When I first heard about project Simoom I was riding on a train. A websearch revealed that “Simoom” is the name of a dry, hot desert wind but the tip I had just received had to do with something quite different.
The tip told the story about FOI, The Swedish Defence Research Agency, and their secret work with one of the world’s toughest dictatorships, Saudi Arabia.
[Sound from an execution]
This film on the internet shows eight people being killed at a public
[Sound from an execution]
Other tv-images from Saudi Arabia show a 54 year old woman having her head chopped off with a sword.
[English: The 54-year old Ruyati Binti Satubi was beheded by av single blow of sword earlier this month.]
Saudi Arabia is regarded as one of the cruelest dictatorships in the world. The country systematically contravenes human rights.
And yet in 2005 the Swedish Social Democratic government signed a military cooperation treaty, a “Memorandum of Understanding” or MoU, with the Saudi regime.
The tip we received had to do with this MoU of 2005. But this particular project was not known, had not been debated.
The tip described how a Swedish government agency in total secrecy was helping the regime in Saudi Arabia to establish its own weapons industry.
The cooperation had been going on for several years in spite of the fact that the Swedish official guidelines makes it clear that respect for human rights are a fundamental condition for arms exports or quote “other collaboration abroad involving war materials”.
The plan even had a secret name within the government offices: Project Simoom.
During our research we came across the names of two people who in different ways had been involved. Major General Staffan Näsström. And Assistant Under-Secretary Cecilia Looström at the Ministry of Defence.
– No, I have never been involved in this, I have no knowledge of it.
S i m o o m (spells out the word)
– Absolutely not, I can tell you that straight out,
– At this moment in time I find it difficult to recall precisely what it is about, this thing you want to know about.
At this point we requested to see documents from the Government Offices and the state agency FOI. Without success.
But eventually through people who wish to remain anonymous we never-theless gained access to certain documents. Memos, notes from meetings, letters – most confidential, classified Secret.
Now After reading these documents we know that the weapons factory has not yet been built, but we can follow the plans to build it in detail.
- Is this it?
- Yes it is, precisely.
We are in a car on our way to the Swedish Defence Research Agency, FOI, the state agency which has a key role in project Simoom.
- Hello, I have a meeting with Jan-Olof Lind.
Jan-Olof Lind is Director General of FOI, a government agency which describes itself as one of Europe’s leading defence research institutes.
- Are we doing a proper interview or having conversation,says Jan Olof Lind.
We prefer to do a proper interview directly since your time is very limited, so we can ask all our questions.
- Is it OK if I get a cup of coffee,
- Of course.
Hidden in our bags we keep the secret documents that describe the project.
But before showing Jan Olof Lind the documents we want to give him a chance to tell us what Simoom is.
– At this moment we do not have any contractually agreed project with that country, therefore I have no comment on the matter, says Jan-Olof Lind.
Have you had a project with Saudi Arabia called Project Simoom?
– The answer is no, denies Jan-Olof Lind.
– The answer is no, he denies again.
S i m o o m?
– I’ve answered your question, Jan –Olof Lind says.
The answer is no?
– Yes, that is correct, Jan-Olof says definite.
Is that the truth?
– Well now, can’t you hear what I’m saying, Jan-Olof Lind declares.
So, according to the Director General of FOI, Jan-Olof Lind, there is no project Simoom. But what he does not know is that we’ve got hold of documents describing the project.
We can follow project Simoom from its inception in 2007. This is how it goes:
On the 19th February 2007 a Saudi General called Nasser landed in Sweden. He liked to describe himself as a hands-on man. A person who wanted to get something concrete out of a meeting.
This is also what he achieved during his visit to Sweden. Saudi Arabia is among the worlds top importers of war materials. But during their visit to Sweden in 2007 the Saudis made it clear that they no longer were content to BUY weapons.
They wanted to learn how to MAKE THEIR OWN. General Nasser and the Saudi Arabian regime aimed to build a plant in the desert for the manufacture of explosives and rocket fuel for missiles that have ceased to function.
A missile factory, the first of its kind in the country. And they requested the Swedish government agency FOI to teach them how to build it.
It didn’t take long before FOI accepted. An agreement was made to carry out a “pre-study”. FOI experts traveled to Saudi Arabia to, in site investigate the ground conditions in order to decide whether the factory buildings needed to be below the surface or not.
It was decided that the swedish government agency FOI would lead the work on the weapons factory. It was also clear that the project would require the help of several Swedish companies. The plant would consist of around 35 buildings in total.
It took FOI a little over six months to complete its first report on Project Simoom. The so called pre-study, which described how the factory would be built, was handed over to a Saudi courier, Aka the engineer, in the beginning of 2008.
The courier was content. But he stressed that they are very keen on commencing construction immediately. All of this is described in the documents we posses, but still the Director General of FOI Jan-Olof Lind maintains that there has never been a Project Simoom.
– There is no such project.
This is a cooperation agreement between Saudi Arabia and FOI in Grindsjön where it states that the project is aimed towards anti-tank weapons and in particular their propulsion systems and warheads.
In the autumn of 2007 you carried out a pre-study where you describe in detail how the factory should be built. Why are you lying about this?
– Well, I think lying is a strong choice of words, and I have no comment about the discussions that have taken place with the country in question.
But there is a completed pre-study, that’s not just some discussions, is it?
– Oh, well, ok hang on, let’s keep a cool head here. Where in what I have said have I lied, wonder Jan-Olof Lind.
You said, didn’t you, that there was no such project?
– Yes, he answers.
But what is this then? We have the documents, don’t we?
– Yes, well, if I can see the documentation.
Here you are.
This actually describes how around 30 factory buildings are to be built in Saudi Arabia.
– And I also have no comment beyond what is contained in the MoU-agreement and I have no comment regarding any discussions which may have taken place.
But the FOI being involved in the building of a weapons factory in Saudi Arabia, is it a sensitive issue?
– The fact is I have no comment regarding any discussions which have taken place with the country in question, if in fact they did take place, Jan-Olof Lind informs.
This is a little difficult. We know exactly what has happened but you intend not to comment on any of it?
In vain we try to contact several people who we know worked on project Simoom. One of them department head Torgny Carlsson at FOI:
– Yesterday I received a code of conduct which means I have to refer all your questions to our head of communications.
In the end we do find one person who want to talk to us. It s a rainy Thursday in the middle of January, as we take the lift up to KK-stiftelsen – the “Knowledge Foundation" - in central Stockholm. The CEO, Madelene Sandström, was until three years ago the Director General of FOI. She has agreed to meet us and talk after several years of silence.
Madelene Sandström confirms that project Simoom existed and she says it was a project full of conflicts.
– What I remember is that it was a real pain in the neck, or in the arse, not to put too fine a point on it, she says.
For her it all began in 2005 when the government signed the Memorandum of Understanding, or MoU on military cooperation with Saudi Arabia.
– During the dinner, which was held after the MoU was signed by the then Defence Minister Leni Björklund at Karlberg Palace they already began to bring up questions about research and FOI’s activities, to the extent that as we left I said I reckoned we’d be hearing from them before long, says Madeleine Sandström.
Madelene Sandström, former Director General of FOI, says that the military collaboration agreement, the so called Memorandum of Understanding, had to do with the government wanting to help Saab and Ericsson to sell the radarsystem Erieye to Saudi Arabia. Sweden promised weapons research cooperation with FOI, if the Saudis bought Erieye.
In the agreement it said:
“The parties shall particularly strive to exchange technical and engineering expertise in the areas of maintenance, development and reconstruction of weapons systems, equipment and spare parts.”
– Saudi Arabia was pretty tired of always being the ones buying but never having any know-how. Now it could be said that they could go directly to the companies, but that was doubtless why they came to FOI …they didn’t feel they actually knew what questions to ask about what...what
They didn’t have sufficient knowledge even to place an order?
– That’s right. In the beginning of 2008 the Swedish government suddenly became concerned. They didn’t want FOI to be responsible for the building of the factory. It was too sensitive.
The documents we have in our possession indicate that the government did not have anything against the factory being built. But the government thought it would be better if private company to take over the responsibility instead of a state agenct leading the project. But the Saudis particularly wanted FOI to lead the work and now felt cheated.
From the documents we can tell that this situation created serious concerns in the Government Offices.
Ministry of Defence meeting, spring 2008:
”Industry, including Ericsson, is beginning to feel threatened. This could become very serious.”
Ministry of Defence meeting 17th March 2008:
”How can we repair the situation in Saudi Arabia, all our activities in the region are at stake?”
In May 2008 a number of senior civil servants from Sweden traveled to Saudi Arabia, trying to sort out the crisis. The Saudi regime wanted a state agency FOI in charge of the work, not a private company.
The solution to the problem was put forward in a taxi in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Madeleine Sandström is in the car, along with a civil servant from the Government Offices and the Saudi representative of the SAAB the biggest defence contractor in Sweden.
The group had been at a meeting with deputy Minister of Defence Prince Khaled and were en route to the Swedish embassy. The Saab representative (we looked for him but he did not want to talk to us) took out a pen and began to write on a pad. After a while held up his sketch, the Scheme, to show the others.
– In the car on the way from that meeting with Khaled heading for the embassy he drew a solution, something to do with setting up a company and I think all three of us said it would be a convenient way of defusing this tense situation, says Madeleine Sandström.
In order to resolve the crisis FOI created a company which is intended to function as a dummy company in dealings with Saudi Arabia. The FOI company was be referred to in negotiations, and was represented by the same people from FOI who previously worked on project Simoom but in purely legal terms, on paper, it was a private company without connection to the agency.
In this way the government did not need to officially give its permission.
The FOI-company was called SSTI, Swedish Security Technology and Innovation and was registered with the Swedish Companies Registration Office in the beginning of 2009. The signatory for the FOI-company is one of the Director General’s closest colleagues: Dick Sträng. It was him who dealt with negotiations with the Saudi’s from the start.
– I don’t want to comment on it and I am no longer with FOI and no longer in public service so I don’t feel I should or want to comment, says Dick Sträng.
But why can’t you comment?
– No, you’ll have to make do with what you’ve got, he says.
The current Director General of FOI, Jan-Olof Lind, does not wish to acknowledge the existence of any company with a connection to FOI.
– No, FOI does not have a private company, says Jan-Olof Lind.
Has there previously existed a private company or companies with a clear connection to FOI?
– There I can only answer for the period when I have been here but I do believe that I can say with a degree of certainty that going back in time there has not been a company under FOI control, Jan-Olof Lind informs.
Is there a company referred to as FOI-company?
– No, Jan-Olof Lind certifies.
Are there any companies that have a clear connection to FOI as a state authority?
– No, he says.
– Are you sure?
– Yes, he bursts!
There is evidence that FOI General Director Jan-Olof Lind, despite insisting to the contrary, was fully aware that a company with connection to FOI was created.
In a memorandum to the government in the spring of 2009 he wrote:
”The overall project will be led by a private Swedish company SSTI. FOI is to act as consultant and support for the running of the project.”
In another communication from FOI to the government it is written:
”SSTI is an independent privately-owned Swedish company but through a number of individuals it has a connection to FOI.”
Yet according to Jan-Olof Lind such a company, with a connection to FOI, has never existed.
So according to this document that you sent to the government, you were to be consultants to this company which you say in another document has a connection to FOI through a number of individuals?
– Can I see the document, Jan-Olof Lind says. [We hand him the document.] I would like to get back to you about this document as I have to check whether it is classified in which case I cannot discuss it, Jan-Olof Lind informs.
Are you aware that this colleague of yours set up this company?
– I have no comment on that, he says.
– No, I have nothing further to say. I have nothing further to say now, he goes on.
– I’m afraid we must stop there, says the press officer who was sitting in on
the meeting. Thank you.
This “FOI-company”, SSTI, is clearly just as sensitive an issue as Project Simoom. In March 2009 the company submitted an application here at the Swedish Agency for Non Proliferation and Export Controls – ISP - for a license to trade in war materials… At the same time the Vice Director General of ISP, Erik Lövgren, was informed of the plans in Saudi Arabia.
–Yes, I have a meeting with Jan-Erik Lövgren. We are from The Swedish Radio News Department.
In July 2009 SSTI was granted a license to trade in war materials – the scope of the license includes: "Ammunition and components for guns/artillery, gunpowder and explosives etc, robots rockets torpedoes bombs etc."
But still Vice Director General Jan-Erik Lövgren claims he cannot identify who is behind the SSTI.
– No, I can just confirm that they submitted an application which we processed, Jan-Erik Löfgren says.
Who is behind SSTI?
– Mmm, do you remember? (To the press officer who is present at the interview) In that case I would have to go and check who submitted the application, he says.
But there is a link to FOI, in the sense that this person Dick Sträng was working at FOI when he acquired the license?
– Yes, of course I know who Dick Sträng is and yes he is in this company. Yes, but when you granted this license you were aware that he was working close to the Director General of FOI.
– Yes, as I have met Dick Sträng on various occasions, of course I was aware.
We decide to visit Dick Sträng once again. The first time we contacted him on the telephone he did not want to talk at all and when we paid him a visit he did not want to let us in. Nevertheless we decide to have another go.
[The doorbell rings, he opens]
Hi Dick, we would just like to show you some papers…
– I have already told you I don’t want to meet you, and on top of that my child is unwell…, Dick Sträng says.
But now would be a good time as we have talked to your former Director General. We have some more documents. We would really like to show you them. You don’t have to say anything but if we could just come in anyway, I think it would be in your interest to look at them?
– Okay, just for a second, just for a second, Dick Sträng says.
He lets us in to the kitchen where we sit down we take out a dossier with documents from the Government Offices, FOI and the Agency for Non Proliferation and Export Controls, documents describing project Simoom in detail, and show them to Dick Sträng.
Do you recognise these papers?
– Yes, I see that I have signed some of them. So I can’t really very well deny it, he says.
For many years he worked closely with the Director General of FOI. And in contrast to his former bosses he now chooses to talk. And he confirms that the Swedish government did not want the state agency, FOI, leading the work on the weapons factory whereas the Saudis were demanding that FOI should lead the work. And so the “FOI-company” was set up in the hope that the Saudi regime would accept this solution.
– We couldn’t see any other way out of the situation. With a counterpart absolutely demanding that FOI should do it, which they felt they had been promised from the Swedish side, while FOI could definitely not do this for the Ministry of Defence. But we still had to find a solution, it was unthinkable for us to risque our relations with Saudi Arabia. Unthinkable! So, you know, what can you do? There’s no good solution, there’s no correct solution to this problem, Dick Sträng says.
But why wouldn’t the government let FOI do it? It’s true isn’t it that the government didn’t have anything against the Saudis getting this information?
– Well you’ll have to ask the government and the Ministry of Defense about that, he says.
But the stark reality surely is that the government didn’t want it to be seen that the government and state agencies had furnished the Saudis with this knowledge so they set up this dummy company. What do you have to say about that?
– Well that’s your interpretation of it…,
Is it wrong?
– [Laughs] I probably wouldn’t have put it like that. But sure, he says.
We are sitting at the kitchen table, showing Dick Sträng the documents we brought with us , telling him how the Director General Jan-Olof Lind is now denying that a company with a connection to FOI had even been set up.
– If he’s saying that he doesn’t know about this, then he’s lying. You know I’m not the brains behind this solution..., Dick Sträng says.
According to our sources it was not Dick Sträng who financed the start-up of SSTI. The money came rather from the Swedish treasury.
How did you finance this solution?
– Well, then you start getting into...,
Did you pay for it yourself?
– I’m not going to answer that question.
But it costs money to start up a company. Did you receive money from the State Treasury, you know we have information about this.
– I’m not going to answer that question, he says.
– For the simple reason that I can’t answer it without lying to you, therefore I can’t answer it. It’s not right. I’m sorry, I won’t do it, Dick Sträng answers.
Dick Sträng quit his job at FOI in the middle of 2010 and the attempt to run the construction of the factory through SSTI failed in the end. And he does not know what happened after that.
During our discussion he reiterates again and again that the decision to set up the private company was not his, but stems from the government.
But the plans for an anti-tank weapon factory in the desert are still in place. Discussions are continiuing . This is confirmed by Jan Erik Lövgren, Vice Director General of the Agency for Non Proliferation and Export Controls, ISP.
– As I understand it there is an on-going dialogue, he says.
In 2010 the government renewed the military cooperation agreement, the socalled Memorandum of Understanding, with Saudi Arabia.
But why is it so important for Sweden to help Saudi Arabia develop its defense capabilities?
Why do FOI and the government want Saudi Arabia to learn how to make anti-tank missiles themselves?
We head for the Ministry of Defence to find the answer to this question. One person who should know State Secretary Håkan Jevrell of the Moderate Party. He is the second highest official at the ministry. But it soon becomes clear that he does not plan to answer any of our questions.
– I can say that there is a MoU which stipulates cooperation within certain areas of activity. Apart from that I can’t comment in any more detail about the content of this, Håkan Jevrell informs.
According to Jan Erik Lövgren, Vice Director General of the Agency for Non Proliferation and Export Controls, these discussions are still going on?
– As I said, I cannot comment on relations with Saudi Arabia be they ongoing or not yet begun or completed as that is classified, Håkan Jevrell says.
How can the electorate make up their minds about what they think about an issue like this when it says rather vaguely on a document that there will be research cooperation, whereas in reality it’s about helping a dictatorship construct a weapons factory, when they aren’t allowed to know about it and you refuse to answer questions about it?
– Well this is what you are claiming. And I can only refer to the MoU, Håkan Jevrell answers.
Whether or not Sweden should help Saudi Arabia build weapons factories is clearly not something the Swedish people should know anything about. We should trust our government.
During the winter and spring of 2011 protests against despotic governments spread across the Middle East, the so called Arab Spring reaching the Arabian Gulf and Saudi Arabia’s neighbor Bahrain. With police and soldiers beating and opening fire on the demonstrators.
In March of the same year Saudi Arabia shows why they have built such a strong military force. Saudi tanks roll into Bahrain.