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United States Charges Four Mariners from Arabian Sea Vessel Transporting Suspected Iranian-Made Advanced Conventional Weapons

Four Foreign Nationals Aboard Vessel Charged by Criminal Complaint in Eastern District of Virginia, 10 Others Detained as Material Witnesses
A criminal complaint was unsealed today charging four foreign nationals after U.S. naval forces interdicted a vessel in the Arabian Sea that was transporting suspected Iranian-made advanced conventional weaponry.

Two Navy SEALs lost their lives during the interdiction.

“The Justice Department extends our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the two Navy SEALs who lost their lives on January 11th while conducting an operation in the Arabian Sea,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “The charges resulting from that interdiction make clear that the Justice Department 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.”

“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,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. “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.”

“The FBI will aggressively investigate and disrupt the Iranian Government’s attempts to provide Houthi rebels with missile components that are intended for use against U.S. military ships, merchant vessels, and Israel,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “The defendants in this case allegedly transported suspected Iranian-made missile components for the type of weaponry used by the Houthi rebels in recent attacks. The FBI is committed to using its global partnerships to stop the illegal flow of weaponry that endangers U.S. national security.”

“As charged, Mr. Pahlawan attempted to smuggle advanced missile components, including a warhead, to Houthi rebels for use against cargo ships and U.S. vessels sailing across the Horn of Africa,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “The Justice Department, together with U.S. agency partners, is working tirelessly to deny malign actors the means to threaten international shipping and imperil the lives of our men and women in uniform.”

“The complaint alleges that the defendants were transporting weapons consistent with those used by Houthi rebel forces and then lied to the U.S. Coast Guard during the boarding of the vessel,” said U.S. Attorney Jessica D. Aber for the Eastern District of Virginia. “I want to thank the career prosecutors and our law enforcement partners for ensuring that the defendants now will face justice in an American court.”

“Today’s complaint sends a message that acting as a proxy for the IRGC in an effort to bring harm to U.S. persons overseas will not be tolerated by the U.S. Government,” said Assistant Director in Charge David Sundberg of the FBI Washington Field Office. “Transporting explosive materials intended to be used to threaten and cause harm is yet another example of the IRGC’s disruptive and hostile actions. The FBI and our U.S. Government partners will continue to disrupt efforts by hostile foreign governments seeking to intimidate and cause harm through violence.”

According to court records, on the night of Jan. 11, U.S. Central Command Navy forces operating from the USS LEWIS B. PULLER, including Navy SEALs and members of the U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Security Response Team East, boarded an unflagged dhow, a small vessel, in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Somalia. The U.S. boarding team encountered 14 individual mariners on the vessel.

During a search of the dhow, the U.S. boarding team allegedly located and seized what is believed to be Iranian-made advanced conventional weaponry. According to court records, preliminary analysis of the advanced conventional weaponry indicates that it includes critical components for medium range ballistic missiles (MRBM) and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), to include a warhead and propulsion and guidance components. The type of weaponry found aboard the dhow is allegedly consistent with the weaponry used by the Houthi rebel forces in recent attacks on merchant ships and U.S. military ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

According to court records, the Navy brought the fourteen mariners aboard the USS LEWIS B. PULLER after determining the dhow was unsafe and unseaworthy. On Feb. 11, the United States obtained arrest warrants for four of the mariners who were aboard the dhow — specifically, defendants Muhammad Pahlawan, Mohammad Mazhar, Ghufran Ullah, and Izhar Muhammad

. Pakistani identification cards allegedly were found on the dhow for each of the four defendants. The United States also obtained ten material witness warrants for the remaining individuals aboard the vessel.

The defendants and material witnesses were transferred from the USS LEWIS B. PULLER to the Eastern District of Virginia. The four defendants and eight of the 10 material witnesses made their initial appearances before a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Richmond today.

Defendant Muhammad Pahlawan is charged with: (1) intentionally and unlawfully transporting on board the dhow a warhead, knowing the warhead would be used by the Houthi rebel forces against commercial and naval vessels in the Red Sea and surrounding waters; and (2) providing materially false information to U.S. Coast Guard officers during the boarding of the dhow regarding the vessel’s crew and cargo. Co-defendants Mohammad Mazhar, Ghufran Ullah, and Izhar Muhammad were also charged with providing materially false information to U.S. Coast Guard officers during the boarding of the dhow regarding the vessel’s crew and/or cargo.

Pahlawan faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison if convicted of unlawfully transporting a warhead, and all four defendants face a maximum penalty of five years in prison if convicted of the false statements offense. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, Assistant Attorney General Matt Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, Assistant Director in Charge David Sundberg of the FBI Washington Field Office, and U.S. Attorney Jessica D. Aber for the Eastern District of Virginia made the announcement.

The FBI Washington Field Office and Naval Criminal Investigative Service are investigating the case, with significant assistance provided by the Department of Defense, U.S. Central Command, U.S. Navy, Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs, Department of State, and Department of Homeland Security, including the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Troy A. Edwards Jr., John T. Gibbs, and Gavin R. Tisdale for the Eastern District of Virginia and Trial Attorney Lesley Woods of the National Security Division’s Counterterrorism Section are prosecuting the case

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