Houthi hijacking in the Red Sea a disturbing escalation – Dryad

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The Bahamian flagged M/V Galaxy Leader was the target of a Houthi insurgent hijacking, approximately 50 nautical miles west of Hodeida in the Red Sea on 19 November.

The 189-metre car carrier, which was transiting empty, was en-route from Körfez, Turkey to Pipavav, India. The vessel was intercepted by several small fast boats and boarded by uniformed, armed personnel, who rappelled from a Mi-17 helicopter to the deck, and subsequently ordered the crew to alter course to the port of Hodeida. Palestinian and Yemeni flags were later raised aboard, and a video purportedly showcasing the takeover was released.

The vessel had deliberately disabled its AIS prior to the incident, but has since been identified at coordinates 14.9423, 42.89458—corresponding to the Hodeidah anchorage in Yemen. This incident was the first in a series of events within this region as the Houthi’s continue to expand their vessel targeting specifically through the Straits of al-Mandab. The most recent attack on the AS Strinda, a Norwegian Flagged tanker, demonstrates a rapid escalation in tactics along with the types of vessels being targeted, maritime risk company Dryad Global reported. The AS Strinda was attacked with a missile launched from a Houthi held territory.

Houthi Leader’s Threat and Alleged Israeli Ties

The Galaxy Leader incident followed a declaration by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the leader of Yemen’s Houthi militia, on 14 November. In a televised address on al-Masirah, the group’s satellite TV channel, he emphatically stated their ‘perpetual vigilance’ over Israeli ships in the Red Sea. Houthi spokesperson Yahya Sare’e later affirmed the seizure’s motivation, alleging Israeli ownership. The vessel’s connection to “Ray Car Carriers,” owned by Israeli businessperson Abraham “Rami” Ungar, was disputed by Israel, classifying the incident as an “Iranian act of terrorism.” The recent statements by Houthi military spokesperson Yahya Sare’e underscore the seriousness of the threat. Sare’e’s announcement that all ships bound for Israeli ports would be targeted, irrespective of their nationality, if Gaza does not receive necessary food and medicine, reflects a strategic shift in the Houthis’ approach to maritime warfare.

Global Consequences and Swift Condemnation

The Israeli military, in a statement on X, labelled the hijacking of the Galaxy leader as a “very grave incident of global consequence.” Swift condemnation followed from Yemen’s government, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and various Western nations. Accusations were levelled against the militia for jeopardising international maritime traffic.

The crew of 25 individuals are from the Philippines, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Mexico. None of the crew members are of Israeli origin. The Houthis have said its forces would “deal with the ship’s crew in accordance with the teachings and values of the Islamic religion.”

Subsequent attacks and attempted hijackings by both the Houthi’s and Somali pirates against a wider profile of vessels including military vessels indicate an alarming and escalating trend in the region against ships beyond Israeli ownership. Numerous shipping companies are now considering avoiding this region to a route around the horn of Africa. However, this route would add significant time and expense to the shipment of goods, along with delays into Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian ports. There are rumours that the JWC (Joint War Committee) at Lloyds is considering expanding the JWC area within this region that will add additional insurance premiums to the already accelerating cost for shipping goods.

Houthi Threats and Maritime Menace

The ongoing Civil War in Yemen has given rise to maritime threats, primarily from the Iranian-backed Houthi forces. Past actions include the successful targeting of the UAE naval transport HVS-2 Swift and attacks on US Navy warships. Comparable boardings have been executed by Iranian forces in the region, raising questions about potential Iranian involvement. The recent incidents mark a concerning escalation by the Houthis, employing several new tactics which is an unprecedented move.

Houthis are also using missiles and drones to conduct attacks on vessels in the region similar to the attack on the AS Strinda. Houthi forces are also targeting vessels via VHF Channel 16 requesting vessels change course to headings that would bring them closer to Yemen. Expect the boardings, drone, and missile attacks to continue to escalate in this region for the foreseeable future. Along with the drone and missile issues, there have also been numerous reports of small vessels and helicopters sighted on “patrols” within the region which could lead to further threats to shipping.

Saviz Surveillance and Complex Geopolitical Dynamics

The Galaxy Leader was boarded shortly after passing the Saviz, an Iranian-flagged general cargo vessel serving as an offshore surveillance, command, and liaison base. Positioned strategically on the Dahlak Bank, Saviz provides comprehensive radar surveillance, combining AIS and signals intelligence for understanding vessel activity in the Red Sea. Analysis suggests its role in supporting Houthi Navy operations. The incident occurred with the Galaxy Leader transiting with AIS deliberately turned off, possibly in response to the Houthi threat on 14 November.

As described in a previous article by Dryad Global, in 2021 there was a noted shift in the focus of Iran’s maritime activity towards vessels associated with Israeli commercial enterprise, highlighted by the attack on the Mercer Street. This was in contrast to the more indiscriminate targeting seen in attacks on several commercial vessels in 2019. However, plausible deniability was a defining feature of the incidents in 2019 and 2021, making direct attribution challenging.

The Houthi hijacking of the M/V Galaxy Leader in the Red Sea, the attack on the M/T Mercer Street, attacks on US and allied warships along with the recent attack on the AS Strinda share unsettling parallels within the context of escalating regional tensions. These incidents exemplify a shift from indiscriminate actions to targeted attacks on vessels associated with Israeli interests and vessels transiting to and from Israeli ports, underscoring the evolving dynamics in the ongoing shadow war between Iran and Israel. The Houthi seizure of the Galaxy Leader, marked by the use of a helicopter, echoes the precise attack on the M/T Mercer Street, as global leaders condemn these acts, the shadow war’s impact on commercial shipping dynamics remains uncertain, urging a strategic and measured approach to safeguarding maritime security.

Commercial Shipping Dynamics and Future Scenarios

The hijacking of the Galaxy Leader and subsequent attacks on other vessels underscores the influence of intricate geopolitical dynamics in the Gulf region on commercial shipping. While approximately 1 500 vessels transit the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait each month, the recent attacks demonstrate these vessels were specifically targeted due their connections to Israel and Israeli ports. These incidents reflect an evolution in Houthi capabilities to disrupt merchant shipping, with a potential link to Iranian involvement. Despite calls for measures akin to those used to Somali piracy (e.g. an International Naval Presence, armed security teams on vessels, and Coordination and Information Sharing: International organizations, such as the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia) being deployed in the Red Sea, the appetite for a large-scale intervention in the Red Sea remains uncertain unless the threat continues a drastic escalation.

Postscript: Escalation of Houthi Attacks on Red Sea Vessels

Following a week-long ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, marked by extensive hostage and prisoner exchanges and Israel Defence Forces’ advancement into Gaza, Houthi forces have reignited their targeting of purportedly Israel-linked commercial vessels in the Red Sea. On 3 December, a series of missile and drone attacks were launched from Houthi-controlled territories in Yemen on multiple commercial vessels in international waters, spanning over seven hours.

The timeline of events on 3 December is as follows: At 09:15 local time, the USS Carney detected an anti-ship ballistic missile fired from Houthi-controlled Yemen at the Bahamas-flagged UK-owned bulk cargo ship M/V Unity Explorer. The USS Carney engaged and shot down a UAV launched from Houthi territories at 12:00. Around 12:35, the Unity Explorer reported being hit by another missile from Yemen, leading to the USS Carney intercepting and destroying an inbound UAV. The Unity Explorer sustained minor damage from the attack.

At 15:30, the M/V Number 9, a Panamanian-flagged bulk carrier, was struck by a missile in international shipping lanes in the Red Sea, reporting damage with no casualties. An hour later, the Panamanian-flagged M/V Sophie II issued a distress call, claiming a missile strike, with USS Carney intercepting a drone enroute to the attack site.

In line with their strategy after the Galaxy Leader seizure, Houthi spokespersons cited the vessels’ connections to Israel as the reason for the attacks, a claim refuted by the Israeli military. The recurrent nature of these assaults suggests an increasing Houthi commitment to turning the Red Sea into a frontline in the Israel-Hamas conflict. While the USS Carney’s targeting remains unclear, the Biden administration, for now, has refrained from direct retaliation potentially to avoid jeopardizing ceasefire negotiations between Saudi forces and Yemeni militants. However, a change in this stance might occur if Houthi attacks draw more US naval assets into firefights or explicitly target US assets.

While the current targeting focuses on vessels linked to Israel and the transport of goods to Israeli ports, the potential for miscalculation or misidentification poses risks to non-associated commercial vessels similar to that of the AS Strinda. Since the attack on the AS Strinda, the Port of Ashdod website is down and the ship schedule function on the Haifa Port is no longer available, but this information on ship arrivals is still available through most commercial marine traffic AIS providers which is information the Houthis use to target vessels. Additional threats in the region encompass illegal boarding, detention, or seizure—particularly by Iranian forces—and the use of limpet mines and explosive boat attacks, emphasizing the need for heightened vigilance among vessels operating in the Red Sea, Bab al Mandeb Strait, and the Gulf of Aden. GPS interference further compounds the risks for vessels navigating these areas.

Written by Corey Ranslem, CEO of Dryad Global.