Authorities seized 3,000 rifles, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and antitank missiles from a fishing vessel in the Gulf of Oman on January 15, 2023. The Iranian weapons were destined for the Houthi militia in Yemen.
Eleven days earlier, officials intercepted 2,000 assorted Iranian weapons bound for Yemen on a fishing vessel in the same area, according to the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC) in Madagascar.
Without vessel information the center shared with local authorities, some of the weapons might have wound up in Somalia and sold to violent extremist groups such as al-Shabaab and the Islamic State in Somalia. Iran has used the country to funnel weapons to the Houthi militia since about 2016.
According to the RMIFC, weapons trafficking in the East and Southern Africa and Indian Ocean (ESA-IO) region is rising. The center combats the issue by sharing and exchanging maritime security information on vessels suspected of committing crimes.
The center helps identify suspicious vessels that could be connected to sea crimes such as drug smuggling, illegal migration and illegal fishing. Constant monitoring by the center’s watch room helps it warn maritime law enforcement agencies of threats in a timely manner.
The January arrests “not only highlight that the use of fishing vessels and dhows continue to aid the activities of criminals, but the active existence of known smuggling and trafficking routes is also contributing to the illegal trade,” Lt. Saïd Lavani, Comoros international liaison officer at the RMIFC, told ADF in an email. “The lack of detention of suspected criminals intercepted at sea is also allowing the networks and smuggling runs to thrive.”
The RMIFC shares information with its sister center, the Regional Centre for Operational Coordination (RCOC) in the Seychelles, and with any country that faces a maritime threat. If the country is not able to interdict, it can request help from the RCOC.
The frequent weapons seizures underline a “worrying threat in the region,” according to Lavani, who recommended that all countries in the region join the architecture of the Maritime Security Programme (MASE) so they can receive information from the regional centers. MASE is funded by the European Union and led in the ESA-IO region by the Indian Ocean Commission.
Comoros, Djibouti, France on behalf of Réunion island, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles are MASE members. Lavani said Tanzania is likely to join soon.
A report by the Institute for Security Studies revealed that the Iranian weapons smuggling network likely extends to groups linked to al-Shabaab in Ethiopia, Kenya and Mozambique. Iranian weapons also end up in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Tanzania.
Iran also has confirmed links with many drug-smuggling networks around the Horn of Africa, according to Abdul Salam Mohammed, head of the Abaad Studies & Research Center in Yemen.