US Navy offers money for tips to seize drugs and weapons in the Middle East

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The US Navy’s 5th Fleet based in the Middle East is beginning to offer rewards for information that could help sailors intercept weapons, drugs and other illicit cargo in the region amid tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s arming of Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

While avoiding direct mention of Iran, the 5th Fleet’s decision to offer cash and other goods for actionable intelligence in the Persian Gulf and other strategic waterways could increase pressure on the flow weapons to the Houthis as a tenuous ceasefire still holds in Yemen.

Already, the Houthis have threatened a new allied task force organized by the 5th Fleet in the Red Sea, although there have been no attacks by Iranian-backed forces on the navy since.

Meanwhile, the 5th Fleet says it and its partners seized $500 million worth of drugs in 2021, more than the previous four years combined. The 5th Fleet also intercepted 9,000 weapons in the same period, three times the number seized in 2020.

“Any destabilizing activity gets our attention,” said Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins, a 5th Fleet spokesman, told The Associated Press. “Certainly, we have seen tremendous success in the past year in the seizure of both illegal narcotics and illicit weapons. This represents another step in our efforts to strengthen regional maritime security.

The new 5th Fleet initiative was launched on Tuesday as part of the Department of Defense rewards program, which has seen troops donate cash and goods for tips on battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere after al-Qaeda launched the September 11, 2001 attacks. Since ground fighting had largely stopped in the area, the 5th Fleet decided to try using the program as it patrols the Middle Eastern waterways.

Hawkins said operators fluent in Arabic, English and Farsi would run a hotline, while the Navy would also take advice online, in Dari and Pashto. Payments can be as high as $100,000 or the equivalent in vehicles, boats or food for tips that also include information about planned attacks targeting Americans, Hawkins said.

It is unclear whether the rise in 5th Fleet seizures represents a return to shipping after the coronavirus pandemic or an overall increase in the number of illicit shipments to the region. Traffickers typically use stateless dhows, traditional wooden sailing craft common in the Middle East, to transport drugs and weapons.

One destination for the weapons appears to be Yemen. The Houthis seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 and forced the internationally recognized government into exile. A Saudi-led coalition, armed with US weapons and intelligence, went to war on the side of the Yemeni government-in-exile in March 2015. Years of unsuccessful fighting have pushed the Arab world’s poorest nation to the brink of starvation. A truce that began around the Muslim holy month of Ramadan appears to be still in effect so far.

Despite a United Nations Security Council-imposed arms embargo on Yemen, Iran has long transferred rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, missiles and other weapons to the Houthis. Although Iran denies arming the Houthis, independent experts, Western countries and UN experts have traced components back to Iran.

Asked whether further seizures could increase tensions with Iran, Hawkins listed the weapons and drugs the Navy hoped to intercept under the program.

“That’s what we’re looking for,” the commander said. “It is not in the interests of regional stability and security.”

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. The US Navy and Iran continue to have tense clashes in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes.

The awards program marks the latest initiative from 5th Fleet Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, who also launched a drone task force last year amid tensions with Iran.

Cooper’s other effort, the Red Sea Task Force, has drawn criticism from 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 Navy’s new program.

However, Ali al-Qahom, a Houthi official, tweeted last week that the rebels were monitoring increased US activity in Red Sea and Persian Gulf waters.

“Because of this, the options for defense and confrontation are open,” he said. “Them and their diabolical schemes have no place” in the region.

Associated Press writer Ahmed Al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.

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