The Yemeni port city of Hodeidah remains the focus of intense clashes between Houthi fighters and forces belonging to the Saudi-UAE led coalition. As the battle for control of the city and its port increasingly intensifies, it is worth considering the implications on shipping, particularly in the aftermath of the battle for Hodeidah.
Hodeidah is a vital gateway for some 80 percent of the country’s food imports, humanitarian aid, fuel and other commercial goods. The port is also a critical financial and military asset for Houthi rebels; it provides the Houthis with millions of dollars a month through the taxation of ships and goods and plays an important role in their military anti-shipping capabilities. Vessels using the port are forced to allow the use of their maritime radar to assist in the targeting of other military and commercial vessels in the waters off the coast of Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition seeks to restore control of Yemen, including this vital port, to President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and his Western-backed government.
A Limit to Coalition Patience?
Despite Hodeidah’s importance efforts to recapture the city and its port had been put on pause. The anti-Houthi coalition has been unable to persuade Western powers that the UAE-led ‘Operation Golden Victory’ can take the city without massive destruction to the port or the exacerbation of an already catastrophic humanitarian situation. As a result, although these forces succeeded in reaching the city’s outskirts and securing control of its airport they are now forced to engaged in a difficult battle for the villages and roads to the east in an effort to cut rebel supply-lines and establish a siege. However, in the face of stalled progress and mounting casualties it is possible that the UAE and its allies may perhaps seek to use their overwhelming advantage in numbers and firepower to storm the city and bring the battle to an end. The Houthi have an estimated 2,000 defenders while coalition forces include approximately 25,000 Yemeni troops and 1,500 UAE troops backed by artillery and airpower. A further factor that may encourage such an attempt would be the possibility that coalition forces could be aided by a civilian uprising, as the defending Houthi force is seen as ‘foreign’ because its fighters are not local to the city or the surrounding region.
Hodeidah May Fall, but the Threat to Shipping Will Persist
Whether Hodeidah falls to coalition forces after a street-by-street campaign of urban warfare – the Houthi excel at using well-supplied individual or small groups of fighters to hold positions against superior forces – or through negotiation its loss is unlikely to bring the war in Yemen to an end. Further, the city lies well outside of the rebel movements traditional strongholds in the provinces of Amran and Saada and any loss in port revenue will likely be made up for by taxing goods, including humanitarian aid and supplies, when they enter territory under their control. Should control of the city change hands this could result in an increased risk to both military and commercial vessels in the waters of the Bab al-Mandab Strait and Red Sea off the coast of Yemen.
Next Target: the Highly Strategic Coastal Region between Hodeidah and Midi
The loss of Hodeidah and its port may hamper the ability of the rebels to strike at civilian and military vessels operating off the coast of Yemen but will be insufficient to eliminate this threat. After the battle approximately 200km of Yemen’s coastline between the city and the northern port city of Midi will still remain under the control of Houthi forces. Access to civilian maritime radar will also likely continue so long as the Houthi maintain control over the port of Salif located approximately 60km north of Hodeidah. The strategic value of this coastal territory can also be understood due its use by Iran to smuggle boatloads of weapons and related illicit technology which, in addition to supporting their conventional forces, also allow them to maintain their strategic ballistic missile capabilities. Should coalition forces succeed in capturing Hodeidah it is can be anticipated that securing control over this region will become an immediate key military objective.
A Matter of ‘Use it or Lose It’ for Houthi anti-Ship Capabilities
A military offensive targeting the coastal region between Hodeidah and Midi would not only force Houthi leaders to plan for its defence but also face the strategic question of when, or even if, to use their remaining anti-ship capabilities against military and/or commercial vessels. While some of these weapons are dependent on direct access to the ocean. Examples of these include naval mines, water-borne improvised explosive devises (WBIEDS; aka ‘drone boats’),’low profile speed boats equipped with heavy-machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Rebel forces also possess HSY-2 “Silkworm”/ P21 “Styx”, C-801 “Sardine” and C-802 “Saccade” anti-ship cruise missiles as well as weaponized drones such as the “Qasef-1” / “Abadil”. While the loss of this territory – and access to civilian vessels in the port of Salif – could be compensated by the continued activity of the Iranian “mothership” Saviz, which has been accused of using its own onboard maritime radar to participate in previous attacks on military and commercial vessels, the further Houthi forces are forced from the coast will diminish their ability to effectively use these assets against maritime targets.
Although it cannot be discounted that an attempt may be made by rebels to repurpose their remaining anti-ship assets for use against land-based targets or even choose to destroy or abandon them in the face of advancing coalition forces there is a risk that a decision to ‘use it or lose it’.
Faced with a deteriorating strategic situation it is possible that the leadership of the Houthi movement would be able to obtain the support of the Iranian Government to resume targeting military and commercial vessels in either an attempt to bring about a halt to the advance of coalition forces or else engage in their own campaign of retaliation for losses suffered. However, any decision by policy-makers in Tehran to permit, or even order, is unlikely to be motivated solely by events on the ground in Yemen. Instead, this could represent an attempt to achieve a number of different objectives. These could range from the basic desire to force both sides to the negotiating table or, in what could be considered a worst-case scenario, employ a proxy to retaliate against what are seen as attacks against Iran’s own political, economic and military interests.
The nature of the threat to shipping that may emerge as a consequence of the battle for Hodeidah demands the attention of ship owners and operators of vessels flagged to countries participating in the anti-Houthi coalition. Likewise, in addition to the general risk of target misidentification other vessels transiting through the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea should be equally vigilant. Such caution should especially apply to vessels flying under the flag of countries whose governments sell weapons to coalition forces or have recently participated in actions hostile towards Iranian interests.
On 23 November 2016, NATO announced that it has ended Operation Ocean Shield after a sharp decline in attacks by Somali pirates. While there has been no vessel hijacked off Somalia since May 2012, the threat of piracy remains high despite no major incidents reported. This is due to the fact that pirate action group’s (PAGs) operating in the region continue to maintain the capability and drive to launch attacks in a bid to successfully hijack a merchant vessel.
MS Risk advises all vessels transiting this region to remain aware that while NATO has ended its operations in the area, the threat remains high and continued vigilance and compliance with BMP4 procedures is necessary. The threat remains high in waters off the southern Red Sea/Bab el Mandeb, Gulf of Aden – including Yemen and the northern Somali Coast – Arabian Sea/Off Oman, the Gulf of Oman and off the eastern and southern Somali coast. In the past, incidents of vessels being attacked have been recorded in waters off Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, the Seychelles and Tanzania, as well as in the Indian Ocean and off the western and southern coasts of India and western Maldives. We advise that all vessels continue to maintain a 24-hour visual and radar watch. We further remind all Masters that fishermen operating in this region may try to protect their nets by attempting to aggressively approach merchant ships. Some fishermen may be armed and should no be confused with pirates.
MS Risk further advise merchant vessels transiting the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden to also operate under a heightened state of alert due to increasing tensions in the region, which can escalate the potential for direct or collateral damage to ships transiting this area. We advise that all vessels transiting this region should report any incidents or suspicious activity immediately. The threat may come from a number of different sources including missiles, projectiles or waterborne improvised explosive devices. Houthi rebels have claimed responsibly for the 1 October 2016 attack on a UAE vessel.
All ships and patrol aircraft under NATO Operation Ocean Shield have now left the area off the Horn of Africa. The Royal Danish Air Force carried out the last Indian Ocean surveillance missions for NATO, with the commander of the Danish air force detachment disclosing that NATO can resume its anti-piracy efforts at any time – whether in the Somali basin or the Atlantic Ocean.
Ships and patrol aircraft operating under the mission had been patrolling waters in this region since 2009 as part of a broader international effort to crackdown on Somali-based pirates who were impacting world shipping. The Ocean Shield operation, as well as European Union (EU) counter-piracy mission, have significantly reduced attacks, with the last reported vessel hijacking off Somalia occurring in May 2012 – down from more than thirty ships at the peak in 2010 – 2011.
NATO is now shifting its resources towards deterring Russia in the Black Sea and people smugglers in the Mediterranean. Earlier this month, NATO broadened its operations in the Mediterranean Sea in a bid to help the EU stop criminals trafficking refugees from North Africa.
According to the latest Oceans Beyond Piracy report, the cost of Somali piracy to the global economy fell by almost half last year as attacks in the region continued to decline. However piracy in West Africa continued to rise.
According to the Oceans Beyond Piracy report, attacks carried out by Somali pirates in 2013 continued to decline, with only 23 vessels being attacked throughout the past year. While no large vessels transiting the region were successfully attacked or hijacked, the threat of piracy to regional traffic remains high.
Armed security teams aboard vessels in the Indian Ocean were relatively prevalent on those vessels reporting suspect activity: 100 vessels out of 145 reporting suspicious approaches had security teams aboard, as did 10 out of the 19 vessels that reported attacks. Furthermore, twenty-seven of the 100 vessels with security teams aboard during suspicious approaches reported firing warning shots in a bid to deter suspicious approaches, while eight out of ten vessels with security teams on board during attacks reported exchanging fire with pirates.
The latest annual security report put the total cost of Somali piracy at US $3.2 billion (£1.88 billion) in 2013. Over the past year, there were still at least fifty hostages being held captive in Somalia.
At the height of Somali pirate attacks in 2011, up to a dozen or more merchant vessels were being held captive at any one time as pirate gangs awaited to receive multimillion-dollar ransom payments. While Somali piracy was by far the largest single threat to international shipping in recent years, the increase of international navies in the region, coupled with embarked security teams on board vessels transiting the High Risk Area (HRA), has resulted in a sharp decline in pirate attacks, with the last successful hijacking of a merchant vessel occurring two years ago. However this decline is easily reversible. Furthermore, this decline in Somali piracy has effectively paved the way for a new region to take over the status of being a piracy hot spot.
West African Piracy
For the second year in a row, the number of piracy attacks in West Africa was greater than that in the Indian Ocean. According to statistics provided by Oceans Beyond Piracy, an estimated 100 attacks occurred off West Africa in 2013. This included 42 hostage-taking attacks and 58 robbery attempts.
In the past year, the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa has developed into the new piracy threat to international shipping, however pirate and criminal gangs operating in the region greatly differ from those groups operating in the Gulf of Aden. Reports of piracy attacks, kidnappings and hijackings in the Gulf of Guinea have demonstrated that piracy in the region are more violent then those seen in waters off Somalia. According to the new Oceans Beyond Piracy, analysts have observed “…a high degree of violence in this region,” adding that “the constantly evolving tactics of West African piracy make it extremely difficult to isolate it from other elements of organized crime.”
While providing accurate statistics for the Gulf of Guinea continues to be difficult, mainly due to incomplete reporting, it is evident that there was a rise in the number of seafarers who were kidnapped in the region last year.
Heads of states in West Africa have called for the deployment of an international naval force that will aid in curbing the growing threat of piracy off the Gulf of Guinea. There are currently more pirate attacks occurring off the coast of West Africa than in the waters off Somalia, which used to be a piracy hotspot. Patrols by foreign warships, as part of the European Union’s and Nato’s anti-piracy operations, have reduced attacks by Somali pirates, with the last successful vessel hijacking occurring thirteen months ago. Piracy off Somalia decreased by 78% in 2012 when compared with 2011. With Somali piracy significantly on the decline, mainly due to increased patrolling of the waters coupled with the presence of security teams on board vessels transiting through the region and better practices by the ship’s captains and crew, leaders in West African states are increasingly looking into the possibilities of deploying international navies in order to manage the issue.
Speaking at a meeting of West and Central African leaders in Cameroon’s capital Yaounde, the Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara highlighted that the growing threat from piracy in the region resulted in a need for the issue to be tackled with “firmness.” He further indicated that “I urge the international community to show the same firmness in the Gulf of Guinea as displayed in the Gulf of Aden, where the presence of international naval forces has helped to drastically reduce acts of piracy.” Cameroon’s President Paul Biya also noted that it was vital to respond to the threat and to protect shipping routes and the economic interests of the region.
According to statistics released by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), for the first time, more pirate attacks were reported in the Gulf of Guinea than off the coast of Somalia, in which about 960 sailors were attacked in West Africa in 2012, compared with 851 that occurred in the waters off Somalia. However while attack numbers have sharply decreased in Somalia, at least 78 hostages are still being held captive by Somali pirates. Some of them have been held for long periods of time. A number of security sources have indicated that waters off the coast of Nigeria, which is Africa’s largest oil producer, have the highest risk of pirate activity in the region.
Although pirates in West Africa typically only steal fuel cargo and the crew members’ possessions, attacks in the region have been known to be extremely violent. IMB has reported that five of the 206 hostages kidnapped last year off vessels transiting through Western Africa have been killed. In sharp contrast, pirates in Somalia typically seize a vessel and its crew members and hold them until a hefty ransom is paid.