On February 12, two vessels were boarded and searched off the coast of Somalia. The boarding force, which had deployed from the guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81), searched the vessels and found a cache of weapons. According to a brief by the Department of Defense, the cache consisted of “thousands of AK-47 assault rifles, light machine guns, heavy sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs), and crew-served weapons.”
According to the report, the Churchill’s VBSS (Visit, Board, Search and Seizure) team discovered the weapons while conducting a flag verification boarding. Such boardings are common in the Arabian Sea where smugglers use unmarked dhows — local motorized boats with medium cargo capacity — to move illegal weapons, explosives, and military equipment.
Weapons smugglers in the Arabian Sea are routinely detained by the U.S. and other regional allies in an effort to choke off the flow of weapons into the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In most cases, the weapons originate from Iran.
Last February, the Normandy, a U.S. Navy Guided Missile Cruiser, interdicted a dhow containing advanced weapons systems headed for Yemen. That cache contained surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank guided missiles, Iranian thermal imaging scopes, Iranian-made components for drones, and various munitions and weapons parts, according to a Military Times report.
From 2015 to 2018, several smuggling attempts were stymied in the Arabian Sea. In nearly every instance, the weapons on board were traced back to Iran.
In a 2020 intelligence report from Grey Dynamics, photographs of weapons seized in several VBSS operations in the Arabian Sea were analyzed. The findings of that report were two-fold. First, it outlined the basic visual identifiers for Iranian weapon systems typically smuggled into Africa or Yemen from Iran. Second, it tied those weapons systems back to known Iranian import shipments. The conclusion of the photographic analysis was that these captured caches — and many more like them that went undetected — were from Iranian stockpiles.
The three most common weapon systems smuggled from Iran are AK-47s, variants of the infamous RPG-7, and the Type 73 Machine Gun. The ubiquity of the AK-47 makes it very hard to trace, especially through photographic analysis. But Iranian RPGs and Type 73s are easy to spot. The Iranian RPG-7 has a telltale green heat shield and often has a cylindrical plastic firing handle. The Type 73, a machine gun, manufactured by North Korea and exported to Iran prior to and during the Iran-Iraq War, has a solid buttstock and ported flash suppressor.
These visual identifiers make it easy to spot a cache coming from Iran.
Photographic analysis of the weapons seized by the USS Winston Churchill last week tells a different story.
One of the photos of the cache, released by the Department of Defense, shows a collection of crew-served weapons. At first glance, these machine guns appear to be Type 73s, the North Korea-made weapon exported to Iran. However, the buttstocks of these machine guns are hollowed, not solid. Another weapon that has this overall appearance is the Soviet PK. The PK went into production in the Soviet Union in 1961 and remains in production today. While there are some variants of the North Korean Type 73 with hollowed buttstocks, these bear a closer resemblance to the Russian machine gun.
Another photograph shows several RPGs. Whereas Iranian-made RPG 7s have green, smooth heat shields, these RPGs are all black and have ribbed heat shields. The photograph also shows several serial numbers. Iranian-made RPGs are marked with a seven-digit serial number. These RPG-7s have four-digit serial numbers.
The DoD report of the VBSS operation last week conspicuously failed to mention the country of origin of these weapons systems. If these weapons are indeed Russian-made, the decision to omit their origin from the report would make sense; no need to raise alarm that Russian-made weapons are flowing into Somalia and Yemen, right?
Yesterday, Russia and Iran began a joint naval training operation in the Indian Ocean. As reported in the Military Times, the operation, named “Iran-Russia Maritime Security Belt 2021,” includes a Russian destroyer and logistics ship. The operation is slated to cover nearly 11,000 miles of open water in the Northern Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have notched up their offensive, focusing their attacks on the northern stronghold city of Marib which lies about 75 miles east of the capital Sanaa. In addition to its territorial significance, Marib is home to a massive dam that sequesters much-needed water for irrigation and drinking. Holding Marib would mean putting a stranglehold on Sanaa’s water supply.
Marib is also the gateway to an oil-rich area of Yemen. Controlling Marib means controlling the nearby oil fields which could easily be tapped and harvested by Iran, helping it to bypass economic and energy sanctions.
UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Mark Lowcock said in a Tweet yesterday that a Houthi advance on Marib would put “two million civilians in danger” and lead to the “displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, with unimaginable humanitarian consequences.”
اي هجوم عسكري على مارب سيضع ما يصل إلى مليوني مدني في خطر وينتج عن نزوح مئات الاف ، الأمر الذي سيؤدي الى عواقب إنسانية لا يمكن تصورها. لقد حان الوقت الآن للتهدئة ، وليس مضاعفة المزيد من البؤس للشعب اليمني. سوف اقدم إحاطة في مجلس الأمن يوم الخميس
— Mark Lowcock (@UNReliefChief) February 15, 2021
No doubt the Houthis have been emboldened by the Biden Administration’s decision to remove them from the terror list, a move that was likely aimed at enticing Iran back to the nuclear negotiating table.
But this weapons shipment should change the calculus: Iranian arms being smuggled into Yemen is nothing new. In fact, it has become an almost predictable enterprise despite its vastness. Yet, Russian weapons could mean that the Houthis now have a new sponsor and that the recent uptick in violence marks a Russian-Iranian push in Yemen while the U.S. and its allies are caught flatfooted.
Conversely, the smugglers may have been targeting the Somali coast. In recent days, elements of al-Shabaab, the fundamentalist terror group with allegiances to al-Qaeda, have also stepped up their attacks. On February 1, a bomb was detonated in a hotel in Mogadishu, killing nine, including four al-Shabaab gunmen, and wounding 15 others. On February 12, the same day as this VBSS mission, an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attack killed 13 Somali soldiers, among them the commander of the Somali National Security Agency. The following day, on February 13, a vehicle-borne IED, or VBIED, was detonated near the presidential palace and parliamentary offices.
It’s possible that this cache of weapons was headed to support al-Shabaab jihadists in Somalia. These systems — heavy machine guns and RPGs, not to mention thousands of AK-47s — would significantly bolster the insurgent force and allow for more deadly attacks.
Though significant to regional security, the destination of the weapons is less important than their origin. If this analysis is correct and these weapons are indeed Russian, it suggests a new front of the strategic alliance between Iran and Russia and puts any U.S. negotiations with either nation in a stark light.
Further, it shows a shade of naiveté on the part of the U.S. State Department and the Biden administration as a whole that may have believed that easing the noose on Iran’s proxies, like the Houthis, would pave the way to a win in the nuclear conversation. Likewise, the extension of the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia undoubtedly gave U.S. officials the false sense that Putin is interested in a revitalization of diplomatic channels.
It appears that Putin and Iran are using the lull in U.S. scrutiny to amplify the ongoing violence in the Sahel, Somalia, and Yemen.