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Four charged in connection with trying to smuggle Iranian missile components to Houthis

By Hannah Rabinowitz and Haley Britzky, CNN

(CNN) — Four mariners who were caught by Navy sailors while attempting to deliver Iranian-made missile components to the Houthis are now facing federal charges, according to a new indictment unsealed Thursday.

In a nighttime operation last month, the US Navy seized ballistic missile and cruise missile components from a vessel off the coast of Somalia, according to US Central Command. The supplies were headed towards Yemen, CENTCOM said, where the Houthis, an Iran-backed militant group, have been launching regular attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

Two Navy SEALs went missing during the boarding operation and were later declared dead.

It is rare for individuals aboard a ship smuggling goods to face criminal charges in the United States for their role in an international illegal transport operation. It is unclear whether any similar cases have been brought in the United States in recent years.

There was one other successful interdiction of weapons heading to Yemen in recent weeks, when a US Coast Guard cutter deployed in the CENTCOM area of operations seized more than 200 packages of medium-range ballistic missile components, explosives, communication and network equipment, unmanned underwater and surface drone components and more. CENTCOM said the shipment of lethal aid, which was seized on January 28 in the Arabian Sea, originated from Iran.

Deputy Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters this month that while the interdictions — and numerous US strikes inside Yemen — have disrupted “some delivery of capabilities to the Houthis … I can’t say that we’ve been able to stop every single shipment.”

Indeed, the attacks by the Houthis, which they claim are carried out in solidarity with the Palestinian people, have continued. On Thursday morning local time, US aircraft and a coalition warship shot down six Houthi one-way attack drones believed to be targeting them, according to CENTCOM. Hours later, the Houthis fired two anti-ship ballistic missiles into the Gulf of Aden that hit the M/V Islander — a Palau-flagged, UK-owned cargo ship — and caused one minor injury and damage to the ship, CENTCOM said.

The individuals aboard the ship

The Navy found 14 mariners aboard the dhow during their search last month and brought the crew members aboard their own ship, according to court documents. All the crew members denied smuggling weapons, prosecutors said, and claimed they were out fishing.

Among the men were Muhammad Pahlawan, Mohammad Mazhar, Ghufran Ullah, and Izhar Muhammad — the four defendants in this case. Each man is charged with providing materially false information to Coast Guard officers. Pahlawan is also charged with transporting a warhead onboard the dhow knowing it would be used by the Houthi rebel forces.

According to court documents, Pahlawan functioned as the boat’s captain and used a satellite telephone to stay connected with an individual associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps while aboard. Crewmembers alleged to investigators that Pahlawan was agitated and did not want to stop the boat for the Navy, and they said that Pahlawan instructed the crew to burn the boat before the Navy could board it.

Ullah, according to prosecutors, falsely stated that the dhow had come from Pakistan instead of its real origin in Iran. Mazhar is accused of lying about Pahlawan’s position as the dhow’s captain, telling the Coast Guard that the real “captain” had to leave to help another vessel.

Both Mazhar and Muhammad are accused of falsely stating that they weren’t aware of any weaponry onboard the dhow. The weapons were wrapped in unmarked packaging and concealed inside tubing or among buoys, court documents say.

On February 11, the US obtained arrest warrants for the four charged mariners, as well as ten material witness warrants for the remaining individuals aboard the vessel. All 14 are now in the United States, according to the Justice Department.

Pentagon says Houthis still have ‘large arsenal’ of weapons

The Pentagon said Thursday the Houthis still have a “large arsenal” of “sophisticated weapons” that they continue to get from Iran.

But the frequency of Houthi attacks in recent weeks allows the US to be proactive in strikes against their weapons, Singh said at a news briefing. She added that the Pentagon has not seen a tremendous amount of Houthi adaptation in response to US strikes, with the notable exception of the use of an underwater drone several days ago.

“When we see missiles on rails, when we see them about to launch an attack, we are able to take these proactive dynamic strikes,” said Singh. “We’ve been able to do it more regularly because they, frankly, have been conducting more attacks more regularly.”

The leader of the rebel group warned in a televised address Thursday that the Houthis will now use “submarine weapons” and escalate their operations in response to what he described as Israeli escalation in Gaza.

“The escalation in sea operations has started in quantity and quality,” Abdul-malik al-Houthi said. “Missiles, drones and military boats have been activated, and submarine weapons have been introduced into our operations at sea, which is worrying to the enemy.”

Al-Houthi reiterated the group’s commitment to safeguarding vessels carrying aid to Gaza, while warning other nations to not get involved in American “aggression” in the region.

“What is important for the rest of the countries is not to get involved with the Americans in the aggression against our country, so that their ships remain safe in their movement and transit in the Red and Arabian seas,” al-Houthi said.

CNN’s Oren Liebermann, Hamdi Alkhshali and Kaanita Iyer contributed to this report.

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