DUBAI – The US Navy’s 5th Fleet, based in the Middle East, is beginning to offer rewards for information that could help seafarers intercept weapons, drugs and other illicit shipments across the region amid tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and arming the Yemeni Houthi rebels through Tehran.
While avoiding direct mention of Iran, the Fifth Fleet’s decision to offer cash and other goods for exploitable intelligence in the Persian Gulf and other strategic waterways could increase pressure on the flow of arms to the Houthis, as Yemen is still a shaky truce is in place.
The Houthis have already threatened a new Allied task force organized by the 5th Fleet in the Red Seaalthough there hasn’t been an attack on the navy by Iranian-backed forces since.
Meanwhile, Fifth Fleet says it and its partners seized $500 million worth of drugs in 2021 alone — more than the previous four years combined. The 5th Fleet also intercepted 9,000 weapons over the same period, three times the number in 2020.
“Any destabilizing activity has our attention,” Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins, a spokesman for the 5th Fleet, told The Associated Press. “Definitely over the last year we have seen a skyrocketing success in seizures of both illegal narcotics and illegal weapons. This is another step in our efforts to improve maritime security in the region.”
The Fifth Fleet’s new initiative kicks off Tuesday through the Defense Department’s rewards program, in which troops offered cash and goods for tips on the battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere after al-Qaeda launched the September 11, 2001 attacks. With ground fighting largely halted across the region, the 5th Fleet decided to attempt to utilize the program while patrolling the waterways of the Middle East.
Hawkins said operators fluent in Arabic, English and Farsi would be manning a hotline during this time The Navy would also accept online tips in Dari and Pashto. The payouts can be as high as $100,000 or the equivalent in vehicles, boats or food for tips that also contain information about planned attacks on Americans, Hawkins said.
It’s unclear whether the surge in Fifth Fleet seizures represents a return to shipping in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic or an overall increase in the number of illegal shipments in the region. Traffickers typically use stateless dhows, traditional wooden sailing boats common in the Middle East, to transport drugs and weapons.
Yemen appears to be a target for weapons. The Houthis seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in September 2014, forcing the internationally recognized government into exile. A Saudi-led coalition armed with US weapons and intelligence entered the war in March 2015 alongside the Yemeni government-in-exile. Years of inconclusive fighting have brought the poorest nation in the Arab world to the brink of famine. A truce that began around the Muslim holy month of Ramadan appears to still be in effect for now.
Despite a United Nations Security Council arms embargo on Yemen Iran has a long history of supplying guns, bazookas, rockets and other weapons to the Houthis. Although Iran denies arming the Houthis, independent experts, Western nations and UN experts have traced components to Iran.
Asked whether new seizures could increase tensions with Iran, Hawkins listed the weapons and drugs the Navy hoped to intercept as part of the program.
“That’s what we want,” said the commander. “It’s not in the interests of regional stability and security.”
The Iranian mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. The US Navy and Iran continue to have tense encounters in the Strait of Hormuzthe narrow estuary of the Persian Gulf through which one-fifth of all oil trade flows.
The rewards program is the latest initiative from Brad Cooper, Vice Admiral, 5th Fleet, who also launched a drone task force last year amid tensions with Iran.
Cooper’s other initiative, the Red Sea Task Force, has been criticized by the Houthis in the past. The rebel group, which has repeatedly denied being armed by Iran, did not respond to a request for comment on the new naval program.
However, Ali al-Qahom, a Houthi official, tweeted last week that rebels are monitoring increased US activities in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf waters.
“For that reason, defense and confrontational avenues are open,” he said. “They and their devilish projects have no place” in the region.
Associated Press writer Ahmed Al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.
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https://www.local10.com/news/2022/07/04/us-navy-offers-cash-for-tips-to-seize-mideast-drugs-weapons/ US Navy offers money for tips to seize Middle East drugs and weapons