More on the Iran-Somalia-Gaza Weapons Route

The more one looks into it, the more Elliott Abrams’ rendition of how Iran allegedly smuggles weapons to Hamas in Gaza via Somalia and Eritrea just gets weirder and weirder. Remember: he was Bush’s top Middle East adviser from December, 2002, until January 20 and, as such, had access to the most sensitive information available to the U.S. intelligence community. Yet he seems to be lending himself to an extraordinarily crude Israeli disinformation campaign in which Somalia, which is some 1500 miles from Gaza, is depicted as a key trans-shipment point for the alleged supply of weapons from Iran to Hamas.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has now posted the Abrams transcript, including the relevant passage on the alleged Iranian-Gaza smuggling routes. Among other things, he says that “the bulk” of Iranian-origin weapons for Hamas travel the Gulf of Aden route to Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea or “places like that” before moving by land through Sudan and Egypt to the Sinai. By “the bulk,” I assume he means most. Yet it seems that the only sources who have spoken of such a land route are unidentified Israeli officials. Last week, I spoke with three experts on Somalia and piracy there, and all three said they had never heard of such a route and considered it fanciful, to say the least.

Here is the relevant passage in the interview:

GWERTZMAN: How — if I could just intersperse a question — how did the Iranian arms get to Gaza in the first place?

ABRAMS: Well, if you ask the Egyptians they will tell you that some of it comes by sea and that the Israelis need to do a better job at guarding the coastline.

I didn’t find any Israeli officials who accepted that view. They believe that these things actually do come in the tunnels. And the tunnels have, you know, one should not think of, sort of, tiny, dirty hole in the ground. These tunnels are industrial strength. Many of them have electricity and lights and there is a tunnel infrastructure in Gaza. There are tunnel courts where disputes are resolved. There are permits for tunnels. So this is really rather well regulated by Hamas.

GWERTZMAN: I mean, I’ve heard that these weapons go to Sudan and up and just up the Nile?

ABRAMS: Well, it appears that they come by sea, most of them, by sea from Iran and go around Gulf of Aiden [sic] and, right, and up ultimately they don’t, we don’t think they go through the canal, most of them by ship and out into the Mediterranean and then into Gaza. Rather, it seems that they hit land in places like Yemen or Somalia or, I guess, Eritrea to some extent, places like that, you could look at the map. And then cross over into Sinai and are taken across Sinai and then sneaked into Gaza. I don’t think this is, you know, accounts for 100% of the shipments but that seems to be the bulk of them.

Now, you will remember that at the end of the Gaza War there were pledges by the United States and a number of European countries that we would try to help interdict the seaborne part of this. And the Egyptians were supposed to try the Sinai part, before you get into the area right on the border. I don’t know whether there has actually been in the last month or so any significant increase in the maritime policing.

GWERTZMAN: Right. Next question.

Before Abrams spoke about it on the record, by far the best dissection of the story on which Abrams seems to have based his assertions about the land route appeared Feb 1 on the Moon of Alabama website which I strongly urge you to visit. Entitled “The ‘Iranian’ Weapon Ships,” it does a masterful job – far better and more detailed than I can do here — of tracing the convoluted story of the Cypriot-flagged Russian container ship Monchegorsk, which was boarded and searched by the U.S. Navy January 19 near the entrance to the Red Sea after passing through the Gulf of Aden. It was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, who really drew attention to the incident when, asked about it by an Israeli reporter at the Foreign Press Center here January 27, Mullen suggested that unidentified weapons carried aboard the vessel were bound for Syria but were “going to end up in Gaza.” He provided no theory, however, on how they might get from Syria to Gaza.

In tracing the origin of Abrams’ theory, I was told the earliest public mention of the Somalia/Eritrea routes was from DEBKA File, an Israeli news and analysis website reportedly closely tied to Israel’s intelligence community, in an item entitled “Iran Recruits Somali Pirates to Replenish Hamas Arms Stocks” posted January 18, 2009 [the day before the Monchegorsk was stopped]. I have posted the DEBKA story below in Appendix A below. (The DEBKA account also cited an alleged Balkan-Suez route, a route that Abrams omitted entirely from his explanation about the weapons route.)

That story was then picked up – without any credit to DEBKA — by the Sunday Times [a Murdoch paper] January 25, which you can find in Appendix B below. Citing “Israeli defense forces,” this story also asserted that, once the weapons ships traverse the Gulf of Aden and enter the Red Sea, “the cargo is taken on one of two routes. The first is to dock in Somalia and Sudan, where professional smugglers carry the cargo overland to Sinai.” The Times account failed to mention Eritrea at all but identifies the second route as passing through the Suez Canal and into Egypt’s territorial waters in the Mediterranean from whence they are transferred in sealed containers by “Iranian frogmen” and loaded onto Gazan fishing boats.

A third account about the Monchegorsk and the alleged Somalia route appeared on a blog published by Aviation Week January 30. Posted by a retired Israeli military officer, it asserted the following:

“’This is an example of how the sanctions on Iran are not effective,’” unidentified Israeli defense officials warned on Thursday.

“Iran is making great efforts to get new weaponry to Hamas in Gaza. “[sic] There are two main smuggling routes, some of the weaponry comes by ground from Somalia, Sudan and then into Egypt and through a tunnel into Gaza, while some comes by boat. The boats sometimes unload the shipments in the Sinai’s El Arish port, where it is smuggled into Gaza by land. Other times, the shipments are dropped overboard in waterproof containers and are picked up by Gazan fishermen or divers.”

The Monchegorsk subsequently docked in Limassol where it was allegedly inspected. Accounts differ as to what was found, but if anyone knows whether it has since moved on, please let me know.

In any event, it appears that the only people, aside from Abrams, who talk seriously of a land route via Somalia or elsewhere in the Horn of Africa to Gaza are unidentified Israeli sources. Is this even remotely credible? Does the Council on Foreign Relations think it so?

Appendix A – The DEBKA Account, January 18, 2009

Iran recruits Somali pirates to replenish Hamas arms stocks
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report
January 18, 2009, 5:53 PM (GMT+02:00)
Somali pirates help fellow Islamists
DEBKAfile’s military sources reveal a secret war waged by the US, Israel and Egypt to shut down Iran’s serpentine maritime routes through the Red Sea and Suez for refilling Hamas’ depleted arsenal by sea. After Hamas lost an estimated 60 percent of its weapons stocks to Israeli bombardments, Iran enlisted Somali pirates to step up the flow of smuggled hardware to Gaza. Tehran is rearming the Palestinian Islamists at top speed to persuade them to carry on the war against Israel and not surrender to Egypt’s ceasefire terms.
According to our military sources, the Iranian sealift is conducted along three routes:
1. The Iranian segment: Iranian freighters from the Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas sail to the Gulf of Suez. Some are intercepted by the American warships patrolling the sea against Somali pirates. US Marines board the ships and confiscate any weapons cargoes in their holds. But not all are caught; some of the Iranian freighters, especially the small vessels, escape the anti-piracy net.
Western intelligence informants report that in the past week, Iranian agents hired Somali pirates to rendezvous with their freighters before they entered the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, offload the weapons and carry them in small Somali craft to Eritrea. The pirates have strong ties with Eritrea.
The Iranian freighters sail straight back to Bandar Abbas to reload.
2. The Eritrean route: Some of the Iranian arms freighters put into the Eritrean port of Assab to unload the cargoes, which are then consigned to Sudan, where the authorities turn a blind eye, for transit to southern Egypt. At that point, they are picked up by Egyptian smuggling gangs and carried by boat to Sinai shores.
3. The European route: The Balkan ports at Montenegro and Croatia are the starting points for freighters laden with containers carrying weapons for Hamas – mostly mortars and anti-air and anti-tank missiles. They head for the Suez Canal where they drop their cargoes overboard for waiting pirates’ boats to collect.
DEBKAfile’s military sources reveal that Iran’s seaborne arms corridor to Hamas depends heavily on three Sinai Bedouin tribes: The Tarabin, which controls areas adjoining the Israeli and Gazan borders; the Tiyaha, which rule central Sinai; and the Azazmeh, whose wide spread covers northern Sinai, the Israeli Negev, Jordan and Syria. They form a human chain to relay the Iranian shipments, including heavy Grad rockets, into the Gaza Strip.

Appendix B: The Sunday Times Account, January 25, 2009

From The Sunday Times
January 25, 2009
US navy seeks arms bound for Hamas

Uzi Mahnaimi in Tel Aviv
AN American naval taskforce in the Gulf of Aden has been ordered to hunt for suspicious Iranian arms ships heading for the Red Sea as Tehran seeks to re-equip Hamas, its Islamist ally in Gaza.
According to US diplomatic sources, Combined Task Force 151, which is countering pirates in the Gulf of Aden, has been instructed to track Iranian arms shipments.
Last week the USS San Antonio, an amphibious transport dockship that serves as the command and control centre for the taskforce, boarded the former Russian cargo vessel Monchegorsk, which is registered in Limassol and flying a Cypriot flag.
The ship docked at an Egyptian Red Sea port for a detailed search during which, according to unconfirmed reports, weapons were found.
The naval clampdown follows growing disillusion in Israel at the outcome of the 22-day war in Gaza. Although the incursion enjoyed overwhelming public backing, with 91% support at the time, opinion polls suggest that only half the electorate now believe that the military goals were achieved.
With a general election due on February 10, conservative Israeli politicians have been scathing at the government’s failure to eliminate the threat from Hamas, the militant faction that seized control of Gaza in June 2007 and remains a proxy for Iran.
A document circulated to ministers by Israeli military intelligence last week suggested that despite the bombardment, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is well advanced with a huge programme of arms resupply for Gaza.
According to the document, the Iranians are attempting to smuggle munitions from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, where the arms shipments are loaded onto commercial vessels.
In recent weeks at least two Iranian destroyers have been sent to the Gulf of Aden on the pretext of fighting piracy. The Israelis suspect that the destroyers, which are currently in port in Aseb in Eritrea, may have had some role in the shipments.
In January 2002, Israeli naval commandos stormed the Iranian cargo ship Karine A in the Red Sea. They found 50 tons of arms, long-range rockets and explosives being shipped to Yasser Arafat, then the Palestinian leader. Israeli defence sources believe the same route and methods are being used again.
According to the sources, once in the Red Sea the cargo is taken on one of two routes. The first is to dock in Somalia and Sudan, where professional smugglers carry the cargo overland to Sinai. In Sinai, Bedouin specialists smuggle the shipment into Gaza through the notorious border tunnels.
Despite intensive Israeli bombing, some tunnels remain open. Palestinian sources in Rafah, the Gaza Strip’s southern town, estimate that 100 tunnels are still in action, about 20% of the pre-war total.
A second arms smuggling route into Gaza has also been used by Tehran, according to well briefed sources. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has sent shipments through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean to anchor off the Gaza coast, inside Egyptian territorial waters, where the Israeli navy is barred.
After dark, Iranian frogmen transfer weapons in sealed containers to Palestinian fishing boats. This can prove dangerous as the Israeli navy may open fire without warning, but according to the sources it has worked well in the past.
The intelligence report suggested that Iran plans to ship Fajr rockets with a 50-mile range to Gaza. This would bring Tel Aviv, its international airport and the Dimona nuclear reactor within reach for the first time.

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Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Thanks for the plug Jim.

    I had a short exchange with an Aviation Week editor. He seemed to be quite uncomfortable with the postings of that Israeli colonel at the Ares blog. I have not seen any further postings by that colonel since then.

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