10 January 2018: Overnight, the Houthi movement in Yemen threatened to block the Red Sea shipping lane if the Saudi led coalition continues its push north toward the port of Hodeidah. Houthi Political Council Chief, Saleh al-Samad, the latter was quoted as saying, “If the aggressors keep pushing towards Hodeidah and if the political solution hits wall, there are some strategic choices that will be taken as a no return point, including blocking the international navigation in the Red Sea.” The report provided no specific details of how they would enact this threat. However, the Bab-al Mandab, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden is the most likely target.
Since January 2017, the Saudi coalition has been engaged in Operation Golden Spear, an offensive aimed at recapturing Yemen’s western coast from Houthi forces and denying them access to key Red Sea ports. Hodeidah port is the final maritime stronghold for the Houthi rebels, and is critical to both the rebel group and Yemeni government. Hodeidah port receives 80% of Yemen’s imports, including vital food and medical aid necessary to support civilians in what has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
However, reports indicate the Houthis have relied on the port to smuggle in Iranian-made weapons to maintain their offensive against the Yemeni government. The Saudi-led coalition has conducted ground and air campaigns in the areas around the port, but have conducted comparatively few targets against the port itself, relenting to urgent warnings by allies and UN member states.
The UN has been working to bring the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels together for peace negotiations. However, on 4 December, the Houthis assassinated their former ally, Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, causing a shutdown of all negotiation attempts. Saleh, who had aligned with the Houthi rebels throughout the war, had formally broken ties with the group on 2 December, two days before his death. Saleh was believed to be a vital component of resolution to the years-long war; it was believed he could broker a deal between the rebels and the Yemeni government.
Following Saleh’s assassination, the Saudi Coalition closed all land, air and sea ports, resulting in a vacuum of critical food, gas, and medical supplies to the stricken country. Once again at the urging of the UN and allies, the Coalition reopened many ports, with a temporary reopening of Hodeidah port beginning on 20 December and lasting 30 days.
The warning from the Houthis came during a meeting with Deputy UN envoy to Yemen, Maeen Shureim, who travelled to meet with Houthi leaders and set the stage for another round of peace negotiations. On Monday, Houthi Chief al- Samad criticised UN efforts to resolve the war in Yemen. “We’ve come to a stage where we don’t care anymore about the role of the UN in solving the crisis in Yemen,” al-Samad was quoted as saying.
On Tuesday, the United Arab Emirates minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said “The Houthi who decimated crops and seeds, destroyed Yemen, betrayed his ally and partner, is now threatening the international navigation; we are facing a terrorist gang that the end of its existence in Yemen is nigh.”
Implications: Intentions and Capabilities:
The threat to block international navigation in the Red Sea is critical. Although the Red Sea contains chokeholds in the north and south, the Suez Canal, nearly 1700 miles away and heavily guarded by Egyptian security forces, is a logistically unlikely target. It is highly likely that the Houthis would intend to target the Bab al Mandab Strait.
At just 20 miles across at its widest point, the strait is a chokepoint for maritime vessels entering or exiting the waterways. Under an international traffic separation scheme, northbound shipping uses a two-mile wide lane on the Arabian side of the strait, while southbound traffic uses a lane on the African side. The lanes are mainly for use by commercial vessels, but are largely ignored by smaller local ships or fishing boats. More than 60 commercial vessels transit the strait each day, alongside passenger cruise liners. Bab-al-Mandab is also one of the most important trade routes for oil tankers; between four and five million barrels of oil pass through the strait annually, mostly heading to Europe. Together, the area and vitality of this waterway combine to make the strait a valuable—and easy—target, potentially threatening hundreds of vessels.
The Houthis have displayed a means to conduct attacks in the Bab-al-Mandab waterway; in March 2017, a Yemeni coast guard vessel struck a naval mine in the vicinity of Mokha port, killing two soldiers and wounding eight. The attack was the first recorded instance of the use of naval mines since the war began. Security officials believed that the mine was planted by Houthi rebels, and reports circulated that the rebels may have placed naval mines around Mokha port to disrupt Coalition operations. Warnings were also issued that the Houthi rebels could deploy aquatic mines in the waters around Hodeidah port as they prepare to defend their control of the Hodeidah governorate.
The rebels have conducted other attacks near Bab-al-Mandab strait using means apart from naval mines. In October 2016, Houthi rebels claimed an attack which destroyed a UAE catamaran in the Strait. Later that month, LNG gas tanker Galicia Spirit was attacked by unknown assailants near Perim Island, approximately eight miles from the Yemeni Coast, in Bab al-Mandab Strait. In January 2017, Saudi warship Al-Madinah was attacked west of Hodeidah port, leaving two crew members dead. It was later determined that the attack had been conducted via a remotely controlled drone device, launched and controlled from Hodeidah port.
The coalition has been conducting searches aboard vessels entering Yemeni ports and reinforced security on land and at airports, however the Houthis do not show any signs of lacking the arsenal necessary to continue their insurgency in Yemen. The recapture of Mokha port from the Houthi rebels in February 2017 uncovered hidden caches of weapons; it is likely that Houthi rebels have additional stockpiles in other areas across Yemen, and are being supplemented through still unidentified smuggling routes.
In December, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres warned that Iran may be defying a call to halt ballistic missile development, and may have been transferring these weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. In November 2017, a ballistic missile fired by the Houthis into Riyadh, Saudi Arabia had Iranian markings, according to a US Air Force official in the Middle East.
It is believed that naval mines deployed by the Houthi rebels have made their way to Yemen through Iranian arms smuggling networks led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), using extensive maritime smuggling networks. In March 2017, it was found that at least three IRGC front companies were identified in arms smuggling to Yemen, likely using maritime commercial supply chains to deliver weaponry. As access to Yemen ports has been impeded, the companies may be using sea ports outside of Yemen to smuggle weapons, which are then transferred overland to their final destination. This evidence indicates that the Houthis have the capability to disrupt maritime traffic through the waterway, and could likely target Bab-al-Mandab Strait in an effort to protect their hold on Hodeidah port.
While unmanned drone boats may likely target coalition warships, aquatic mines do not distinguish, and can cause harm to any vessel in the vicinity. The guidance issued by UKMTO on 1 February 2017 remains in place. Masters are urged to:
- Increase vigilance
- Maintain the furthest possible distance from the Yemen coast
- Transit the Bab el Mandeb strait during daylight hours
- Use the western Traffic Separation Scheme wherever possible.
In addition, ships are urged to prevent misidentification, transmit AIS, and register and comply with BMP4 guidance.
If a master believes he is in or near a mined area note the following immediate action drills:
- Mount extra watches with binoculars and any other observation aids available
- Watch for foreign objects, flotsam and suspect craft in the vicinity
- Drill muster stations and abandon ship preparations
- High state of readiness maintained at all times
- Review cargo consignment for extra sensitivity or control measures
- Plot friendly warships in proximity for distress options and identify if military minesweepers are active or inbound
- Consider night operations, pilot meeting points, harbour entry/exit very carefully
If a mine strike is unavoidable then masters should issue distress signals on Channel 16 and attempt to strike bow-on to minimise casualties and ensure best chance of crew survival. Stern, glancing or flank strikes will enhance damage and accelerate any crisis.
If sea mines are confirmed in an area, then vessels must deviate from any route that would take them into the danger zone until verifiable clearance has completed.