the American government had bought over 100 surface-to-air missile MANPADS during 2005-2009 from the Yemeni black market in its bid to disable the lethal weapon. A price list leaked from the Stratfor server reveals that an RPK machine gun could be purchased for $5,000 in Mogadishu while the same machine will cost less than half in the Yemeni black market. AKs made in China, which is a cheaper version of the original Russian-made Kalashnikovs, is available for just $900 in Somalia and $500 in Lebanon. The variants are cheaper in the markets of Tajikistan dominated by Russian agents and one AK-47 could be yours for $200.


Most of the arms, including missile and tanks that end up in the black market, are procured legally using a network of certified arms dealers. According to a US Intelligence report, at least 29 such dealers operate from Yemen alone. They shop the world’s legitimate arms market on behalf of the Yemen Ministry of Defence but soon after delivery, the shopping list is forwarded to the grey zone, where a nexus of political leaders, military commanders and shady middlemen make a killing by diverting around 80 per cent of these weapons, and only 20 per cent end up in official military stock. These weapons are later smuggled using a secret network of transporters, including dreaded Yemeni ship owner Abu Ibrahim, to Gaza, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa. 

29.jpgAn analysis by the UN monitoring agency on arms trafficking reveals that most of the illegal cache of sophisticated weapons is transported across the globe using fabricated flight plans. According to a report by Stratfor, arms dealers prefer non-descript airports to load the cargo, which is supplied to conflict zones, making several halts at isolated airports. In 2007, the first success in unravelling the modus operandi was unearthed by a monitoring group in Somalia, where a Boeing 707 cargo plane of Aerogun Aviation was used to supply weapons, including Sa-18s solid fuel rocket motors, to Al-Shabaab, which has close ties with Al-Qaeda. It was revealed that the plane made at least 13 trips from Asmara to Mogadishu in Somalia, providing false flight plans. The UN monitoring agency, which was examining the details of mysterious flights, had suggested that forged cargo bills were generated to smuggle arms from Eritrea to Somalia.

FIM-92 stinger MANPAD

Price: $40,000

Available with: ISIL, Ukrainian rebels,

Boko Haram

ISIL is learnt to have looted this shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile from abandoned Iraqi bases. The missile employs a passive infrared seeker to home in on airborne target and can effectively take down aircraft at

3,000 metres

Strela 2

Price: $ 45,000

Available with: Hamas, ABAM

A man-portable, shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missile system with a high explosive warhead. The weapons were looted from Libyan army after ouster of Muammar Gaddafi and were smuggled into Gaza and Iraq


Price: Unknown

Available with: ISIL, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, AQIM, Boko Haram, Taliban

The anti-tank bazooka rockets extensively used in close combat can hit a target up to 600 metres. With a maximum target of 1,960 metres, the weapon can fire 6 rockets per minute. Sold by gun-runners in Yemen

PZR Grom missiles

Price : $80,000

Available with: Ukrainian rebels

Polish-made, man-portable air defence systems designed to target aircraft, the weapon has a range of 3,400 metres

HJ-8 or Red Arrow-8

Price: $2.5 million

Available with: ISIL

Second generation tube-launched anti-tank missile

system is produced by China and Pakistan

M302 surface- to- surface missile

Price: Not known 

Available with: Hamas

With 100km range, the Syrian-made missile can hit most parts of Rishon Lezion, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem in Israel

It also unearthed links between specialised air cargo services and arms dealers. Reports suggest even the American government had used the air cargo service of Bout to transport US arms to Iraq during the 2003 conflict. In 2003, the monitoring group had unravelled a mysterious West Africa Services which was set up to smuggle weapons across the troubled region of Africa. The end user certificate in all the smuggling incidents in Africa was found to be certified by the genuine defence authorities. The certificate is issued to verify that the end user of the weaponry sold is a legitimate buyer and not a militant group.

The legally sold arms are diverted generally using two methods. Much of the diversion of arms occurs after the delivery to the nominal end users, a practice known as Post Delivery Onward Diversion. Another method is Point of Departure Diversion, where unauthorised or fake end-user certificates provide arms traffickers with the documentation necessary to obtain arms export licences. Rather than being delivered to the specified destination, the weapons are directly diverted to an embargoed state or group.

In 2008, MV Faina, a Panama registered ship, hijacked by Somali pirates, revealed the cargo was carrying 33 T-72 tanks, anti-aircraft guns, missiles, 40,000 AKs and rocket launchers etc for the Kenyan army from Ukraine. Close examination of documents revealed that actually the shipment was meant for South Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army and end-user certificate was forged by the Ukrainian arms dealer

Also Read: The Big Daddies 

Links have also been found between arms black markets in Libya and gun-runners in Serbia, which reportedly supplied around 10 million assault rifles and Bazookas for jihadists and private armies in Africa.

A R&AW official who served in Africa says Somalia and Nigeria are the hottest spots in the world for the black arms market followed by the Middle East.

“Billions of dollars worth of arms and ammunition are sold through a shadowy network of war profiteers and middlemen in Africa alone. This is the most profitable business on the globe; the more you fire, the merrier for the network, which has legitimate links with the US, Russia, China and other arms manufacturers. It is well known that the CIA is also involved in flooding the grey market,” he says.

After the NATO strike to oust Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi, around 20,000 Sam-7 missiles with a 3,500-metre range, were found to be in the stock of Boko Haram operating in Sahel region covering northern Nigeria, Cameroon and central Chad, where at least 3,400 people have been killed in the last one year. Some of these missiles were also sold to ISIL and Iraqi militia for 7,000 Egyptian pounds per piece, which means that to shoot down a $100-million aircraft, terrorist were provided with a missile for merely `50,000. In fact, security agencies had confirmed that Islamist militants used one of the Sam-7 missiles procured from Gaddafi’s arsenal to shoot down an Egyptian military helicopter in the Sinai Peninsula in January this year.

According to the R&AW official, the price of a surface-to-air missile with a range of over 3,000 metre is less than an AK-47 in Yemeni and Libyan markets. He says the man-portable Strela-2 missiles were sold by Yemeni gun-runners to Hamas and its splinter groups in Gaza. “Al-Shabaab purchased some of these missiles from Yemen, facilitated by Abu Fuad Dindari, a Sudanese middleman with links to gun-runners in Yemen and Libya,” he adds.


Ukraine and other states of erstwhile Soviet Union are apparently the most significant source of arms for militant outfits in the Middle East and Africa. The weapons from these states are being diverted to fulfil the growing demand in Yemen and Syria’s black market. A top secret US report has identified Al-Ghayda, Ras-al-Sharmah, Al-mukalla, Shaqra and Balhar on Yemen’s south coast as possible key smuggling havens or transit areas for illegal arms. Besides, there is a network of drug dealers-turned-gun-runners in Ismaid town of Benghazi, Libya, which is a hub of black arms and popular for offering value-added services like transporting the cache to a safer transit point near the Egyptian or Algerian borders for few dollars more.

20000.jpgIsmaid and another town Ajdabiyah also have a wide range of illegal weapons on sale, ranging from missiles to RPG rockets, hand grenades, North Korean Kalashnikovs and landmines. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, operating in North Africa’s Sahel region is learnt to have procured some stocks, including surface-to-air-missiles. Boko Haram and other splinter outfits that operate in the Sahel region are said to have an organised network to push the weapons inside the borders. Dr Freedom C Onuoha of National Defence College, Abuja, Nigeria, in a research paper stated that Boko Haram and Ansar Dine, which bought deadly weapons from the Libyan market, transport them into their dominated region using various methods such as the use of specially crafted skin or thatched bags attached to camels, donkeys and cows. The arms are moved with the aid of nomadic herders. Onuoha said Boko Haram is also using tunnels for arms trafficking, especially in Borno state.


By the winter of 2007, the US government which accounts for nearly one-third of the world’s arms exports, had launched a massive hunt for its cargo leaked to ‘Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan’ (PKK), a jihadist group active in Turkey. The sophisticated weapons, meant for Iraqi forces, were diverted from the ships.

Along the way, Turkish authorities too acquired intelligence inputs, through field agents and under-cover operatives, revealing that probably all the weapons and ammunitions recovered from PKK terror hideouts originated from US-supplied Iraqi military stock. Further investigation revealed how the most powerful country and biggest arm supplier flooded the shady arms market.

The US intelligence agency CIA is learnt to have supplied 600 tonnes of sophisticated weapons to Islamist jihadists in Syria, enough to keep the ground hot for several years. The arms cache was procured from war profiteers operating in Eastern Europe and transported to Syria using Jordanian Intelligence agencies. Later, a large share of cargo reached the ISIL arsenal in Iraq.

In a bid to divert world attention, however, the US government accused Russia and China of supplying arms to jihadists in the Middle East. It renewed the accusation last month by pointing fingers at links between militants operating in Ukraine and Russian military with the latter shooting down Malaysian Aircraft using Russia-supplied BUK missiles.


According to the Guyanese Anti-Narcotics Division (CANU- Customs Anti-Narcotics Unit (Guyana)), one kilo of cocaine trades for two Chinese AK-47s in Suriname, which is considered a transit zone for South American cocaine en route to Europe, Africa and the US. A kilo of best Afghan heroin, however, can buy about 55 AK-47s. Drugs-for-Arms network, with footprints of British, US and Russian crime syndicates, has been operating from Afghanistan to Colombia where drugs are bartered for guns. Russian arms dealers are learnt to have a command centre in Tajikistan, where deals worth millions of dollars are fixed with Taliban and Al-Qaeda drug lords. Russian arms dealers are providing machine guns, sniper rifles and anti-aircraft weapons to Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorists for drugs later sold in British and US streets.

According to a Ukrainian parliamentary commission probe in illicit trade, $32 billion worth of military equipment and ammunitions was stolen and illegally sold by Drugs-for-Arms syndicate. Even the US’s military contractors, who reportedly supply arms to 62 states, are said to have links with Mexican drug cartel “Zetas” and the trade is conducted using CIA’s sanitised route from Dallas to El Paso and ultimately to Juarez. These illegal arms are credited to fuelling the drug war in Mexico in which more than 60,000 people have been killed between 2006 and 2012.


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