We've been to SOFEX before, but we went back last week to see if the people-killing business has changed in the wake of the Arab Spring.
According to the people who study such things, the place where Yahweh supposedly rained fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah is only a few miles from present-day Amman, Jordan. The former site of God’s wrath is now the premier place to purchase the tools of man’s wrath—over the past week, the city hosted SOFEX (the Special Operations Force Exhibition) 2012, the military trade show showcasing the biggest, baddest weapons money can buy. And as you know if you’ve been following the news coming out of the Arab world for the past year, Man’s Wrath is nothing to sneeze at.
VICE has been to SOFEX before, but in the wake of the Arab Spring, I wanted to see if the market has changed in the people-killing business, if there was more demand for weapons in this era of uncertainty and transition or if some of the generals and government officials in charge of purchasing were sweating a little more than usual.
A Sudanese general, who said, “Arab Spring is a natural thing. You repress people for long enough and they rebel.”
To get an idea of what was on the weapons menu I spoke with a pleasant Midwestern employee of DS ARMS, an assault rifle manufacturer based in Chicago, at a booth in SOFEX’s American Pavilion tent. As if he were explaining the features on a vacuum cleaner, he went over the uses of the FAL 7.62, which was inspired by a 50-year-old Belgium rifle, though these days it’s a grenade launcher attached to the barrel rather than a bayonet:
DS ARMS FAL 7.62 assault rifle with grenade launcher attachment.
“The grenade launcher is for an area target,” he said. “You would put it into a room, into a window, on a vehicle, it would blow up that area. It packs a lot of payload. See, the grenade launcher is very versatile for police roles and military and everything, ‘cause you can use different rounds in it. You can make beanbag rounds, they make buckshot rounds, they make tear gas, high explosives, flares, they even make a big rubber bullet that you would shoot out on the ground and let it bounce through the crowd. It’s a very versatile weapon. You can use it for CQB (close quarters battle), even though a lot of people would think that it might over-penetrate or it’s too powerful of a round. It’s actually very popular and becoming more popular because body armor is used by enemies a lot more nowadays… The majority of Middle Eastern countries have purchased this weapon.”
That leads you to wonder what kind of “enemies” this Midwesterner had in mind. Al-Qaeda? Salafis in Egypt? The Taliban? Syria? Or simply unruly crowds in general? If DS ARMS sells these weapons oversees, how do they decide who is friend and who is foe?
“We are very responsible,” he replied when I asked him whether the weapons could have gotten sold to America’s enemies. “Every sale goes through the State Department. But there are a lot of sales.” (He made sure to mention he wasn’t referring to his company specifically.) “There are rumors that a lot of sales to Kuwait are being turned around and sold to Libya.”
I thought it was interesting that Libya was buying FAL rifles from Kuwait because I had just seen them talking to a sales rep for RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) at the other end of the tent. About five Libyan delegates were at SOFEX this year, led by the army’s new Chief of Staff Yussef Al-Mangush, a former colonel in Gaddafi’s military who had joined the rebellion. He had been imprisoned by Gaddafi and freed when Tripoli fell, and now here he was strolling from booth to booth to decide how to best spend millions on kill toys.
A mannequin of indeterminate gender models the High Performance Ballistic Helmet by NP Composites (colors come in Olive Green, Dark Blue, and UN Blue).
When I caught up with Libyan General Hassid to ask what he was shopping for, he replied, “We are looking for everything.” I took this to be a generic answer that a military man would give to a journalist, since he’s not going to say, “Well, our ports are particularly vulnerable.” Later, though, when I spoke with their Best Commander (“Best” is part of his title)—who introduced himself as Ghaffar—about their needs he indulged me. “NATO destroyed our entire air force,” he said. “It needed to happen. But that’s OK; it was all old Russian junk. Now we are building from the ground up.” Maybe they really do need everything.
Ghaffar, Libya’s “Best Commander.”
My conversations with the Libyans made me feel uncertain about my stance on this military market. On one hand, I’m disgusted by this war machine. On the other hand, I can’t help but admire these men who led a successful rebellion against a megalomaniacal tyrant.
Libya was not the only country that had an interesting year in attendance at SOFEX. Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, and Palestine were all cruising for the latest in military technology and design. After a while, the sea of camouflage, medals, and mustaches blend together. When I asked the RPG rep what the Libyan general was interested in, he incorrectly corrected me: “You mean, Algerian?”
Yemeni General Ahmed Al-Ashmal talking shop with a rep from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-run arms export/import agency. “The uprising is finished,” Al-Ashmal said. “Yemen is moving to be quiet. Insha-Allah (God willing).”
One thing is certain, the be-medaled officials strolling the booths for the few short days they’re in Amman are in the same country as many of their former citizens. As one of the relatively stable countries in the region, Jordan has become a refugee destination and has, according to the United Nations and Jordanian Government, some two million Palestinians, 110,000 Syrians, and 450,000 Iraqis inside its borders.
Refugee or not, most residents of Amman know SOFEX is happening. Generals drive around town with their obligatory SUV entourages and F-16 fighter jets rip through the sky. “You know, I design airplane,” my cab driver told me as we drove to the tents on the trade show’s first day. “It can fly to America in three minutes with two million kilogram of missiles.” I told him that sounded quite impressive and he continued, “But my best weapon is an earthquake bomb. I will use it to take over the world.” Was he joking, or a bit cracked, or something else? The angels who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah took the form of man, after all. Angel or cabbie, I think he liked me—giving me permission to rule Asia if everything went according to plan.
Abdallah Al-Sadoun, a first-time SOFEX attendee, said, “Arab Spring? We’ll see how everything plays out.”
Many of the attendees at SOFEX seem to be just as full of it as the would-be earthquake bomber. Generals representing countries whose governments were recently toppled want to appear in control—but the fate of their homes are unsure to say the least. Lots of business cards are passed around but rarely do any purchases actually take place at SOFEX. According to numbers the arms-trade journalists were tossing around in the lunch tent, Jordan apparently bought about a dozen AH-6i light attack and reconnaissance helicopters from Boeing at SOFEX 2010—UPI reported that a letter of intent was even signed—but the deal has yet to be finalized. It might never be finalized; that kind of vagueness is common.
Outside the King Abdullah Design and Development Tent I watched a demo for a Micro Air Vehicle. ($120K reconnaissance drone—an item on every country’s wish list this year) A Jordanian colonel marveled with his head cocked back as the drone ascended 50 meters into the bright blue desert sky. When the drone quietly returned to the hot concrete, onlookers huddled around the colonel and the drone rep as they shook hands. “Yes, yes, that was very good,” the colonel said. “I will have my people get in touch with you and we will have more discussions—which will perhaps lead to a deal.” At SOFEX, just like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, destruction is imminent, but who knows what actually happened.
Saudi Major General Al-Sandoun (middle) with the CEO of MRKS Security (left) and PR rep (right), considers buying a drone (top) from Aeryon Labs.