The United States Navy has seized a ship believed to be smuggling explosives in the Gulf of Oman. The same vessel was detained last year near Somalia and found to be smuggling weapons. The latest search found large amounts of a fertilizer believed to be meant for making explosives. The ship was likely trying to smuggle the material into Yemen, which is engulfed in a stalemated civil war and has little in the way of central governance.
Smuggling ship seized
The US Navy handed the crew of the vessel and its cargo over to the Yemeni Coast Guard, believing that the ship was trafficking the materials to Houthi rebels from Iran.
The civil war in Yemen is a proxy war between two of the region’s major powers and has continued with no end in sight since it broke out in 2014. The conflict has not received nearly as much international attention as the messy war in Syria.
While other factions are involved, the conflict is primarily a contest between the Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, and the internationally recognized government propped up by Saudi Arabia.
The United States has supported Saudi Arabia extensively in the proxy conflict, but this has been controversial, like many other aspects of the US-Saudi relationship.
The Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen is believed to have killed tens of thousands of civilians and the anti-Houthi coalition is accused of collaborating with the local branch of Al-Qaeda.
Congress voted to end American support for the Saudi mission in Yemen in 2019 but President Trump vetoed that. President Biden technically paused overt support in 2021.
Houthis supported with Iranian weapons
The explosives seized by the navy were given to the Yemeni forces which are backed by the Saudis. The United States is not as active in its involvement, but the Saudi side is certainly still favored and supported.
The smugglers were likely taking weapons and supplies from Iran to Yemen, hoping to bring them ashore somewhere on the poorly secured coastline.
This is the primary source of supplies for the Houthi rebels. If the US Navy were to aggressively crack down on smuggling the Houthis might be in serious trouble.
The war in Yemen has largely stalemated into a conflict of airstrikes and bombings carried out with the support of each side’s international allies.
The Houthis may have hoped to use the captured fertilizer to produce explosives for a new series of bombings targeting opposing forces.
Most of the smuggling from Iran brings small arms to the Houthis; this is what the seized ship was carrying the last time it was searched by the US Navy.