The US Navy has seized an unflagged boat believed to be smuggling a large weapons cache made up of hundreds of small arms in the Gulf of Aden, a US defence official confirmed to The National on Thursday.
The seizure took place on Tuesday when US navy forces on the USS Jason Dunham destroyer and stationed in the Gulf of Aden boarded the vessel and intercepted a large cache of small arms, including hundreds of AK-47s.
US officials said the boat was an unflagged traditional dhow and the total number of weapons seized possibly exceeding 1,000.
"An investigation is under way to determine the origin of the boat and its destination," a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The National.
The Gulf of Aden is a strategic location that connects the the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean through Bab El Mandeb strait.
With Yemen located to the North, Somalia to the south, the Gulf of Aden has been used as a passage in past to smuggle arms to those countries.
The US official said “we are tracking and analysing evidence and more information would be made available” once the investigation concludes.
The defence official declined to comment on the destination of the small vessel, but it was being investigated.
CNN, quoting US officials, pointed out “that ships intercepted in this area in the past have been linked to Iranian efforts to support Houthi rebels in Yemen”. Such interceptions by US forces occurred in 2015 and 2016 but haven’t taken place since then.
Observers said the incident had signs of previous discoveries of weapons shipments heading for Yemen.
“We don’t have enough information to be sure of the dhow’s destination at this stage, but this certainly sounds similar to the 2015-2016 seizures,” Jeremy Binnie, the Middle East editor for Jane’s Defence Weekly, told The National. Four shipments to Yemen were seized during that period.
Mr Binnie argued that “there is certainly evidence of Iranian weaponry reaching Yemen in the interim and there is both a large naval presence in the region and a UN Security Council resolution that enables any state to search vessels where there is a reasonable suspicion”.
UN Resolution 2216, adopted in 2015, calls for all member states “take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to” Yemeni armed groups including the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Peter Salisbury, a senior fellow at Chatham House, told The National that "lots of arms get smuggled in and out of the Horn of Africa via the Gulf of Aden".
He added: “The US has been part of anti-piracy and anti-smuggling initiatives in the area for years, so this isn't a new development”.
Mr Salisbury said that, once revealed, the destination of the boat and its origin will reveal the significance of this interception.
The arms monitoring group Conflict Armament Research (CAR) has issued multiple reports in the last three years, documenting evidence of Iran’s arming of the Houthis in Yemen through the Horn of Africa.