Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson speak with peace activist SAM WALTON about a daring raid he took part in to disarm a Yemen-bound warplane
ON JANUARY 29 2017, Sam Walton, a Quaker, and Dan Woodhouse, a reverend, broke into a BAE Systems compound in Warton, south of Blackpool. This date marked the 21st anniversary of an action when three women entered the same site to disarm a plane to be used in Indonesia for genocide in East Timor.
Walton and Woodhouse intended to disarm a plane which was due to be delivered to the Saudi military for use in its attacks in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has been engaged in an aerial attack on Yemen since 2015, motivated by the regime’s desire to dominate the region. We spoke to Sam after the action.
Why did you choose this BAE site?
The main focus of the site is the manufacturing of military planes. We intended to find Saudi warplanes and disarm them so that they couldn’t be used to commit war crimes in Yemen. Our action was urgent, as there were a number of Eurofighter Typhoons ready to be shipped out.
It’s a fact acknowledged by everyone that BAE Typhoons and Tornados were being used by Saudi Arabia to drop bombs on Yemen. It’s also likely that the Tornados were involved in dropping British-made cluster bombs, as this is what they’re designed for. This is in contravention of international law. When we were scouting the site, we saw a fighter jet there in Saudi colours. It was back from Yemen, being tested and maintained by BAE. We would have disarmed that if we had had the chance.
Can you tell us about the night that you entered the BAE site?
We entered the compound on a Sunday, which we planned because that’s the day that BAE employees are least likely to be working on the planes at night. We’d done thorough research on what planes were there. We also had a good idea of how to disarm planes in a safe manner and how to render them inoperable without placing anyone in danger.
BAE’s security was a joke. But they got lucky and a patrol heard us just as we were about to get into the hangar where the jets were. We were gutted as we were at the very last door, just metres from the jets. If we’d had another couple of minutes, we’d have been able to disarm a jet and prevent war crimes.
We were arrested and taken to the police station. Our court case is on October 23 at Burnley Magistrates Court. We are, of course, pleading not guilty. But it’s not going to be us on trial; it’s going to be BAE Systems and Saudi’s war crimes in Yemen.
What were you hoping to achieve by your action?
If Saudi Arabia drops fewer bombs, it kills less people. We intended to save lives. The Saudis are so sensitive to criticism. Even by trying to disarm a plane we hoped to ruffle their feathers and stop future arms sales.
The Eurofighters we tried to disarm were the last of a batch of 72 going out there. There are rumours of 48 more set to go out there. We really think we can affect these future arms deals.
Can you tell us more about the situation in Yemen?
In Yemen, 17 million people are short of food, 2.2 million children are starving. Saudi has devastated the country with its bombing. At least 53 per cent of the people killed in Yemen are civilians killed in air strikes.
The indiscriminate targeting of civilians is a war crime by the Saudi-led coalition. At the moment, we’re seeing tens of thousands of people dying in Yemen and that could get much worse. There is no food supply and no way of getting food in there. The deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure by the Saudis had led to the worst outbreak of cholera in the world which is killing thousands.
What I’m hearing from Yemeni people is: “Thank you for doing something. We feel completely ignored by the world.”
Can you explain more about the British government’s criminal complicity?
There’s very little boundary between BAE, British military personnel and Saudi military personnel. Without these three groups, the Saudi planes that are bombing Yemen wouldn’t be able to fly. The British government prioritises Saudi arms sales above everything else, and as long as we supply weapons to Saudi Arabia, our foreign policy is entwined with Saudi Arabia.
Britain is in a perverse position, giving aid to ease the famine while arming Saudi. If the British government doesn’t stop arming Saudi, then the aid is worthless.
The shrapnel from a UK-made Raytheon bomb was found in Yemen. It blew up a Yemeni food store. That bomb was sold by the UK after the war started in 2015. It was sold in full knowledge that it would almost certainly be dropped on Yemeni targets.
I did an action where I interrupted Vince Cable’s speech at a defence meeting five years ago. Before he started talking, the head of UK Trade and Industry stood up in front of the arms industry to say: “We have to sell Typhoons.” The economics of it are crazy. Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest export market for Typhoons so we’re beholden to them. No-one will hold them to account as the UK is desperate to sell weapons.
Every time we have done actions someone has said: “What about the jobs?” After our Warton action, people didn’t bother to use this argument as it’s such a no-brainer. You can’t build jobs on the corpses of innocent civilians.
Can you talk about the DSEI arms fair that will be held in London in September?
DSEI is one of the world’s biggest arms fairs. It’s where the world’s most repressive regimes buy their weaponry, and it’s an opportunity for them to cement relationships.
Saudi Arabia is coming to DSEI to buy bombs and planes for its war crimes in Yemen. It also needs to control its own populace with riot equipment and restraining gear, which can also be bought at DSEI.
Amnesty International has repeatedly found torture equipment and cluster bombs at the arms fair. Saudi is one of the worst torturers in the world so it will be interested in this, too.
What will protesting at DSEI achieve?
For the first time ever, the protest stands a good chance of stopping the arms fair. We can’t stop the arms dealers from getting in but we can stop the set-up and prevent the weapons from getting in.
One of the most important things about DSEI is that they don’t want you to know about it. Most of the population of London doesn’t know about it. So by protesting we help to shine a light and therefore help to stop it.
Stop the Arms Fair says: “War starts here, repression starts here, injustice starts here, let’s stop it here.” If people want to do something, come to the protest and help stop the arms fair.
Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson are writers and researchers for the Shoal Collective, a newly formed media cooperative, writing for social change and a world beyond capitalism. To find out how to join the protests against the DSEI arms fair visit stopthearmsfair.org.uk. You can follow Shoal Collective on Twitter at @ShoalCollective.