US Intelligence Uncovers Potential Arms Deal Between Houthis and Somali Group al-Shabab

Yemen Monitor/Newsroom

CNN reported on Tuesday that US intelligence has found information of discussions between the Houthis in Yemen to provide weapons to the Somali armed group al-Shabab.

The network quoted three US officials as saying that this is a worrying development that threatens to further destabilize a region already experiencing violence.

According to the network, officials are now looking for evidence of Houthi weapons deliveries to Somalia, and are trying to determine if Iran, which provides some military and financial support to the Houthis, is involved in the deal.

A senior US administration official said that US has warned regional countries about this potential cooperation in recent weeks, and African countries have also begun to raise the issue proactively with the US to express their concerns and obtain more information.

“This is a very active area of conversation that we are having with countries on both sides of the Red Sea,” the official said. “It is being taken very seriously.”

He added that this is not a natural alliance between the two groups, which are divided on a sectarian basis, and that they are not known to have had a relationship in the past. The Houthis are Zaydi Shiites, while al-Shabab has traditionally been strongly opposed to Shiism. But they are separated by only one body of water – the strategically important Gulf of Aden – and both consider the US to be their greatest enemy.

The intelligence raises the worrying possibility that a marriage of convenience could make things worse in both Somalia and the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, where the Houthis have been carrying out regular attacks on commercial ships and US military assets since the start of the war in Gaza.

The potential deal could provide a new stream of funding for the Houthis, at a time when US officials say there is evidence that the group’s main sponsor, Iran, has some concerns about the group’s attack strategy.

“The ability to sell some of these weapons will bring them much-needed revenue,” the senior US administration official said.

For al-Shabab, it could provide access to a new source of weapons – including drones – that are far more sophisticated than its current arsenal and could give the group the ability to strike US targets.

There has been some routine smuggling of small arms and commercial goods between different groups in Yemen and Somalia for years. But a weapons deal between al-Shabab and the Houthis would be something new, according to US officials.

“This would be the clearest sign that two organizations that are completely ideologically opposed have prioritized something they have in common, which is their hostility to the US,” said Christopher Anzalone, a professor at the Naval War College’s Middle East Studies Department. “It would be very significant because it shows that there is a level of pragmatism in both organizations.”

The senior official said that any form of military cooperation between the Houthis and al-Shabab could also undermine the informal and fragile ceasefire between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia that has been in place since 2022.

The official said it would “certainly” be at odds with the spirit of the UN-proposed roadmap for a more sustainable peace.

“We still have a strong interest in supporting the roadmap process in Yemen, but this type of trade between the Houthis” and al-Shabab “would certainly complicate and undermine those efforts,” he added.

Officials say at this point they are not sure what types of weapons the Houthis might offer al-Shabab. At present, the Somali group generally cannot reach the rockets, mortars and locally made improvised explosive devices that it has used in its fight against the Somali government – weapons that are deadly but relatively small.

By comparison, the Houthis have armed drones, including underwater drones. They also have short-range ballistic missiles. One US official said there was a sense that the deal would cover “bigger kit” than just rockets and mortars, but beyond that, the intelligence is murky.

Regardless of what the Houthis provide, there is likely to be limited opportunity for al-Shabab to directly fire on US assets in the region.

Anzalone said that even if the Houthis provided them with some of the smaller rockets that the group has used to target US MQ-9 drones, al-Shabab would likely have to fire them from the north of the country.

Those tribes of the country are largely controlled by a growing branch of ISIS. Al-Shabab often fights for territory there, and as a result, its presence and freedom of movement is very limited.

“They would love to do it,” Anzalone said, referring to striking US assets directly. Al-Shabab considers the internationally recognized Somali government to be a US puppet. But he said, “I think they would find it difficult to do so. This is where the jihadi fighting between al-Shabab and ISIS is the most intense.”

The United States has about 480 American troops in Somalia, according to a US official. The United States has continued to carry out counterterrorism strikes against targets of both al-Shabab and ISIS in Somalia throughout Biden administration.

Officials said a key question for US intelligence officials is the extent of Iran’s involvement in this arrangement, and there is no direct evidence so far, but the US is still looking. It fits with a pattern of broader Iranian efforts to expand the front against the US and the West by providing weapons directly or indirectly to proxy groups.

“This is something we’re definitely keeping an eye on,” said a senior administration official, but the Houthis are also one of the most independent-minded groups among the various Iran-aligned groups, and they are the group over which Tehran can be said to have the least control.

Iran has been broadly seeking to tightly manage any potential escalation arising from Gaza war, calibrating its response to extract costs from the US and Israel without allowing it to spiral into a direct conflict.

Therefore, some US officials are skeptical of Iran’s involvement, with one military official saying, “Don’t think Iran is actually part of this.” “The Houthis are Houthis on their own.”

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