Maritime terrorism has received greater international attention in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Piracy is an old problem, but the kind of targeting of vessels on the high seas undertaken by Al-Qaeda when it struck the USS Cole in the harbor at Aden in October 2000 was of a different kind.
Information found at Osama bin Laden’s hide-out in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after he was killed by American Navy SEALs on 2 May 2011, in addition to the digital storage devices found upon the arrest of Maqsood Lodin, an Austrian terrorist of Pakistani origin, by German police in Berlin two weeks later, disclosed the increasing interest of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other affiliates of the terror group in attacks on the maritime front.
In the years since, however, Al-Qaeda’s threat has receded as the group focuses on local conflicts, and the threat from Iran and its proxies has risen. The clerical regime in Iran has posed an increasing challenge to maritime security in the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea, particularly through the Houthis in Yemen. This report will examine these dynamics in light of the attack against four commercial cargo ships near UAE’s territorial waters on 12 May 2019, and the possible Iranian collusion in the attack.
Forms of Maritime Terrorism
Despite there being no agreed upon definition of terrorism, one commonly accepted definition is “the systematic use or threat to use acts of violence against international shipping and maritime services by an individual or group to induce fear and intimidation on a civilian population in order to achieve political ambitions or objectives”.
It is possible to disaggregate the forms of maritime terrorism into four categories based on their utilization of the maritime space and the selection of targets. The four categories are:
- Maritime space as the medium for attacks against land-based targets: A prominent example in this context is the Mumbai bombings that took place on 26 November 2008, when ten terrorists in speedboats landed in the port and carried out a series of twelve coordinated attacks.
- The use of ships to support capacity-building for terrorist groups: For instance, on 3 January 2002 the vessel Karine A was seized in the Red Sea as it transported Iranian weapons to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for attacks against Israel.
- The hijacking of naval vessels and hostage taking by terrorists: This is considered one of the widely utilized maritime terror tactics. A case in point is the 2014 hijacking of a Kenyan-owned ship by Al-Shabab, Al-Qaeda’s Somali branch, and taking hostage eleven sailors of different nationalities.
- Terrorist attacks against naval targets of high value: The two earliest attacks of this type took place off the coast of Yemen in 2000 and 2002 respectively. The first attack was the AQAP attack against the Cole on 12 October 2000, when the American destroyer was hit by suicide bombers while refueling. The second attack, on 6 October 2002, saw a French oil tanker, M/V Limburg, attacked off Ash Shahir, resulting in an ecological catastrophe with almost 100,000 tons of crude oil spilling into the Gulf of Aden.
More recently, an incident of the category-four type was the attack, on 6 September 2014, by Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), unsuccessfully, on the Pakistani Navy frigate PNS Zulfiqar docked in the naval base of Karachi, with the aim of attacking nearby US warships with the eight C-802 anti-ship missiles on the frigate.
During the same year, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which shifted its allegiance from Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State (ISIS) launched a naval attack using four small boats 40 kilometers north of Damietta, Egypt, killing about eight sailors, while the Egyptian navy managed to arrest thirty-two people on board these boats.
Iranian Threat in the Arab Gulf and the Red Sea
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and prominent figures in the Iranian regime have continuously issued threats to shut down international oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for the American sanctions that intend to curb Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Though Iran’s threats are often veiled, they are not always. Ismail Kowsari, a senior officer in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) stated on 4 June 2017 that “Iran would prevent other nations’ oil from being exported through the Strait of Hormuz, should its own oil exports be blocked by US sanctions”.
Iran’s leaders have never acted on the threats to close the strait. Political considerations are surely a factor: Iran knows it would be isolated internationally; even China would not support Iran if it tried to close the strait. But the raw balance of power is likely the determining factor in Tehran’s decision: the US views keeping this chokepoint open as a core national interest — and the Iranian regime would be swiftly defeated if it brought this to a military confrontation.
It is for this reason that the Iranian naval doctrine looks to gain the capacity to close the Straits of Hormuz via asymmetric forces. The skills Iran has built up to threaten the Arabian Gulf have then been extended into the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, most significantly since 2011 with its support to the Houthis in Yemen.
The threats posed by Iran to the Strait of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb come in the form of armed non-state actors, drones, and mines. Let us take each in turn:
Armed Non-State Actors
Iran has a history in providing its proxy militias with sophisticated weapon systems. Lebanese Hezbollah is the archetype, but increasingly the Ansarallah or Houthi movement in Yemen has been in possession of such armaments, notably missiles that have enabled it to target the capital of Saudi Arabia. In addition, the Iranians have supplied drone technology to the Houthis, which they have also utilized to threaten maritime security in the Red Sea.
The Houthi militants successfully struck a United Arab Emirates vessel in October 2016 with an anti-ship cruise missile in the waters off Yemen’s western coast, and in the same month, they shot several missiles at US destroyer USS Mason, which the US intercepted. It is believed that these missiles were the Chinese C-801 anti-shipping missiles.
The Houthis have used remote-controlled boat bombs, the first time on 30 January 2017, against a Saudi Navy frigate, killing two Saudi sailors. This unmanned “drone” attack used Iranian technology, according to the American Navy. The Houthis have also tried to use these tactics for economic warfare, targeting an Aramco oil distribution terminal in the Red Sea on the Saudi coast, just north of Yemen, using a high-speed boat laden with explosives.
Should a crisis erupt with the Americans, the Iranians now have an ability to respond by disrupting the security of Bab al-Mandab. On 6 August 2018, the Iranian news agency Fars published statements by IRGC General Naser Sha’bani, who noted that Tehran had ordered the Houthis to attack two Saudi crude carriers, and the militia had carried out those orders. Though Iran’s regime continues to deny responsibility for the Houthis’ attacks on international shipping — this being the point of having “deniable” proxies in the first place — the attack on the Saudi vessel at this time, a few hours after IRGC-Quds Force leader, General Qassem Suleimani, had said the Red Sea was no longer safe for US vessels, is indicative.
Iran claims that it possesses a range of surveillance and weaponized drones, including the “H-110 Sarir”, equipped with air-to-air missiles, and the “Shahed 129”, a drone capable of carrying out 24-hour surveillance as well as strike missions. In the American assessments, the Iranian drones could carry weapons.
Iran has revealed its willingness to utilize the drone technology to threaten its regional rivals in the region. This in evident in harassing the American ships, as Tehran regularly utilized fast boats in harassing the American navy in the Arab Gulf. However, since August 2017, they stopped using fast ships, and resorted to using Iranian “QOM-1” drones (also known as the “Shaheed 129”) in conducting maritime flights that approach US Navy ships operating in the region. This could be read as a message from Iran of its increasing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability (ISR capability). In another episode, an unarmed Iranian drone crossed the path of American fighter jets lining up to land on an aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz.
Iranian mines are probably the most viable tool for Iran to utilize if it wishes to block the strait of Hormuz. And since January 2017, the Saudi led coalition forces discovered and dismantled naval mines that were set by Houthis in the Red Sea near the Yemeni coastline and Bab al-Mandab strait. In March 2017, the Houthis deployed sea mines like the one that struck a Yemeni Coastguard vessel struck, killing two and wounding eight of its crew.
Possible Iranian Sabotage Operations
The UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation revealed that four commercial cargo ships were targeted by “sabotage operations” off the coast of Fujairah near UAE’s territorial waters on 12 May 2019, without elaborating or naming suspects. Two of these four ships were Saudi oil tankers.
This attack came in the context of rising regional tensions between Iran and the US over Iran’s nuclear and ballistic programs, in addition to its destabilizing regional intervention. Iran or one of its proxies are, therefore, prime suspects. There is suggestive evidence along these lines.
First, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, head of the national security committee in the Iranian parliament, wrote on his Twitter account: “The explosions of Fujairah showed that the security of the south of the Persian Gulf is like glass”. Such a statement clearly reveals that Tehran is directing veiled threats to the UAE. And such threats are not unprecedented.
Second, the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made an apparent threat on December 2018 to disrupt other countries’ oil shipments through the Gulf. “If one day the Americans want to prevent the export of Iran’s oil,” said Rouhani, “then no oil will be exported from the Persian Gulf”. Despite Iran’s insistence that it can continue exporting its oil despite the American sanctions, most countries complies with the sanctions. As Bloomberg reported on 9 May: “Not a single ship has been seen leaving Iran’s oil terminals for foreign ports”. Thus, the attack off the coast of Fujairah three days later could be regarded as an implementation of the Iranian threats.
Third, the US deployed an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Middle East on 6 May 2019 to thwart the Iranians from threatening the American interests in the region. These deployments came “in response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran, according to National Security Adviser John Bolton. Later, on 10 May, the US Maritime Administration revealed that US commercial ships including oil tankers sailing through key Middle East waterways could be targeted by Iran. These actions and warnings reveal that the US had collected credible intelligence information about Iranian plans to attack US interests and allies in the run-up to the Fujairah incident.
Fourth, in the aftermath of the attack, Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the IRGC’s aerospace division, warned that his country will “hit America in the head” in the event of any military action being taken against his country, which is again suggestive of Iran looking for a point of retaliation as America escalates its sanctions and rhetoric.
The reduction in the maritime threats emanating from AQAP and similar groups can be ascribed in no small part to the American and Emirati counterterrorism operations in Yemen. But in that time, Iran was able to extend its tentacles into Yemen and bolster the Houthis as a threat to the country’s domestic stability and the waterways surrounding Yemen. Iran has been greatly assisted in using the Houthis as a deniable instrument of its foreign policy by the international community’s unwillingness to recognize Iranian malfeasance behind the Houthis’ aggressive behavior. A clear condemnation from the international community is required to help contain Iranian aggression.
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