Analysis: Sabotage of Tankers off Fujairah Highlights Increased Threat to Shipping amid Escalating Gulf Tensions but Culprits Yet to be identified

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Description

  • Four oil product tankers were damaged on 12 May in what have been described as acts of sabotage in the Fujairah anchorage
  • No group has claimed responsibility for the incidents and officials have not identified the culprits but suspicion has fallen on Iran-backed Houthi rebels or Iraqi Shiite militias
  • The incident comes amid escalating tensions in the Gulf region between the US and Iran, with both sides trading threats and accusations in recent days
  • The incident has also raised concerns over the maritime security threat environment in the region, with Iran having repeatedly threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz as a measure against its US and regional rivals

The sabotage of four oil product tankers in the Fujairah anchorage, one of the world’s largest oil bunkering areas, on Sunday, 12 May, has raised concerns over maritime security in the Gulf of Oman and Persian Gulf. Although the damage to the four vessels was reportedly relatively light and there were no fatalities, the unprecedented incident has prompted a reassessment of threats amid rising tensions between regional actors in recent weeks.

With the US and its regional allies trading increasingly serious threats and accusations with Iran, the potential threats to shipping and freedom of navigation in the region have appeared as serious as at any time since the 1984-87 Tanker War. However, although suspicion has fallen on Iran-backed groups, there have so far been no claims of responsibility for the Fujairah attacks and information on many aspects of the incident remains limited.


Fujairah Incident and Attack Profiles

The Fujairah incident reportedly occurred in the early hours of Sunday morning when explosions occurred on or in proximity to four tankers in the anchorage. The first reports on the incident from Iranian media sources suggested that the explosions had occurred inside the port itself and that at least seven vessels were on fire, with smoke and flames visible from the shore.

Emirati authorities initially denied the reports, claiming that there had been no explosions or fire in the port, but later conceded that the four vessels had been ‘sabotaged’ in the anchorage. However, in contrast to initial Iranian reports, later reporting described the damage as relatively light and none of the vessels sank.

The four vessels involved in the incident were later identified as the Saudi Arabian-flagged very large crude carrier (VLCC) Amjad and aframax tanker Al Marzoqah, the Norwegian-flagged product tanker Andrea Victory, and the Emirati bunkering tanker A Michel. At least two of the vessels, the Andrea Victory and A Michel, were breached on or below the waterline while Saudi Arabia’s minister of energy announced that the other two tankers suffered significant, but unspecified, damage.

Later imagery showed a 1-2m waterline breach in the Andrea Victory’s transom and the A Michel listing slightly with a spill containment boom deployed around the stern. However, there were reportedly no fatalities or significant injuries from the attacks and no spills from any of the tankers.

The exact nature of the ‘sabotage’ was not immediately clear and has been subject to intense speculation. The visible damage on the Andrea Victory indicates that the sabotage was in the form of an external impact or blast, causing the hull around the breach to buckle inwards. Early reports from the vessel’s owners stated that it had been struck by an unknown object while the tanker operators’ association Intertanko suggested that at least two of the sabotaged tankers had been holed due to weapon impacts.

Such reports are consistent with several attacks on Saudi Arabian-flagged tankers in the southern Red Sea over the last two years by Houthi rebels using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) fired from small craft. However, damage from such weapon impacts has typically been well above the vessels’ waterline, weapon launches are also likely to have been detected and a small team would be unlikely to launch simultaneous attacks on four vessels dispersed around the large anchorage.

A more likely scenario would be the use of limpet mines or other medium-sized explosive charges placed on the hull of the vessels. The large number of small vessels at anchorages in the region often allows craft to pass close to tankers without being challenged, allowing saboteurs to discreetly place charges on several vessels, particularly at night. The relatively small scale of the attacks may indicate that they were intended as a demonstration of the saboteurs’ capabilities and a warning of possible further attacks.


Potential Perpetrators

Given the recent escalation in tensions in the Gulf region and the United Arab Emirates’ role in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, suspicion quickly fell on Iranian involvement in the Fujairah incident. Some governments, including the UAE and Norway, called for restraint following the incident and refused to be drawn on the identity of the saboteurs before the conclusion of an investigation.

However, several leaks from US government officials stated that US intelligence agencies believed Iran was involved in the attacks, albeit via proxy groups rather than directly. Very different theories were inevitably espoused on the other side of the Gulf, with Iranian officials denying any involvement, calling for a full investigation and suggesting that actors from a third country were involved.

On Wednesday, leaks from two US government officials stated that, with no evidence of direct Iranian involvement, US investigations into the incident were focusing on Tehran’s alleged role in encouraging one of two groups, Yemen-based Houthi rebels and Iraqi Shi’ite militias, to carry out the attacks.

Houthi rebels have posed a threat to shipping in the southern Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Bab al-Mandeb Strait throughout the conflict in Yemen, deploying naval mines in littoral waters under their control, launching RPG and ATGM attacks on coalition military vessels, and using sophisticated remotely-controlled water-borne improvised explosive devices (WBIEDs) to target Saudi Arabian-flagged tankers transiting in the region, even well outside the conflict zone.

While the group have previously demonstrated their intent and capability to carry out maritime attacks off Yemen, Sunday’s incident would represent a major increase in their ability to operate away from their west Yemen strongholds. There has been speculation that Houthi forces may have the opportunity to use local smuggling hubs to conduct unsophisticated attacks.

US suggestions of the involvement of Iraqi Shi’ite militias present a less likely scenario. The Iraqi militias have extremely limited experience of maritime operations from the country’s 30km (20 mile) coastline. However, the level of deniability the use of such militias gives the Iranian regime means that there is a realistic possibility they may be encouraged to launch sabotage operations and attacks on foreign assets from Iranian coastal areas.

Given the continued strength of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the region and the group’s previous experience of and success with maritime attacks, terrorism cannot be discounted as a motive in the Fujairah incident. However, previous maritime terrorist attacks in the region have tended to involve the use of suicide WBIEDs against high-profile targets such as US military vessels.

The limited scale of Sunday’s attack, with no casualties, are therefore not in keeping with previous AQAP attack trends, apparently being intended to cause disruption more than loss of life. The lack of any immediate claim of responsibility would also appear to reduce the likelihood of terrorist involvement in the incident, although the failure to sink any vessels would have been likely to discourage AQAP from claiming responsibility for an only partially successful attack.


Changes to Maritime Threat Environment

Tensions between the US and Iran have repeatedly spilled into the maritime domain over the last four decades, with recent years seeing Iranian officials issuing periodic threats to block the strategically important Strait of Hormuz in response to US activity in the Persian Gulf. In recent weeks, the threats against the strait, through which around a fifth of the world’s oil passes, have come in response to increased US sanctions against Iran which aim to severely restrict its oil exports.

The rapidly increasing tensions have seen US warnings of potential Iranian threats to US interests in the region and the deployment of military forces in the Gulf, including strategic bombers, a carrier strike group and an amphibious transport dock. On 9 May, the US Maritime Administration issued an advisory regarding the increased tensions in the region, warning that Iranian forces or proxy actors such as Houthi rebels could target US maritime interests in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, including oil infrastructure, commercial tankers and military vessels.

The warning came as an amendment to an earlier advisory from February regarding the potential harassment and boarding of US commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz by Iranian naval forces, a practice which has long frustrated western operators in the region. Other countries in the Persian Gulf, including Kuwait, are also reported to have increased security measures in their territorial waters and at oil facilities amid the escalating tensions, increasing naval and coast guard patrols and ordering tankers to increase their security level.

Following the unprecedented incidents in Fujairah, several countries, including Norway, are reported to have raised the security level for their vessels in the port and anchorage. The Lloyd’s Market Association Joint War Committee (JWC), which represents the London maritime insurance market, also met on Thursday to discuss the security situation in the region in the wake of the incident, discussing potential changes to the listed areas of enhanced risk to include Fujairah and other territorial waters in the Gulf.

However, the committee decided to defer any decision until a preliminary investigation into the incident is completed next week. Several companies, including the Japanese shipping group Nippon Yusen, are reported to have pre-empted the decision and altered routes to avoid stopping at Fujairah, although such a move would be likely to have a significant impact on operations and other companies have avoided changing plans until further information on the incident is released.


Outlook

Sunday’s incident has the potential to increase tensions yet further should the US openly accuse Iran of planning or encouraging the attack. Such an announcement would be likely to result in increased harassment of US-flagged vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz and an increased risk of disruption to tanker operation in the wider region. However, with the US deploying substantial military assets in the Gulf and senior Trump administration officials threatening direct action against Iran, Tehran is unlikely to launch larger-scale attacks on shipping in the area or encourage its proxy actors to do so in the medium term.

Nevertheless, there remains a realistic possibility of further sabotage operations in the medium term, although heightened security measures and awareness mean these will have a lower chance of success.