Yemen and GOA security update

2nd May 2017:
Norwegian Hull Club is paying attention to the activity in Yemen and in the Gulf of Aden. Following up on our Yemen security update from February this year, we have asked our trusted intelligence provider Risk Intelligence (www.riskintelligence.eu) for another security update.

The below provides a security update for the Red Sea area offshore Yemen and the Gulf of Aden. The primary focus for the Red Sea is on a possible escalation in the maritime dimension of the Yemen conflict, including the threat from sea mines. In the Gulf of Aden, the primary focus is on a recent increase in pirate attacks, including boardings and hijackings of merchant vessels and dhows trading within the region.

Maritime dimension of the Yemen conflict

The civil war in Yemen began almost two years ago and has not seen a definitive resolution. The forces allied with former president Hadi, supported by the Saudi-led coalition, nominally control extensive areas of the country, particularly in the south (including Aden). However, the Houthi militants and their allies also have extensive territorial control, including the large port of Hudaydah (Hodeida) and the capital Sana’a. Other militant groups operate in the country, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and smaller groups linked to the Islamic State (IS).

The conflict is primarily land-based. The maritime dimension is dominated by the coalition blockade of Yemeni ports, particularly Hudaydah, and control of maritime areas in the Red Sea. There is extensive local small boat traffic, including many vessels used to smuggle various types of cargoes. Coastguard forces are also in operation. Coalition-supported forces have made some gains in recent months, taking control of the Red Sea port of Mocha (Mokha), which now prevents some Houthi operations in the Bab el Mandeb, as well as areas around Midi in the far north. Coalition forces have also targeted smuggling craft in the Red Sea, including a likely air strike against the small Iranian-flagged cargo vessel JOUYA 8 in December 2016.

Evolution of Houthi maritime operations

Houthi forces have limited maritime capabilities. They do, however, have access to relatively sophisticated military hardware from the Yemeni army and the forces contain breakaway military units with expertise in using such hardware. This has been highlighted by some of the missile attacks (at sea and on land) undertaken by the Houthi forces, even if they have also used more irregular methods such as remote-controlled water-borne improvised explosive devices (WBIEDs).

Maritime attacks attributed to Houthi forces to date:

  1. HSV-2 SWIFT, in the Bab el Mandeb Strait on 1 October 2016. UAE-flagged catamaran involved in supplying coalition forces targeted by an anti-ship missile strike.
  2. USS MASON, off Mocha in early October 2016. An alleged series of three attacks against the MASON (with two other nearby US warships) using anti-ship missiles.
  3. SULTAN 2 north of Bab el Mandeb on 3 January 2017. A small boat attack against the landing craft type vessel, which was supplying coalition forces out of Assab in Eritrea.
  4. Saudi frigate AL MADINAH attacked offshore Hudaydah in the middle of the day on 30 January 2017. It is likely that a WBIED was used in the attack and was remote-controlled to some extent.
  5. Apparent remote-controlled WBIED intercepted by Saudi forces off Jazan (Jizan) on 25 April 2017. The claimed target, according to Saudi authorities, was a coastal fuel depot/terminal operated by Saudi Aramco, although Houthis have yet to claim responsibility. The WBIED was detonated at sea by a bomb disposal unit.

Houthi offshore attacks and operations to date have been consistent with their stated intention to target coalition vessels, including nominally merchant vessels supplying coalition forces. There has been no expansion to include other merchant traffic, and such attacks are assessed as highly unlikely. The attack on the commercial facility in Jazan is consistent with previous attacks using rockets and ballistic missiles against infrastructure in border areas, including similar commercial facilities in Saudi Arabia. Ballistic missile targets this year have included a coalition base on Zuqar Island, and unspecified targets elsewhere in Jazan, Abha, and Khamis Mushayt (the location of a major Saudi airbase).

The threat of sea mines

In February 2017, the US issued a maritime alert for Mocha in light of recent military operations in the port:
A maritime threat has been reported in the vicinity of Mocha, Yemen. The US Government has reason to believe in late January, mines were laid by Houthi rebels in Yemeni territorial waters in the Red Sea close to the mouth of the al Mocha harbour. Mariners are advised to exercise caution when transiting this area. This alert will automatically expire on February 11, 2017.‎

At the time, it was assessed that the Houthi forces do not have a significant or sophisticated mine-laying capability and that, if accurate, the mine laying is likely to be improvised, possibly using mines previously supplied by Iran. It was assessed this was unlikely to be a significant threat to merchant vessels in transit. The port is not currently being used for commercial operations.

Subsequently, the Yemeni Coast Guard issued a mine warning for the navigational channel to the east of Zuqar Island off Yemen in the Red Sea on 17 April 2017. Yemen Coast Guard Chief, Major General Khalid Ghommaly, was reported as saying that Houthi forces had apparently placed a number of sea mines in the vicinity. The warning followed the start of a de-mining operation to the north off Midi on 14 April. The exact threat has not been clarified and it is not clear if the Coast Guard has the capacity to map the exact location of any mines accurately.

In the absence of specific information on the number of mines laid and their location, it is difficult to assess the threat. There is also the concern that mines, if not properly laid, could drift with local currents (predominantly to the south in the summer months) and pose a threat outside the area where they were laid. Based on the information available, it is assessed as unlikely that the mines pose a threat to merchant shipping outside of the area east of Zuqar Island.

Possible coalition action against Hudaydah

The Saudi-led coalition has indicated that Hudaydah could be a target for military action from ground forces, over and above the bombing campaign against the general area, possibly with support from the US. Hudaydah is a major port for the Houthis, despite the coalition blockade. Increased military action against Hudaydah would be likely to be strongly contested by Houthi forces, which could intensify attacks against maritime assets.

While there is the potential for a coalition attack on Hudaydah, the likelihood has decreased recently. With the Ramadan period (26 May – 24 June) approaching, an assault will become less likely. Talks have started between the UN and the warring sides over establishing a monitoring mechanism or some sort of system to control imports through the port to assuage coalition concerns about weapons smuggling and to head off a military operation. The Houthis have reportedly indicated they are willing to consider the option, and the coalition has called for the UN to assume control of the port. Negotiations will further delay the launch of any offensive. While the chances of a positive outcome are limited it may push any action back for a few months, in which time the context within Yemen could change. Any developments in this area should be monitored ongoing.

Threat assessment for merchant vessels transiting the Red Sea

The direct threat to merchant vessels has not increased and any attacks by Houthi forces are highly unlikely. There is an indirect threat for merchant vessels that may be in proximity to Saudi-led coalition warships, US warships or other vessels that are part of the coalition logistics support.

The threat from mines is currently limited to an area in or near to the port of Mocha, off Midi, or to the east of Zuqar Island.

The following summarises the industry advice issued to date (as noted previously) and is a useful representation of the extant threat.

UKMTO issued the following advice in October 2016:
Masters can expect to see an increased coalition warship presence in the Bab el Mandeb straits and as a precaution, should consider the following – maintain the farthest possible distance from the Yemen coast, transit the Bab el Mandeb straits during daylight hours, use the western TSS, increase speed, maintain vigilance and report any unusual activity to UKMTO.

For Liberian-flagged vessels, the following advice was issued on 6 February 2016:

  • Include the possibility that small vessels are used as a waterborne improvised explosive device (WBIED) in the voyage specific Risk Assessment.
  • Give wide berth to any unidentified vessel/craft.
  • Limit deck work.
  • Increase lookout and radar watch and avoid close CPAs to small crafts.
  • Make ready the pre-prepared emergency procedures, including evacuation plans.
  • Make ready the Emergency Communication Plan.
  • If possible, alter course away from any unidentified approaching craft. When sea conditions allow, consider altering course to increase an approaching craft’s exposure to wind/waves.
  • Prepare water spray and other self-defensive measures.
  • Keep the farthest possible distance from the Yemen coast.
  • Transit the Bab el Mandeb strait during daylight hours.
  • Use the western TSS / Hanish Islands.
  • Increase speed and maintain vigilance during transit of the Bab el Mandeb strait.
Increase in pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden

From 2014 to 2016, Risk Intelligence has consistently assessed the threat of piracy in the Gulf of Aden (and the Somali Basin) as elevated, despite the low number of actual attacks. Piracy structures remain in place ashore in Somalia, even if leaders and investors have diversified into other activities, including smuggling, human trafficking or providing armed guards to fishing vessels. Probing approaches by pirates have continued, assessing vessel vulnerabilities, and these are easily hidden among other small boat traffic.

March and April 2017 saw an uptick in the number of attacks, following several reports of armed skiffs in the Gulf of Aden (although these may have been smugglers or fishermen). These attacks are summarised below; the following sections provide an analysis of the implications for the piracy threat in the area.

Summary of recent attacks
  1. 13 March, tanker ARIS 13 hijacked. Subsequently released on 16 March following intervention by Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) and local negotiations.
  2. 23 March, dhow CASAYR II hijacked. Initially thought to be being used as a mother ship but eventually abandoned by the attackers on 26 March.
  3. 31 March, dhow AL KAUSAR hijacked. Held off Hobyo until released on 13 April following negotiations and intervention by Galmudug law enforcement.
  4. 3 April, dhow SALAMA 1 allegedly hijacked. Apparently being held off Hobyo but this incident has not been confirmed and the vessel has not been definitively identified.
  5. 8 April, bulk carrier OS 35 boarded. Crew retreated to the citadel and a combined Chinese and Indian naval boarding action rescued the crew and the vessel.
  6. 15 April, product tanker ALHEERA attacked. Pirates fired upon the vessel but were deterred by armed guards. A Chinese navel vessel subsequently disrupted the attackers.
  7. 22 April, product tanker COSTINA attacked. Pirates pursued and fired upon the tanker until they gave up the pursuit and were also deterred by a Spanish naval vessel in the area.

The attacks can be divided into two groups. The first group consists of attacks against the dhows and the two locally trading tankers, ARIS 13 and CORTINA. The second group consists of the two attacks against merchant vessels in transit in the Gulf of Aden, OS 35 and ALHEERA. In the first group, onshore factors may have been in play, which is discussed below. The other two attacks were apparently regular attacks that have been infrequent over the two years prior but are consistent with the pirate threat in the area.

Onshore factors: rivalries and law enforcement

There are gaps in the information available for the hijackings of the dhows and two locally trading tankers. Risk Intelligence is conducting further analysis of these cases. Preliminary analysis suggests that there may have been some local factors that led to the targeting of these vessels, such as competition or rivalry between groups, and to the relatively speedy resolution of these cases, such as the Somali owners of the cargoes bringing local negotiators into play. This might mean that there is a dynamic behind these hijackings that is separate to those attacks against merchant vessels in transit.

In two of the cases, local law enforcement played a role in the release of the vessels: the PMPF in the ARIS 13 case and a Galmudug militia in the AL KAUSAR case. This signals some improvement in law enforcement ashore in Somalia. While imperfect, and far from putting significant constraints on pirate activity, it does show that there are additional challenges for pirate groups in holding vessels for extended periods of time. However, as noted, the effectiveness of these law enforcement actions may well have been enhanced by behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Threat assessment for merchant vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden

The trend for the piracy threat in the Gulf of Aden is upward, even if the dhow and locally trading tanker attacks are excluded. However, the overall threat level has not increased from the 2014-2016 elevated level and it is too soon to conclude that there will be a new ‘wave’ of piracy attacks.

The recent attacks do confirm that pirate groups are still in operation and will choose to divert resources into attacks on merchant vessels away from their other legal and illegal activities. The pirates have demonstrated that they are still willing to probe vessel defences and to board them if conditions allow. However, they have not shown any evolution in tactics, such as a willingness to engage in firefights with armed guards and they are still deterred by the presence of such guards on vessels.

Naval activity remains a partial deterrent to pirate activity, although there are indications that a lack of naval vessels is a factor in allowing pirate groups to continue to operate. Nonetheless, the boarding of the OS 35, in which three attackers were apparently captured by Chinese naval forces, will be a reminder that attempting to hijack a vessel is a high-risk proposition. In the case of the OS 35, the citadel proved to be particularly effective. However, given the dispersal of naval vessels in the Gulf of Aden (and the Somali Basin), a speedy intervention may not always be possible.

Even if there is not another wave of new pirate attacks, the recent incidents are a reminder of the threat in the area. Attackers will seek to exploit any changes in the vulnerability of vessels, or try their luck under certain conditions. Changes onshore in law enforcement are not a sufficient deterrent at this time. Piracy remains a threat, albeit not at the same level seen between 2010 and 2012.

Gulf of Aden map showing two merchant vessel attacks OS 35 and ALHEERA with naval actions (circled); dhow attacks close offshore Somalia (curved line); and the CPO KOREA attack in October 2016, the first merchant vessel attack since 2014. Yellow icons are suspicious approaches by skiffs on vessels.

Recent Gulf of Aden incident locations 2016 17

Red Sea map showing the cluster of missile attacks in October 2016 (circled) and AL MADINAH missile attack offshore Hudaydah in January 2017 (arrow).

Recent Red Sea incident locations 2016 17

This report is informational only and does not constitute guidance or consultancy. Advice given and recommendations made do not constitute a warranty of future results by Risk Intelligence or Norwegian Hull Club or an assurance against risk. No express or implied warranty is given in respect of any judgment made or to changes or any unforeseen escalation of any factors affecting any such judgment.


2. May. 2017