Attack – Southern Red Sea
Incident details: On 03 April 2018 at approximately 0915UTC a Merchant Vessel reported an explosion in position: 1429.3N 04211.2E (100nm west of Hodeidah, Yemen, Southern Red Sea). A Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) flagged merchant vessel initially reported a detonation and then light plumes of smoke emanating from the bow on the starboard side forward of the bridge at 030915Z. Follow on reporting indicated that a possible projectile had penetrated the starboard bow above the waterline. The possible projectile created a hole through the starboard bow with minimal external damage (MSCHOA and UKMTO).
Intelligence Comments: This is the first attack by the Houthi militants on any vessels passing through the key choke point between the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa. The targeted tanker was slightly damaged, but able to continue along its course, escorted by a coalition vessel. The attack on the oil tanker follows a recent escalation in the conflict. Last week, the Houthis fired a barrage of seven missiles at Saudi Arabia, including three at Riyadh and Jizan. Recognising the economic stakes for one of the world’s biggest oil exporters, the Houthis have targeted Saudi oil infrastructure before, and have vowed specifically to target Saudi tankers near Hodeidah.
Houthi officials have previously threatened to block the vital shipping lane through the Red Sea, saying they would take “strategic choices” if the coalition continued its efforts in the Hodeidah province. Last month, the Houthi rebels claimed to have fired a missile at facilities run by the state-owned oil giant Aramco, but the company denied that its operations were affected. In April 2017, a Houthi remote-controlled boat fitted with an explosive attempted an attack on an Aramco oil distribution terminal, but Saudi forces blew it up before it reached its target, according to
Tracking information suggests that the vessel was the AQBAIQ (IMO: 9247182) a VLCC, currently carrying around 2 million barrels of crude. According to data, the tanker was travelling past Hodeidah and briefly changed course due to the failed attack. The vessel is now on its way to Ain Sukhna in Egypt which is the main offloading point for the SUMED pipeline into the Mediterranean. The bulk of Europe’s crude oil imports from the Middle East arrive through this key pipeline.
Security experts played down the wider threat posed to oil tankers in the region following the attack. The real threat is escalation of international involvement. The more sophisticated these attacks become the more potential there is for international involvement.
While the coalition described the damage to the tanker as minor, the assault appeared to be the first time since the war began in 2015 that the Houthis have caused significant damage to a ship carrying Saudi oil. There have been other incidents in recent years where rocket-propelled grenades were fired at tankers near the Bab el-Mandeb, but it wasn’t clear who was responsible.
Tuesday’s failed attack also confirms that the Hodeidah port continues to be used as a launchpad for terrorist acts and arms and rocket smuggling operations. The continuation of such attacks proves the danger of the Houthi militias and their backers to regional and international security. The Houthis have vowed to step up attacks on the Kingdom so further escalations are expected, both on land and on the maritime domain.