Indian Ocean piracy under control but Yemeni conflict a danger to shipping


There were no instances of piracy in the Indian Ocean in 2016, but the civil war in Yemen poses a danger to shipping in the area, with several attacks against ships last year.

Dryad Maritime, in a report on maritime crime in 2016, noted that despite reports of suspicious craft operating in the High Risk Area (HRA) off Somalia in 2016, there has been little or no sign of pirate paraphernalia on these craft as piracy in the region remains under control. This reduction in pirate activity is, in part, representative of NATO’s decision to end its Operation Ocean Shield counter-piracy mission which has been in place since 2009. The European Union Naval Force’s Operation Atlanta will remain, having had its mandate extended by the European council until 31 December 2018.

There was one possible pirate-related incident off Somalia last year – on 22 October 2016, a speedboat approached MT CPO Korea 300 nautical miles from the Somali coast. The occupants of the speedboat allegedly returned fire when a private maritime security company (PMSC) fired warning shots at them. In the time since this incident there have been no further reports of approaches by the large number of merchant vessels that transit through the area, casting doubt on the accuracy of the report; however, there have been reports of fishing activity.

Dryad said the most significant factor affecting maritime security in the Indian Ocean and the High Risk Area throughout 2016 has been the Yemeni Civil War and collateral effect on shipping in the southern Red Sea, Bab al Mandeb and Gulf of Aden, particularly in the last quarter of 2016.

There were four confirmed attacks on military and auxiliary vessels in October 2016, beginning with the attack on the Emirati military vessel HSV 2 Swift which was hit by rocket fire off the port of Mokha on 1 October. This was quickly followed by failed missile attacks on the USS Mason and USS Ponce on 9, 12 and 15 October in a similar location. In response, the US Navy launched a cruise missile strike against three coastal radar sites, Ras Isa, north of Mukha and Khoka.

In the aftermath of these attacks, United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations (UKMTO) released advice that vessels transiting the Southern Red Sea/Bab el Mandeb Strait should maintain the maximum distance possible from the coast of Yemen and use the traffic separation scheme to the west of the Hanish Islands. If possible, transits of the Bab el Mandeb Strait should be conducted during daylight hours and at maximum safe speed.

On 21 December, seven crew on board an Iranian flagged general cargo vessel MV Jouya 8 were killed in a reported rocket attack off the coast of Yemen in the southern Red Sea. This was followed on 3 January 2017 by an attack on MV Sultan 2.

Whilst the incident affecting MV Sultan 2 was originally reported as a pirate attack, both AIS analysis and media reporting identify it as likely being a landing craft, supporting UAE and Saudi operations in Yemen, according to Dryad. The attacks on MV Jouya 8 and MV Sultan II continue to highlight the risk to vessels seemingly involved in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. It is unlikely that forces supporting the Houthis will deliberately attack innocent merchant traffic transiting the Bab el Mandeb but that, for now, attacks will be against warships or possibly vessels operating in support of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.

A liquid natural gas tanker, MT Galicia Spirt, was targeted in a possible Water Borne Improvised Explosive Device (WBIED) attack on 25 October 2016 while transiting the Bab el Mandeb Strait. Based on reports, Dryad has classified this as an attempted suicide attack. While the actual likelihood of an attack by terrorists on shipping remains low, if this report is correct, then concerns for the safety of shipping passing through the Strait will be heightened. The last known case of an attempted suicide attack on a vessel underway was in July 2010 when a speedboat exploded next to MT M Star while transiting the Strait of Hormuz.
2016 saw multiple reports of the detention of arms-laden dhows transiting the Arabian Sea, likely from Iran to Houthi held ports in western Yemen. These unidentified vessels are part of arms smuggling operations and not pirate activity, according to Dryad.

An additional effect of the Yemeni Civil war has been an increase in local activity in the waterways surrounding the country. In March and April 2016, there were two highly publicised events involving MT Fair Apollon on 24 April and MV MSC Tasmania on 16 May. Both incidents involved embarked private security guards firing warning shots at sighted skiffs in proximity of the port of al Mukalla. In each case, the initial reports circulated indicated that each vessel had been attacked; however, on further investigation by anti-piracy agencies, these reports were downgraded to events highly likely to have involved local pattern of life activity.

Similar events were reported in the Bab el Mandeb and southern Red Sea on 22 and 23 December respective, when two merchant vessels on separate occasions reported they were suspiciously approached. Likewise, Dryad assessed this to be interaction with local traffic and largely linked to military operations ashore. The two incidents reported in Spring 2016 coincided with a Saudi-led coalition to take al Mukalla from AQAP militants; similarly, the incidents reported in mid-late December were reported at the same time Saudi-coalition were launching military operations in the Taiz and Lahij governorates.

Elsewhere, reports of confrontation between Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy vessels and in particular US Navy vessels continue in the Strait of Hormuz, as the IRGC remain actively vigilant in defending their territorial waters. To mention but one incident, on August 2016, the USS Firebolt fired warning shots towards an IRGC attack vessel closing at speed, forcing the Iranian vessel to change direction.

Dryad assesses that it is unlikely that the situation will return to the ‘tanker wars’ of the 1980’s and it is improbable that Iran will attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, due to significant ramifications from the international community, of which it is trying to enter.