US intelligence assesses Houthis in talks to provide weapons to al-Shabaab in Somalia, officials say

US intelligence has learned of discussions between Houthis in Yemen to provide weapons to the Somali militant group al-Shabaab, in what three American officials described to CNN as a worrying development that threatens to further destabilize an already violent region.

Officials are now searching for evidence that Houthi weapons have been delivered to Somalia, and are trying to work out whether Iran, which provides some military and financial support to the Houthis, is involved in the agreement.

The US has been warning countries in the region about this possible cooperation in recent weeks, according to a senior administration official, and African countries have also begun to proactively bring it up with the US to raise their concerns and get more information.

“This is a pretty active area of conversation that we are having with countries on both sides of the Red Sea,” this person said. “And it is being viewed with a considerable seriousness.”

The intelligence raises the alarming possibility that a marriage of convenience could make things worse both in Somalia and in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, where the Houthis have launched regular attacks on commercial shipping and US military assets since the war in Gaza began.

A potential deal could offer a new stream of financing for the Houthis, at a time when US officials say there are signs that the group primary patron, Iran, has some concerns about the group attack strategy. “Being able to sell some weapons would bring them much needed income,” the senior administration official said.

For al-Shabaab, it could provide access to a new source of weapons — including potentially drones — that are far more sophisticated than their current arsenal and could offer the group the ability to strike US targets.

There has been some routine smuggling of both small arms and commercial material between different groups in Yemen and Somalia for years. But a weapons agreement between al-Shabaab and the Houthis would be something new, according to US officials.

“It would be the clearest sign that two organizations that are, ideologically, diametrically opposed to one another — that they prioritized something they have in common, which is hostility towards [the United States],” said Christopher Anzalone, a professor at the Marine Corps University Middle East Studies department. “It would be very significant because it shows there is a level of pragmatism in both organizations.”

Any form of military cooperation between the Houthis and al-Shabaab could also undermine an informal, and fragile, ceasefire between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia that has held since 2022, the senior administration official said. And it would “definitely” go against the spirit of a proposed UN roadmap for a more lasting peace, the official said.