- Reports from the owners of the Galicia Spirit LNG tanker that it was targeted by a skiff carrying explosives on 25 October have increased concerns about maritime security around the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
- The attack follows several other incidents – including RPG attacks and suspicious approaches targeting both commercial and naval vessels in waters off Yemen this year. Although there remains uncertainty about the perpetrators of the attacks, the succession of incidents in the past six months indicate a deteriorating security environment for vessels transiting the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and near Yemeni waters in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden
- Additional vigilance is advised when transiting the region and vessels will likely want to review existing security practices. The short time span between incidents mean vessel Masters should be informed of the nature of the threat and should monitor developments closely.
Investigations by Teekay, the owners of Galicia Spirit have reportedly confirmed that a large quantity of explosives were on board the attackers’ skiff, suggesting the incident could have been an attempted suicide attack. Although the explosives detonated 20 m from the vessel, destroying and killing all those on board the skiff, the attack resulted in no injuries to those on board the tanker. Teekay has stated that there was a sufficient quantity of explosives on board the skiff to cause significant damage to the tanker had it made contact. The tanker sustained minor damage from rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fire, which targeted the poop deck and citadel according to some reports, although findings indicate the explosives could have penetrated the second skin of the hull, in which instance gas would have escaped and likely ignited, causing a large explosion.
The development further raises concerns over an escalating threat to commercial shipping in the Bab el-Mandeb and southern Red Sea, which has already seen an uptick in attacks targeting both commercial vessels and warships in recent months. One day after the attack on the Galicia Spirit, coalition spokesman Major General Ahmed Assiri stated another LNG tanker, the Tuvalu-registered tanker Melati Satu, was targeted by fire from an RPG and small arms. Both attacks follow a series of suspicious approaches and one exchange of gunfire between commercial vessels and unidentified gunmen in the southern Red Sea since July 2016.
The perpetrators of the attacks targeting LNG tankers and other commercial vessels in the region since July remain unclear. No group has claimed the attacks and a number of armed actors operate in the conflict-hit region. Furthermore it remains possible that multiple actors have been involved in the various attacks, each with differing motivations. The Houthi militant group, which is currently fighting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, has only claimed responsibility for an attack which severely damaged a UAE vessel off Mokha on 1 October. The attack was followed by two attacks on the US Navy destroyer the USS Mason operating in the region, which the US attributed to the Houthis but the group has repeatedly denied. The Dubai-based United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations (UKMTO) has raised concerns that Houthi rebels may be in possession of long-range anti-ship missiles capable of shipborne, airborne and shore-based launching and sea-skimming capability. Although Houthis may have the capability to attack commercial vessels, their intent to threaten international shipping and potentially face a more coordinated international response is questionable.
A number of Islamic terrorist groups have exploited the growing security vacuum in Yemen in the past two years, including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State. AQAP has previously threatened attacks against commercial vessels and have a history of conducting suicide attacks against both commercial and US warships off Yemen’s coast. AQAP claimed both the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole at Aden Port and the October 2002 suicide attack against the MV Limberg in the Gulf of Aden, which was carrying some 397,000 barrels of crude oil. AQAP has held strategic maritime locations in Yemen during the conflict, albeit well to the east of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and could again seek to target commercial vessels transiting in the region.
Although unlikely linked to the Galicia Spirit incident, regional piracy remains a concern and could be linked to some past suspicious approaches and gunfire exchanges with commercial vessels. Another key consideration for vessels transiting the Bab el-Mandeb and near to Yemeni waters are interactions with Saudi-led coalition warships that have imposed a long-standing blockade of Yemeni waters, and the Yemeni coastguard. The complexity and tension around vessels entering Yemeni waters requires that adequate communication protocols with coalition forces are enacted during transits.
Watch keeping procedures should be reviewed and additional vigilance adopted when transiting the area. The successful mitigation of this type of threat is heavily dependent on early detection and the standard Rules for the Use of Force remain fit for purpose. Vessels are advised to supplement watches between 15° latitude to point B of the IRTC. As well as additional crew lookouts, security teams should ensure that two men are on watch throughout this portion of the passage. Weapons, while usually locked away, must be more easily accessible and even carried where appropriate. We will continue to monitor the situation as it evolves and provide updates should the security environment deteriorate, especially if apparent suicide attacks or repeat RPG attacks are conducted by vessels in the Strait and nearby waters.
The UKMTO advises vessels to stay as far away from the Yemeni coast as possible and increase speed when transiting the Bab el-Mandeb as a precaution to mitigate any threat from missiles fired from onshore, and maintain vigilance when transiting the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Some commercial shippers have noted preference to conduct transits via the ITRC in daylight, as part of Group Transits with naval escorts.
Vessels should also be aware of an increased presence of naval vessels around the Bab el Mandeb when navigating the strait as miscommunication with security forces can lead to hostility and confrontationsja. Vessels should increase radio communications with coalition naval forces to ensure awareness of the ship’s presence and planned movements.