US Intelligence Confirms: Yemen’s Houthis Negotiating Arms Deal with Somalia’s al-Shabaab, Reports Suggest

In an image captured December 2023, individuals trained by the Houthis flaunt their firearms and wave Palestinian flags while shouting slogans at an armed parade in Al-Sabeen Square, Sana’a, Yemen. Photo courtesy of Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images/File

U.S. intelligence has unearthed chatter among Houthis in Yemen about arming the Somali militant group al-Shabaab. Three American officials told CNN that this troubling development could exacerbate an already chaotic situation.

Authorities are now hunting for proof of Houthi weapons reaching Somalia and attempting to unravel whether Iran, which supports the Houthis to some extent militarily and financially, has a hand in this pact.

In recent weeks, the U.S. has cautioned regional nations about this potential alliance, according to a high-ranking administration official. African countries are proactively seeking information from the U.S. to express their worries and gain clarity.

“We’re deeply engaged in conversations with nations on both shores of the Red Sea,” said the source. “And it’s being taken very seriously.”

The two factions represent an unlikely coalition since they are split by sectarian lines and historically have had no relationship. The Houthis are Zaydi Shiites, while al-Shabaab vehemently opposes Shiism. Yet, they share a common adversary: the United States, and are separated only by the strategically important Gulf of Aden.

This intelligence flags a potential marriage of convenience that could worsen conditions in Somalia, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden, where Houthis have routinely attacked commercial vessels and U.S. military assets since the Gaza conflict reignited.

A possible deal could provide the Houthis with a new revenue stream at a moment when U.S. officials suggest that Iran has reservations about the Houthis’ assault strategies. “Selling weapons could bring them much-needed funds,” mentioned a senior official.

For al-Shabaab, the deal could mean access to advanced weaponry, potentially including drones more sophisticated than their existing arsenal—granting the group the capability to target U.S. interests.

Historically, there has been low-level smuggling of small arms and commercial goods between various factions in Yemen and Somalia. Still, a formal weapons agreement between the Houthis and al-Shabaab would be unprecedented, say U.S. officials.

“It would be a stark indicator that two ideologically opposed groups are prioritizing their shared animosity toward the U.S.,” remarked Christopher Anzalone, a professor at Marine Corps University’s Middle East Studies department. “It reveals a pragmatic streak in both organizations.”

Military collaboration between the Houthis and al-Shabaab could also jeopardize the fragile ceasefire between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia that has held since 2022, the senior official warned, adding that it would “definitely” undermine a proposed UN peace roadmap.

“We remain committed to supporting the Yemen peace roadmap,” the official stated, “but trafficking between the Houthis and al-Shabaab would severely complicate and undermine those efforts.”

As of now, officials are unsure what kind of armaments the Houthis might supply to al-Shabaab. The Somali group mostly utilizes rockets, mortars, and homemade IEDs in their fight against the Somali government — deadly yet limited in scale. The Houthis, on the other hand, possess weaponized drones, including underwater drones, and short-range ballistic missiles. A deal likely involving “bigger kit” than small arms seemed plausible, although the specifics remain unclear.

Regardless of what the Houthis provide, it’s improbable that al-Shabaab could directly target U.S. assets in the area. Even if equipped with smaller missiles used by Houthis against U.S. drones, al-Shabaab would likely need to launch them from northern Somalia, a region with increasing ISIS presence, often contested by al-Shabaab.

“They’d love to target U.S. assets directly,” said Anzalone. Al-Shabaab considers the Somali government a U.S. puppet. “But they’d find it tough due to intense fighting between Shabaab and ISIS in the north.”

Roughly 480 U.S. troops are stationed in Somalia, according to officials. The U.S. has kept up counterterrorism strikes against both al-Shabaab and ISIS throughout the Biden administration.

A central question for U.S. intelligence is Iran’s potential involvement in this arrangement. No direct evidence exists yet, but the U.S. continues to probe. It aligns with Iran’s broader strategy to expand its anti-Western efforts by arming proxy groups.

“We’re definitely keeping an eye on that,” stated the senior official.

Yet, the Houthis are one of the most independently-minded Iran-aligned groups, arguably under Tehran’s least control. Iran has been trying to manage its response to the Gaza war, balancing its actions to challenge the U.S. and Israel without triggering direct conflict.

Hence, some U.S. officials are doubtful of Iran’s involvement.

“Iran isn’t likely part of this,” said a military official. “The Houthis are likely acting autonomously.” —

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