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Bab el Mandeb: The Gate of Tears

Lydelle Joubert: 11 Nov 2016

In October 2016 several attacks were reported in the Bab el Mandeb. While some are linked to the conflict in Yemen, the intention of other perpetrators were not quite so obvious.

The Bab el Mandab is a 27km wide strait between Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea connecting the Red sea with the Gulf of Aden, effectively forming a chokepoint at Perim Island located in the gate. It is of strategic importance as almost all trade to Europe from the Indian Subcontinent and Asia moves through this gate. 3.8 million barrels of oil were shipped through this chokepoint in 2013

Yemeni forces loyal to president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Saudi coalition forces seized Perim Island in October 2015. They also control a pocket on the Red Sea around Aden, but Houthi forces and groups remaining loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh control the high ground overlooking the Bab el Mandeb on the Yemeni side as well as most of the coastal areas along the Red Sea which include several ports. The port of Assab on the Eritrean side was leased to the UAE for a period of 30 years in 2015. The Gulf countries are using the port as part of their military campaign against the Houthis.

The location of Somalia close to the Strait further heightens the current threat level in this area.

Pirate havens in Somalia

According to a recent United Nations Security Council report state building efforts in Somalia, international naval efforts, capacity building and anti-piracy policies in the region all contributed to a reduction of safe onshore havens for pirates in Somalia. Attacks on sea are further deterred by the presence of naval forces and onboard security guards as well as the implementation of security measures. The report makes it clear that the situation remains fragile and reversible. Although progress has been made, the underlying socio- economic and security factors which are the root causes for piracy remain a problem.

No commercial vessels have been hijacked by Somali pirates for the last three years. Dhows and fishing trawlers were however still taken. The 26 hostages from the Naham 3 were freed in October 2016. Ten hostages from the Siraj remain, and three hostages from the Abdi Khan are unaccounted for. A 150km stretch of land between Xarardheere and Garacad remains a safe haven for pirates. There are also indications that pirate groups in this area as well as an area east of Bosaso in Puntland are being organized and equipped for potential attacks. The location of several pirate kingpins is also still unknown.


The Saudi coalition enforces an air and sea blockade on Houthi held territory in Yemen to prevent logistical support and weapons entering the country. Two fishing dhows with large weapon consignments were confiscated in 2016 by EUNAVFOR. It is alleged that some of these weapons were smuggled from Iran destined for Yemen, a claim that Iran denies. Fishing dhows are involved in cross ocean smuggling of weapons, people and other contraband in the area.

The naval blockade creates challenges for aid agencies in gaining access and clearance for food deliveries. A great part of the country experiences food insecurity. More than 10 000 people died in the conflict since March 2015. Many more are injured and displaced.

Saudi intensified its air campaign in 2016, while the Houthis launched several rocket attacks and cross-border incursions into Saudi. No parties to the conflict honour UN ceasefire agreements. Both the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) use the ongoing conflict to expand their operations and influence in the area.

Timeline of maritime related incidents in October 2016

1 October 2016 - The Houthis claimed responsibility for a missile attack on the logistics catamaran, HSV-2-Swift near the port of Mokha. The attack caused substantial damage but no reported loss of life. According to reports the vessel was leased by the United Arab Emirates military from the UAE dredging company to transport medical aid and other supplies. The Houthis claim that the HSV-2-Swift is a UAE military warship transporting logistical aid to Yemeni troops loyal to President Hadi. Experts concluded that C-802 missiles were used in the attack. The US responded by sending three warships , USS Mason, USS Nitze and USS Ponce to the area.

3 October 2016 - A suspicious approach was reported by the chemical tanker, MT Nushi Nalini north of Bab el Mandeb. 7 October 2016 - Unconfirmed claims on social media that the Houthis launched two Uragan rockets on Perim Island.

8 October 2016 - Saudi coalition airstrikes hit a funeral in Sanaa killing 140 and wounding at least 525 people. Several prominent Houthi political and military leaders were killed during the attack. This incident prompted the attack on the USS Mason.

9 October 2016 – The navy Destroyer, USS Mason reported a failed missile attack from the Yemeni shore north of Bab el Mandeb. USS Mason launched two Standard Missile-2s (SM-2s) and a single Evolved Seasparrow Missile (ESSM) to intercept the two missiles and used its Nulka anti-ship missile decoy. This was the first time that US forces came under direct fire since the conflict started.

12 October 2016 – A second missile attack on the USS Mason was reported.

13 October 2016 – The US fired on and destroyed the Radar installations at Ras Issa, Al Khawkhah and Mokha in retaliation for the attack on the USS Mason. The strikes represent the first direct US military action against Houthi-controlled targets in Yemen. To date the US contributed to the coalition effort through intelligence, weapon sales and aircraft refuelling support to the Saudi-led coalition, as well as drone strikes against Al Qaeda targets.

22 October 2016 – The chemical tanker, CPO Korea returned fire after six men in a skiff attacked the vessel 330nm off the east coast of Somalia. The vessel was on route to Durban, South Africa from Kandla, India.

25 October 2016 – The LNG Tanker, Galicia Spirit was approached by three men in a small boat 8nm off Perim Island, Bab el Mandeb. Circumstances around this incident are unclear as the incident changed from an attack with an RPG, to an attack by small arms and then an attack with a small boat laden with explosions. The latest reports indicated that the explosives detonated prematurely 20m from the vessel, destroying the small boat in the process.

26 October 2016 – The product tanker, Melati Satu reported an attack by RPG and small arms in the Bab el Mandeb Strait area.

NATO warned of an incidental threat to shipping in the Bab el Mandeb and advised vessels to remain as far west and south of Yemen as possible as well as using the western traffic separation scheme in the northern Bab el Mandeb Strait. It is also advised to transit the Strait in daylight hours and to maintain best speed.

It is recommended to follow Best Management Practices (BMP4) and to employ well trained and experienced guards. As fishermen are often armed in this area, and the situation is more tense than normal, it would be easy for inexperienced operators in this area to misjudge intent of fishing dhows. Not acting in time can be equally damaging.

For a detailed piracy report report for October 2016 -

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