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Indian Ocean High Risk Area (HRA) Update

June 2nd 2017
May has once again seen increased activity in the Southern Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. While several suspicious approaches have been piracy-related, an incident on May 31st has underlined the increasing risk of maritime terrorism and spillover from the conflict in Yemen.


Attacks against both merchant ships and military vessels have occurred since 2016, with a Saudi frigate badly damaged by a VBIED ‘suicide boat’ (which was believed to have been controlled remotely) as well as a similar attack against a merchant ship. Sea mines have been found on several occasions around both Mocha and Midi ports, with the Yemeni Coast Guard striking one earlier this year which resulted in at least two deaths.


The incident on May 31st has not been assessed as piracy-related by the military bodies in the region, although IMB has categorized it as such. The incident occurred just off Perim Island, in the mouth of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and at around 0718 UTC and, while the reports have been confusing, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge.


Reports state that the MT Muskie, a Marshall Islands-flagged product tanker, was approached by at least one skiff (two are cited in reports) and that it was engaged with small arms fire. The ship’s armed security returned fire and three RPG rounds were reportedly fired at the tanker by the occupants of one skiff. A second merchant ship observing the incident claimed to have seen two skiffs, with smoke emerging from one. The suggestion over VHF radio at the time was that one skiff may have been on fire. Experts familiar with the RPG weapon system, however, suggest that this may simply have been due to the firing of the weapon.


At present, the nature of the actors involved and their motivation remains unclear. However, it is fair to assume that if they were not Somali pirates, they were either Houthi-Saleh rebels attempting to attack a merchant ship or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) terrorists doing the same.


For the merchant marine, the nature of the threat is the more important aspect. If vessels are now going to be routinely targeted by RPG fire, then CSOs must update risk assessments and ensure that their vessels register with UKMTO/MSCHOA prior to entering the HRA in order to ensure domain awareness by naval assets. The risk of spillover from the conflict in Yemen is not going to vanish in the near future and CSOs should factor this risk in to all passage planning in the region. CSO Alliance continues to liaise with EUNAVFOR and UKMTO regarding the incident and we hope to be able to share further developments on the platform.