U.S. expands mission to stop Iran from smuggling weapons into Yemen

U.S. officials familiar with the situation said the Biden administration is increasing efforts to monitor and intercept Iranian weapons being smuggled into Yemen. Houthi rebels have launched a deadly campaign of violence against commercial shipping in Yemen that has proven to withstand six weeks of military strikes.

initiative It aims to map the shipping routes used by Tehran and block weapons shipments as they cross, acknowledging that the Houthis may pose a major security challenge for the foreseeable future. It is part of a broader strategy that also includes sanctions and diplomatic pressure but faces constraints due to a shortage of vital military resources.

A senior U.S. defense official described the evolving mission as a “new effort to try to better understand what these waterways look like.” The official, like others interviewed for this report, requested anonymity to describe the sensitive military activity. The official said the effort would require significant cooperation with the U.S. intelligence community.

Another senior defense official called the effort “very strong” and said Washington was also exploring how partner countries could expand their focus on countering Iranian weapons smuggling to help offset limited inventories of U.S. drones and other surveillance assets that Assets are critical to this process. The official declined to say which countries were involved in those talks but said all governments affected by the economic fallout from Houthi attacks should do more.

“Identifying all of these aircraft over an area as large as what we’ve described is definitely a challenge,” the person said. “But we are devoting significant resources to identifying, tracking and, where we have the ability, intercepting . Our findings are significant.”

The Houthis rose from a ragtag group of rebels and now serve as the de facto government overseeing much of Yemen, part of a regional network of Iranian proxy forces opposed to Israel and the U.S. military presence in the Middle East.The leaders of this group are describe its behavior in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden as a show of solidarity with Hamas fighters fighting Israeli forces in Gaza, but its targeting often appears indiscriminate – it even once opened fire on a ship carrying food to Yemen, where conflict has Millions of people are hungry, according to aid groups.

Mohammed Al said that when the Houthis seized the Yemeni capital Sanaa in 2014, they inherited an array of weapons, including North Korean and Soviet-era Scud missiles, Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles and Chinese anti-ship missiles. Basha is a senior Middle East analyst at Navanti Group. Since then, the group has learned to create more advanced weapons by modifying items in its arsenal and using technology obtained overseas, including from Iran.

Since November – shortly after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, triggering the war in Gaza – The U.S. Department of Defense has documented at least 105 attacks on commercial ships near Yemen, about 40 of which occurred in the past week. The weapons include one-way attack drones, rockets, ballistic missiles and explosives-laden drones that can skim waves and fly underwater, officials said.

U.S.-led efforts to protect maritime traffic have successfully thwarted many such attacks. However, on March 6, an anti-ship missile launched by the Houthi armed forces hit the “True Confidence”, a merchant ship in the Gulf of Aden. U.S. officials said at least three sailors died and many others were injured. Last month, Houthi missiles attacked a U.S. cargo ship, the MV Rubymar, causing it to sink.

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Despite more than a decade of U.S. attacks on al Qaeda militants in Yemen, It has paid limited attention to the Houthis, who despite their anti-American rhetoric are more focused on countering Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes than attacking U.S. or Western interests. As a result, current and former officials say the Pentagon currently has a somewhat narrow understanding of the group’s smuggling operations.

UN experts say maritime smuggling originates from Iranian ports such as Jask in the Gulf of Oman and Bandar Abbas in the Strait of Hormuz. Such goods can be transported all the way to Yemen via the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden, or overland via neighboring countries such as Oman.

Basha said that since 2013, at least 18 maritime interceptions have occurred and weapons allegedly from Iran have been discovered, including machine guns and anti-tank missiles. Additional smuggling occurs through the Horn of Africa.

It’s unclear how much material remains undetected, making it difficult for the U.S. to assess the effectiveness of its latest attacks – dozens of which have already occurred going back to January — weakening the Houthis’ ability to continue maritime attacks.

An ongoing challenge facing the U.S. military is its limited number of drones and other surveillance assets, which are in high demand by U.S. military leaders around the world. As part of a shift in global security strategy aimed at focusing on China, the Pentagon in recent years has reallocated some equipment that had been deployed in the Middle East during two decades of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Gen. Michael “Eric” Kurilla, who as commander of U.S. Central Command oversees U.S. military activities throughout the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this month that he would shift surveillance capabilities away from Afghanistan “for some time.” — The United States Where the United States continues to monitor terrorist groups, with a focus on the Red Sea and Iraq and Syria, where U.S. military deployments have until recently faced repeated attacks by Iranian aid groups.

Kurila said the U.S. needs to provide more funding as “additional capabilities.”

U.S. officials said the Houthis shot down at least two MQ-9 Reaper drones off the coast of Yemen, one in November and one in February.

Another limitation is the lack of trained personnel to carry out the dangerous task of boarding ships suspected of carrying Iranian weapons to Yemen. Although the Pentagon is ramping up interdiction efforts, the mission is not expected to require a significant increase in special operations forces, officials said.

Marine units deployed on ships have historically participated in such missions, but no such missions are expected in the region for the foreseeable future due to an ongoing shortage of amphibious ships overseen by the Navy, U.S. officials said. The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit recently departed the Red Sea region after a lengthy deployment and is expected to arrive home in North Carolina in the coming days.

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A handful of boardings revealed to the public in recent months offer a glimpse into the evolving mission.

January 11, Two SEALs missing at sea Attempting to climb aboard a suspected smuggling vessel near Somalia. Others involved, including members of the U.S. Coast Guard, What Central Command said was an array of Iranian-made weapons, including missile components, was found and 14 people were detained.Four of them face charges, including knowingly transporting warheads, the Justice Department said Announced in February.

A month later, coast guard personnel intercepted a vessel in the Arabian Sea. Ballistic missile components, explosives and other weapons components were seized, officials said. They said the shipment originated in Iran.

Carl “Sam” Mundy III, a retired lieutenant general who led Marine Corps missions in the Middle East from 2018 to 2021, called the missions the most dangerous and dangerous in the military. One of the most unpredictable missions. U.S. troops may make “rapid rope” descents from helicopters onto suspected smuggling vessels, or board them from the water in small, high-speed boats.

“A lot of times, we don’t know exactly what the threat is,” said Mundy, a distinguished senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “A lot of times, we don’t know. So, of course, that complicates operations because you’re putting people in vulnerable situations, and you add in all these atmospheric conditions, which makes it all very challenging.”

Navy SEALs, Marine Corps Reconnaissance Marines, Coast Guard Maritime Security Response Teams and other elite units can board the ship. Making such a mission successful requires gathering and understanding intelligence, which takes time, especially in an area as vast as the Red Sea and nearby waterways, he said.

“The problem is, it’s a large geographic area and we don’t have the resources to do it,” Mundy said. “It takes time to do this well.”

Retired Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr., who led Central Command from 2019 to 2022, said it was critical to cut off the flow of lethal weapons from Iran to the Houthis.

“We need to recognize this and we need to put resources into dealing with it,” McKenzie said. That primarily requires surveillance resources, he said, but “it also requires platforms that allow us to actually conduct interceptions, and we need to work with our coalition partners to do that.”

Elana de Lozier, director of the Sage Institute for Foreign Affairs and a Yemen expert, said it was unclear whether the Houthis would stop their attacks if Israel’s large-scale military operation in Gaza ended. She said “the goalposts may move” given the other benefits the Houthis appear to have derived from the Palestinian cause.

One benefit is that other Yemeni groups, often opponents of the Houthis, must consider whether they would be painted as insufficiently pro-Palestinian if they attacked the Houthis.

“It became a black and white thing,” DeLozier said.This is convenient for the Houthis. “

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By Ali Raza

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