The war in Yemen: France's hidden role in a vast humanitarian tragedy

By Disclose

An unprecedented leak of secret documents from France’s military intelligence agency, the DRM, has revealed the massive use of French-made weapons, like those also of the US, the UK and Germany, in the ongoing civil war in Yemen. The contents of the leaked documents are detailed here in three exclusive reports published simultaneously by Mediapart and its partner Disclose, a newly founded independent, not-for-profit online magazine of investigative journalism, which reports how these weapons have been used against the civilian population in a war that has wreaked what the United Nations describe as “one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world”.

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“Minister, I have a question which is going to annoy you.” The polite warning came during a January 20th 2019 interview on French national radio station France Inter with France’s defence minister Florence Parly. Interviewer Ali Baddou stared at the minister and, raising his voice slightly, asked: “Should there be a halt to weapons sales to Saudi Arabia?”

It was a subject that had been asked over several months, but which had met with no official response. Yet the issue of arms contracts between France and Saudi Arabia is part of a demanding moral, political and legal debate: should France supply weapons to a client who has been using them, over the past four years, to bomb civilians in Yemen?

On March 26th 2015, at the head of a coalition with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and eight Arab states with a majority Sunni Muslim population, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered a series of attacks by air and sea against targets in Yemen. The objective was to defend the ruling Yemeni regime against a military offensive launched by the country’s Houthi movement, from Yemen’s Shia Muslim minority, and which is supported by Iran.

Today, the country is gripped by what the United Nations (UN) has described as “one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world”. Many among Yemen’s population of more than 28 million continue to face aerial bombing raids by the Saudi-led coalition which, according to statistics from the Yemen Data Project, an independent NGO that researches and cross-checks data on coalition strikes, have already killed more than 8,300 civilians, including 1,283 children.

The power battle in Yemen: in yellow is the area controlled by Houthi forces, and in green the regions under the control of the Saudi-led coalition. Zones controlled by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are indicated in grey. © Mediapart

On March 26th 2015, Saudi Arabia, at the head of a coalition of ten Arab countries, launched a military offensive in Yemen. Its purpose was to crush the armed rebellion of the Houthi movement that champions Yemen’s minority Shia Muslim population, and which is supported by Iran.  

Today, the Arab coalition is made up of only four countries: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Sudan and Bahrain.

During the January 20th 2019 France Inter interview with France’s defence minister, Ali Baddou continued: “Can you tell us, Florence Parly, if French weapons have been used against civilians in Yemen?” The minister, placing her hands flat on the table before her, ended the questioning with the single comment: “I have no knowledge as to whether [French] weapons are being used directly in this conflict.”

Disclose has been given access to classified French official documents, which come under the term “Confidentiel Défense”, the first level of classified “Secret défense” documents in France relating to officially protected information on military matters. The documents, contained in a 15-page report authored by officers from France’s military intelligence agency, the DRM, are dated September 25th 2018.

The report, entitled “Yémen - situation sécuritaire” (“Yemen: security situation”) was submitted to French President Emmanuel Macron and his defence minister Florence Parly. It was also submitted to the French prime minister’s office and to French foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, on the occasion of a select defence council meeting on the war in Yemen which was held at the French presidential office, the Élysée Palace, on October 3rd 2018.

The French prime minister's office provided a lenghty statement on the issues raised in this report, which can be found by clicking here or on the "More" tab at the top of this page.

The leaked DRM report, illustrated with maps and graphics, reveals here for the first time what the French government has thus far attempted to conceal, namely a detailed list of French weapons that are part of the arsenal employed in the conflict in Yemen.

These include Leclerc battle tanks, long-rod penetrator ammunition, Mirage 2000-9 fighter jets, COBRA counter-battery radar systems, Aravis armoured troop-carrying vehicles, Cougar and Dauphin helicopters, and CAESER truck-mounted howitzers. The report precisely details each model, and indicates whether the equipment was sold to Saudi Arabia or its coalition partner, the UAE. Above all, it reveals that a number of French-made weapons are being used in combat operations in Yemen, including in civilian zones.

Above: the list here from the French military intelligence agency, the DRM, shows the use of French-made weapons in the Yemeni civil war, along with those also exported by the US, the UK and Germany. © Disclose Above: the list here from the French military intelligence agency, the DRM, shows the use of French-made weapons in the Yemeni civil war, along with those also exported by the US, the UK and Germany. © Disclose

The CAESAR gun is a star product of the French weapons industry, manufactured in the town of Roanne, in central France, by Nexter, an arms manufacturer entirely owned by the French state. The howitzer, mounted on an all-wheel-drive truck chassis, can fire six shells per minute onto a target up to 42 kilometres away. According to Nexter’s presentation brochure, the gun has a “firepower that is heightened by the rapidity with which it can be set up, its lengthened range and its great precision”.  

Since 2010, France has sold 132 CAESER howitzers to Saudi Arabia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), an independent Swedish body dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament. Further deliveries of the weapon are due over the coming months (see, in this series of three reports published simultaneously, “The itinerary of a secret weapons shipment”).

A Saudi army display of French-made CAESAR howitzers (left of picture), one of the most lethal artillery weapons in existence. © DR A Saudi army display of French-made CAESAR howitzers (left of picture), one of the most lethal artillery weapons in existence. © DR

The DRM report includes a map entitled “Population under threat of bombs”. This shows where 48 CAESAR guns are positioned close to the Saudi-Yemeni border, their turrets facing three different zones in Yemen, in which are located towns, villages, farms and farmers’ hamlets.

On the map, around the locations of the CAESARs, are circles, drawn in red, which show the range of the guns, and which touch on inhabited areas.

Are these habitations the target of the French-made guns? The answer is found on page 4 of the report given to President Macron, where it notes that the CAESARs “back up loyalist troops and Saudi armed forces in their progression into Yemeni territory”. Put more simply, the guns are used to bombard Yemeni territory to open up a path for the tanks and armoured vehicles invading the country.

  • Zones within Yemen that are within range of CAESAR howitzers

The DRM report precisely noted: “The population concerned by potential artillery fire: 436,370 people.” © Mediapart

We have studied data from the NGO Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) on the numbers of civilian deaths from artillery fire that were within firing range of CAESER howitzers employed in the Yemen conflict. 

This showed that between March 2016 and December 2018, a total of 35 civilians were killed in 52 bombardments localised within the range of the CAESERs.

Over the past four years, several NGOs have closely monitored the course of the war, and notably its consequences upon the civilian population. One of them is the US-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) whose researchers study and cross-check information from Yemeni media sources and websites reporting bombing offensives.

Above: this video shows CAESAR artillery units in actiion, in images shot by Saudi troops at Najran, on the Saudi side of the border with Yemen.. © Disclose

The country’s principal news agency, the Yemen News Agency, reported that on June 14th 2018, Saudi “artillery fire” in the north of the country left two children dead and several adults wounded. The report was cross-checked by ACLED. The site of the artillery bombing was the village of Bani Faid, in the Midi district, which was in range of the French-made CAESAR guns. Artillery weapons made in the US, Britain and China are also employed to shell targets in northern Yemen, but according to the DRM report, the village was not within their range.

On August 25th 2018, another incident of “coalition artillery fire” targeted a location close the town of Harad (22,000 inhabitants). A house was destroyed, killing one person and wounding three others. The position of the location on the DRM map shows it to be within range of the CAESERs deployed on the Saudi side of the border with Yemen.

There were more civilians wounded, and buildings damaged, in shelling on April 28th 2018 of Al Mazraq and the village of Al Atn, close to the Saudi border in the same region of northern Yemen where, according to the DRM map, only the range of the CAESER guns can threaten the population.

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Disclose is a new French entity in online media, established as an NGO dedicated to investigative journalism. It is a not-for-profit project, uniquely financed from voluntary funding. Its investigations are carried out over long-term assignments, before their publication in both French and English on itsfreely accessible site and in conjunction with other media partners.

Mediapart is one of its partners, with the intention of supporting new media projects in investigative journalism, which is why we are relaying here the first major series of reports by Disclose, with the selection of three articles. They provide exclusive and further irrefutable evidence of a scandal which Mediapart has previously reported upon, namely the role played by French-made weapons in the dirty war waged in Yemen by the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition.

The documents revealed by Disclose include those classified in France as official defence secrets. If we detail them here it is because they are of public interest. They demonstrate how the French government has concealed its part of responsibility in a war which, since 2015, has caused the deaths of thousands of civilians.

The publication of these documents represents no danger to French army personnel nor its missions. The subject here is the use of weapons made and sold by France to other countries.

Some of the information contained in these three reports by Disclose is from several entities monitoring the crisis in Yemen.

One is the Yemen Data Project, a not-for-profit initiative set up in 2016 to provide independently researched facts and figures about the unfolding war in Yemen, including unbiased data relating to the coalition’s bombing campaigns. The information it receives is studied and compared against other data collected by the UK-based NGO Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).

Other data cited in this investigation comes from publicly accessible information provided by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a body partnered by UN agencies, governments and NGOs to provide analyses of situations of food insecurity and malnutrition.