Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, a senior Yemeni official confirmed that smugglers are utilizing Red Sea islands in their criminal activities, including Iranians smuggling arms to the Shi’ite Houthi rebels in northern Yemen.
“Many of the small islands in the Red Sea are unpopulated, and therefore it is easy for large ships to unload their cargo there, with this later being smuggled into Yemen on smaller fishing boats,” he said.
The Yemeni official stressed that arms are being smuggled into the country for two main reasons: first, for political and security reasons—namely in order to destabilize the post-Arab Spring state—and, second, for financial benefit.
He also warned that “some of the arms smuggled into Yemen are subsequently redirected into neighboring countries.”
Yemen has seized a number of ships that were being used to smuggle arms into the country via its western and southern coasts. Yemeni authorities have confiscated large quantities of weapons, reportedly including sophisticated weapons headed to the Houthi rebels in Sa’ada governorate.
The Yemeni coastguard intercepted the Iranian-registered Jihan ship in its territorial waters earlier this year and is currently in the process of prosecuting nine crew members for “attempting to smuggle sophisticated arms into the country,” according to the official SABA news agency.
According to the indictment against the defendants: “Nine crew members travelled to Iran using forged documents last year, where they received training in the use of arms, explosives, sniper attacks, urban warfare, and advanced naval communication. Following this, they returned to Yemen with over 40 tons of arms, explosives, and ammunition hidden in carefully-concealed compartments of the Jihan, intended to be smuggled into the country.”
The cache of weapons found aboard the Jihan included 20 anti-aircraft missiles, 18 Katyusha rockets, 100 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, RDX and C4 explosives, and a large supply of ammunition.
As for arms smuggled from Africa across the Red Sea and into Yemen, the official noted: “Some arms shipments are smuggled to islands off the coast of Djibouti for storage, and are then later smuggled into Yemen.”
“A number of workshops have been established in Sa’ada governorate to reassemble these arms which originate from places like Iran,” he added.
Commenting on the Yemeni coastguards operation to stop maritime smuggling, the unnamed official emphasized that “the coastguard is doing its best in this regard,” but acknowledged that it is lacking the required equipment and training to effectively combat this.
The Yemeni official called on countries in the region to cooperate to stop the proliferation of arms and the smuggling of weapons into Yemen, adding that it has a negative impact on neighboring states.
Earlier this month, the Yemeni defense minister announced the seizure of a number of trucks carrying illegal Turkish arms in the southern province of Taiz, after the shipment had cleared Mokha Port. This was reportedly the second time in a month—and the sixth time in six months—that Turkish-made weapons were seized in Yemen.
Yemen is suffering from significant maritime security issues, particularly as the country has over 1300 miles of coastline. On April 24, the UNHCR reported that more than 30,000 African refugees had illegally entered the country since the beginning of the year.