An SH-60 Seahawk helicopter from the USS Monterey flies above a stateless dhow, a type of sailing vessel, in the Arabian Sea, May 6, 2021. The Navy said sailors found thousands of illicit weapons on board. (U.S. Navy File Photo)
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) - The U.S. Navy's Mideast-based 5th Fleet is starting to offer rewards for information that could help sailors intercept weapons, drugs and other illicit shipments across the region amid tensions over Iran's nuclear program and Tehran's arming of Yemen's Houthi rebels.
While avoiding directly mentioning Iran, the 5th Fleet's decision to offer cash and other goods for actionable intelligence in the Persian Gulf and other strategic waterways may increase pressure on the flow of weapons to the Houthis as a shaky cease-fire still holds in Yemen.
Already, the Houthis have threatened a new allied task force organized by the 5th Fleet in the Red Sea, though there's been no attack by the Iranian-backed forces on the Navy in the time since.
Meanwhile, the 5th Fleet says it and its partners seized $500 million in drugs alone in 2021 — more than the four prior years combined. The 5th Fleet also intercepted 9,000 weapons in the same period, three times the number seized in 2020.
"Any destabilizing activity has our attention," Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins, a 5th Fleet spokesman, told The Associated Press. "Definitely we have seen in the last year skyrocketing success in seizing both illegal narcotics and illicit weapons. This represents another step in our effort to enhance regional maritime security."
The 5th Fleet's new initiative launches on Tuesday through the Department of Defense Rewards Program, which saw troops offer cash and goods for tips on the battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere after al-Qaida launched the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Since ground fighting has largely halted across the region, the 5th Fleet decided to try to use the program as it patrols the waterways of the Middle East.
Hawkins said operators fluent in Arabic, English and Farsi would man a hotline, while the Navy also would take tips additionally online, in Dari and Pashto. Payouts can be as high as $100,000 or the equivalent in vehicles, boats or food for tips that also include information on planned attacks targeting Americans, Hawkins said.
It's unclear if the 5th Fleet's uptick in seizures represents a return to shipping after the coronavirus pandemic or an increase overall in the number of illicit shipments in the region. Traffickers typically use stateless dhows, traditional wooden sailing craft common in the Mideast, to transport drugs and weapons.
One destination for 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 U.S. weaponry and intelligence entered the war on the side of Yemen's exiled government in March 2015. Years of inconclusive fighting has pushed the Arab world's poorest nation to the brink of famine. A truce that began around the holy Muslim month of Ramadan appears for now to still be holding.
Despite a United Nations Security Council arms embargo on Yemen, Iran long has been transferring rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, missiles and other weaponry to the Houthis. Though Iran denies arming the Houthis, independent experts, Western nations and U.N. experts have traced components back to Iran.
Asked about whether new 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 after," the commander said. "That's not in the interest of regional stability and security."
Iran's mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. The U.S. Navy and Iran continue to have tense encounters in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all oil traded passes.
The rewards program marks the latest initiative under 5th Fleet Vice Adm. 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 new Navy program.
However, Ali al-Qahom, a Houthi official, tweeted last week that the rebels are monitoring increased U.S. activity in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf waters.
"Because of this, defense and confrontation options are open," he said. "They and their diabolical projects have no place" in the region.
Associated Press writer Ahmed Al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.