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Iran Supplied Ansar Allah With A Massive Arsenal

January 2, 2022
Chinese-made Type 56-1 assault rifles seized in the Arabian Sea on December 21, 2021. Via CENTCOM.

Over the years the evidence of material support by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to Ansar Allah–the army commonly known as the Houthis–has grown overwhelming and undeniable. On December 21, 2021, the US Navy intercepted a dhow in the Arabian Sea and confiscated its merchandise; 1,400 assault rifles, whose appearance shows they are Chinese-made Type 56-1’s, and ammunition boxes sealed in large green and white plastic bags. CENTCOM acknowledged the seizure on December 22 and tagged Iran as the culprit behind the foiled smuggling operation in waters described as “a route historically used to traffic weapons unlawfully to the Houthis in Yemen.”

CENTCOM’s official news release added the US Navy captured and documented 8,700 small arms and other weaponry in the Arabian Sea and the Somali coast throughout the year. This joins an extensive public record corroborated by global institutions such as the United Nations (UN). A report by a panel of experts to the Security Council published on January 22, 2021, offers an extensive investigation of Ansar Allah’s sources for weapons. It found out there are numerous instances where corruption allowed the regime to purchase arms in government stockpiles (this is the former unity government deposed in 2015) but also a succession of deliveries by ships that originate in the Persian Gulf. The IRGC, after all, are known to possess a merchant fleet of dhows that it uses for various missions.

What the panel of experts tabulated based on open sources revealed multiple incidents from 2018 until 2020 where multinational navies caught smugglers bringing arms to Yemen. They captured a total of 6,822 assault rifles along with 192 Dehlavieh missiles and a few unique “358” missiles that were ascertained to be for eliminating aircraft. Other types of weapons were PKM light machine guns, AM-50 Sayyad sniper rifles, and parts that matched Iranian anti-ship missiles. If this still looks like a modest stockpile a broader perspective shows that smuggling arms to Ansar Allah is taking place on an immense scale and at a larger volume than competing efforts at supplying pro-Emirati or pro-Saudi militias in Yemen.

An anti-material rifle assembled by Ansar Allah’s military industry. Via Yemen media.

Before Ansar Allah stormed the capital Sana’a in 2014 there was already some evidence they were receiving arms shipments over land and through a precarious maritime route. When Saudi Arabia and its chosen allies launched a war to unseat them in 2015 the deliveries grew exponentially. Although the US and other Western countries had no direct involvement in Yemen their navies spent years policing the waters used to supply Ansar Allah with war material. In the first half of 2016 CENTCOM tallied three seizures of illicit cargoes by the Australian, French, and US navies. The captured weaponry reached 5,500 assault rifles, 300 anti-tank rocket launchers (Iranian copies of the RPG-7), and assorted light machine guns and sniper rifles.

Judging by the anti-tank missiles taken from the dhows that transport weapons to Ansar Allah they now possess Iranian-made Dehlavieh and Toophan launchers and older Soviet vintage Fagot and Konkurs ATGMs. The latter missiles were found in a large haul from May 2021 when the US Navy counted 3,000 Type 56-1 rifles and hundreds of SVD sniper rifles. Chinese-made Type 69 rocket launchers and Iranian-made AM-50 Sayyad sniper rifles were in abundance too. The reason why so many Chinese-made small arms are delivered to Ansar Allah isn’t because of open support from Beijing. Rather, the IRGC have ascertained their proxies in Yemen are familiar with these small arms and they are cheap to purchase in bulk and without prior scrutiny through a false business venture.

When combining the figures reported by CENTCOM and the UN Security Council what emerges is smugglers, at least those who were caught between 2016 and 2021, have transported enough weapons for an army 20,000-strong. So far, Western and allied navies have a stockpile of 16,722 assault rifles meant for Ansar Allah’s fighters and enough anti-tank weapons for sustaining a war effort over years. One should keep in mind the dhows and other ships that have been seized on their way to Yemen are but a fraction of the traffic directed by the IRGC as material support for its ally. On their own, Ansar Allah have made serious progress in a localized and sanctions proof military-industrial base. In March 2021, just weeks after the panel of experts’ reports on them, an indoor exhibition in Sana’a displayed rocket launchers, missiles, mortars, and sniper rifles they assembled in clandestine factories. The impoverished Ansar Allah have a flourishing production line of drones as well that have earned a combat record.

As the war to decide Yemen’s future grinds on the IRGC have proved, after its success in Iraq and Syria, that they can build up foreign armies even in the most difficult circumstances. With an arsenal whose size is slowly being revealed Ansar Allah will probably become their strongest creation yet.

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