Four mariners of intercepted ship charged with smuggling weapons from Iran to Houthi militants

U.S. Navy SEALs conducted a night-time seizure on Jan. 11, of a dhow illegally transporting advanced lethal aid from Iran to resupply Houthi forces in Yemen. On Thursday, federal prosecutors charged four members of its crew. File Photo via U.S. Central Command/UPI
U.S. Navy SEALs conducted a night-time seizure on Jan. 11, of a dhow illegally transporting advanced lethal aid from Iran to resupply Houthi forces in Yemen. On Thursday, federal prosecutors charged four members of its crew. File Photo via U.S. Central Command/UPI

Feb. 22 (UPI) -- Four mariners of a vessel intercepted last month by the U.S. Navy in a mission that resulted in the deaths of two Navy SEALs have been charged with transporting suspected Iranian-made weaponry that had a final destination of Tehran's proxy militia - the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The criminal complaint was unsealed Thursday when the four defendants and eight of 10 witnesses made their initial court appearance before a U.S. magistrate judge in Richmond, Va.

The charges come as Houthi militants have been attacking commercial vessels as well as British and U.S. Navy vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden amid Israel's war against Hamas, another Iran proxy militia, in Yemen.

The United States has been responding to the Houthi attacks with both large - and small-scale strikes that the Biden administration says aim to degrade the rebels' ability to fire on ships. It has also sought to stop shipments of weaponry going from Iran to Yemen.

On the night of Jan. 11, U.S. Central Command Navy forces, with Navy SEALs, intercepted and boarded the dhow near the coast of Somalia in the Arabian Sea, discovering suspected Iranian-made advanced weaponry, including a warhead and components for medium-range ballistic and anit-ship cruise missiles.

Seized items on the ship intercepted Jan. 11 include propulsion, guidance and warheads for Houthi medium-range ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles, as well as air defense-associated components. Two U.S. Navy SEALs previously reported as lost at sea were directly involved in this operation. File Photo via U.S. Central Command/UPI
Seized items on the ship intercepted Jan. 11 include propulsion, guidance and warheads for Houthi medium-range ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles, as well as air defense-associated components. Two U.S. Navy SEALs previously reported as lost at sea were directly involved in this operation. File Photo via U.S. Central Command/UPI

The complaint states the ship had left Konarak, Iran, six days prior and was headed to Somalia where it is common for smugglers to conduct a ship-to-ship transfer of weapons, with the second vessel taking the illegal goods to Houthis in Yemen.

In the process of boarding, a Navy SEAL fell into the water with a second SEAL, according to protocol, following to perform a rescue attempt. They were declared deceased on Jan. 22.

Two U.S. Navy SEALs died in the operation that resulted in the seizure of a ship on Jan. 11 that was transporting weaponry from Iran to Houthi militants in Yemen. File Photo via U.S. Central Command/UPI
Two U.S. Navy SEALs died in the operation that resulted in the seizure of a ship on Jan. 11 that was transporting weaponry from Iran to Houthi militants in Yemen. File Photo via U.S. Central Command/UPI

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on Thursday extended the Justice Department's condolences to their families and loved ones in a statement, while stating the charges make clear his office "will use every legal authority to hold accountable those who facilitate the flow of weapons from Iran to Houthi rebel forces, Hamas, and other groups that endanger the security of the United States and our allies."

There were 14 crew onboard the dhow when intercepted, and the criminal complaint charges four of them -- Muhammad Pahlawan, Mohammad Mazhar, Ghufran Ullah, and Izhar Muhammad, all of whom had Pakistani indication cards when detained.

The criminal complaint states Pahlawan functioned as the ship's captain and possessed a satellite phone that he told FBI agents was given to by the dhow's Iranian owner, who is a person the U.S. government knows is affiliated with a designated foreign terrorist organization involved in smuggling and with Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Gaurd Corps.

Federal prosecutors accuse Pahlawan of having lied to them about his position on the boat, as he claimed to have been an engineer and that the actual captain had gotten off the boat before the NAVY boarded.

Other crew informed interviews that Pahlawan was, in fact, the captain and that he "became very agitated when the U.S. Navy boarded the dhow, and at least one crewmember said that he shouted for the crew to burn the boat before the Navy could board it."

Pahlawan, along Mazhar and with Muhammad, also stated that he was not aware of any cargo on the dhow, while others said they were a fishing boat.

The criminal complaint states that based on the location of the weaponry, its size and the manner it was packaged, Pahlawan "was aware that he was possessing and transporting the military equipment located on board, including the warhead.

"Crewmember statements further support that Pahlawan was aware that Pahlawan could be in jeopardy with the United States Navy for what they would find on the dhow if they boarded and searched it and that Pahlawan wanted to flee the Navy or destroy the dhow, rather than get caught with the cargo," it states.

Pahlawan has been charged with transporting on board the dhow a warhead he knew would be used by Houthi rebels and providing false information to U.S. Coast Guard officers. Mazhar, Ullah and Muhammad were charged with providing false information to U.S. Coast Guard officers.

If convicted, Pahlawan faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison for the weapons transportation charge while all four face up to five years' imprisonment on the charge of lying.

"The flow of missiles and other advanced weaponry from Iran to Houthi rebel forces in Yemen threatens the people and interests of America and our partners in the region," Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said.

"Two Navy SEALs tragically lost their lives in the operation that thwarted the defendants charged today from allegedly smuggling Iranian-made weapons that the Houthis could have used to target American forces and threaten freedom of navigation and a vital artery for commerce. Alongside our partners around the world, the Justice Department will continue to deploy every available tool to combat this grave threat."

Earlier this month, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter intercepted a shipment of weapons that Iran was sending to the Houthi militia. On board were more than 200 packages containing lethal weapons and military equipment were found, CENTCOM said.

On Tuesday, Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters that the U.S. military has been able to disrupt "some delivery of capabilities" to the Houthis, who have vowed to continue their attacks in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

"So we have been able to degrade the Houthis' capabilities. I can't say that we've been able to stop every single shipment that has been able to get to them by most likely Iran, but we have been able to considerably degrade their capabilities," she said.