DOJ Charges 4 Foreign Nationals With Smuggling Iranian Weapons to Yemen’s Houthis

All four defendants face a maximum penalty of five years in prison if convicted of the false statements charges.
DOJ Charges 4 Foreign Nationals With Smuggling Iranian Weapons to Yemen’s Houthis
What is described as an Iranian-made warhead bound for Yemen's Houthi, seized off a vessel in the Arabian Sea, is shown in this image released by DOJ in an FBI affidavit filed in U.S. District Court, Alexandria, Va. (U.S. Department of Justice via AP)
Ryan Morgan

The U.S. Department of Justice has charged four foreign nationals with smuggling Iranian-made advanced conventional weaponry to the Houthi terrorist group in Yemen last month.

U.S. Navy SEALs operating from USS Lewis B Puller (ESB 3) boarded a small vessel during a nighttime mission in the Arabian Sea on Jan. 11, seizing control of the vessel and suspected Iranian-made ballistic missile and cruise missile components on board. The elite U.S. special operators also detained 14 individuals on board the dhow, including defendants Muhammad Pahlawan, Mohammad Mazhar, Ghufran Ullah, and Izhar Muhammad.
On Thursday, the DOJ unsealed its Feb. 11 criminal complaint against the four defendants. The DOJ described the four men as foreign nationals, and charging documents indicated U.S. officials found Pakistani identification cards for each of the defendants aboard the seized vessel.

Mr. Pahlawan is charged with transporting an explosive device aboard the vessel, with the knowledge that the weapon would be used by the Houthis to target other maritime traffic in the region. Mr. Pahlawan and the other three defendants are also charged with providing materially false statements for claiming they were unaware of the weapon components they were transporting.

All four defendants face a maximum penalty of five years in prison if convicted of the false statements charges. Mr. Pahlawan faces up to 20 more years in prison if convicted of transporting the explosive device.

Two Navy SEALs went overboard during the Jan. 11 nighttime boarding operation and were pronounced deceased after a multi-day search.

None of the four defendants have been charged in connection with the death of these two Navy SEALs, who have since been identified as Navy Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Christopher Chambers, 37, and Navy Special Warfare Operator 2nd Class Nathan Gage Ingram, 27.

It’s unclear if any of the 10 other mariners detained during the Jan. 11 will be charged.

Defendants Claim They Didn’t Know They Were Transporting Weapons

According to the complaint, the dhow the defendants were sailing departed from Iran’s Chahbahar Bay on or around Jan. 5.

All 14 crewmembers detained during the Jan. 11 boarding action denied knowing that they had weapon components on their vessel. Mr. Pahalawan and other crewmembers they were out on a fishing voyage, though some of the crewmembers later claimed they were drug smugglers.

When interviewed by investigators, Mr. Pahlawan said the Iranian Navy inspected the vessel about an hour before its departure. He also said the vessel’s owner and captain were also present during the inspection, but said the captain did not depart with the vessel and instead gave him a heading. He said the vessel’s owner also provided him with a satellite phone.

FBI investigators inspected the satellite phone and the complaint alleges they were subsequently able to identify the ship’s owner as an individual connected to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States.

Prosecutors allege Mr. Pahlawan was the true captain of the vessel, and that he, Mr. Ullah, and Mr. Mazhar lied about his role aboard the vessel to obfuscate investigators. The complaint states those three defendants gave differing accounts about the vessel’s captain, with Mr. Mazhar claiming the “real” captain boarded another vessel partway through their voyage, while Mr. Ullah claimed the captain hadn’t been aboard the vessel when it departed.

Investigators say other crewmembers identified Mr. Pahlawan as the captain and Mr. Ullah changed his story, eventually identifying Mr. Pahlawan as the captain.

Mr. Ullah is also alleged to have claimed the vessel departed from Pakistan but later admitted the vessel departed from Iran.

After inspecting his phone records, investigators say Mr. Muhammad received a voicemail message on the day the vessel left port, asking if “the stuff was loaded” to which Mr. Muhammad replied, “Yes, and we’re leaving Chah Bahar.” Mr. Muhammad said he was communicating to someone he described as a secretary about fish he and a friend had caught the day earlier.

NTD News reached out to attorneys representing Mr. Pahlawan for comment about the charges but did not receive a response by press time. No attorneys are listed at this time for the other three defendants.

The four defendants and eight out of 10 other material witnesses involved in the case made their initial appearances before a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Richmond today. Court records indicate Mr. Pahlawan is being held in pretrial detention and will receive a preliminary and detention hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 27.

Houthi Attacks Continue

The charges against Mr. Pahlawan come as the Houthis have conducted dozens of attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in recent months.

The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, are a Zaydi Shiite Islamic group that has intermittently fought with Yemen’s internationally recognized government since 2004. While the Yemeni conflict has waned in recent months with moves toward a ceasefire in the country, the Houthis have turned their attention to the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Hamas terrorist group, launching missile and drone attacks intended to hinder the Israeli side.

The U.S. government has intermittently characterized the Houthis as a terrorist organization. The Yemeni faction was listed as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) and as a specially designated global terrorist entity (SDGT) in the final days of President Donald Trump’s presidency in January 2021. President Joe Biden’s administration revoked the terrorism labels in February 2021 but reapplied the SDGT designation against the group amid the recent attacks on commercial shipping in the region.

The U.S. government has long suspected the Iranian government is supplying and funding the Houthis. Iranian officials have cheered the series of recent Houthi attacks but have also denied arming the group or helping it plan its attacks.

A U.S. Coast Guard crew seized another shipment of weapons components believed to be going from Iran to Yemen’s Houthis on Jan. 28. It remains to be seen if the DOJ will charge any individuals who may have been detained in this more recent maritime interdiction.

The Houthis have continued to claim responsibility for attacks on merchant vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden since these two maritime raids. The Houthis crippled a civilian vessel this week, forcing its crew to abandon the ship. The Houthis also appeared to shot down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone that had been operating off the coast of Yemen on Monday.