A Saudi frigate has come under a terrorist attack on January 31, 2017, by three suicide boats belonging to Houthi militias while it was on patrol west of Yemen’s Hodeida port. One of the Houthi boats collided with the rear of the Saudi warship, resulting in the explosion of the boat and a fire in the rear of the ship. The crew was able to extinguish the fire, but two members of the ship’s crew were killed in the attack while three others were injured. The Saudi frigate presumed military mission, enforcing a blockade on the nearby Houthi-controlled port of Hodeida.
However, the Saudi, Iranian, and Houthi media disagree on whether a missile or bomb-laden boat carried out the attack. Iranian state media claimed the attack was carried out by Houthi militants in Yemen with a guided missile against a Saudi navy vessel. The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels' official news channel, Al-Masira, contradicted the Saudi report, quoting a military source as saying the explosion was caused by a guided missile they fired.
The Houthi-run Saba news agency released a footage claiming to show the attack on the Saudi ship and a statement saying, “The targeted Saudi warship was taking part in the aggression against the Yemeni western coastal cities and fishermen."
In October 2016, the same Houthi militants successfully struck a United Arab Emirates vessel with an anti-ship cruise missile in the waters off Yemen's western coast. Later in October, Houthi militants shot missiles at US ships, which the US intercepted. Former President Barack Obama launched cruise missile strikes on coastal radar sites in response.
American defense analysts say that after analyzing video footage of the attack, a voice can be heard shouting in Arabic: “Allahu akbar [God is great], death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews and victory for Islam.” They added that the attack against the Saudi frigate off the Yemen coast might have been intended for a US ship.
The United States has placed a Navy destroyer, the USS Cole, in the vicinity of the Bab al-Mandab Strait off southwestern Yemen to protect waterways from Houthi militia aligned with Iran, amid heightened tension between Washington and Tehran.
The attack against the Saudi vessel comes against the background of the Saudi Arabian coalition's operation "Golden Spear," aimed at liberating the Bab al-Mandab strait, all the west coast of Yemen, including the ports and entire Taiz province. For more than two weeks, government forces along with a number of military advisers from the Saudi-led Arab coalition have battled Al Houthis and renegade army units loyal to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Yemeni forces backed by the Saudi-led Arab Coalition freed the strategic Red Sea port city of Mocha in Yemen’s Taiz Governorate, from Iran-aligned Houthis on January 26, 2017. The liberation of Mocha was a main target achieved by phase one of Operation Golden Spear and has facilitated moving to the operation’s next target, Hodeidah, the largest port in the area controlled by Iran-backed militants.
The command of the coalition asserts that the continuation of the Houthi militias' use of the port of Hodeida as a launching pad for terrorist operations is a serious development that would affect the international navigation and the flow of humanitarian and medical assistance into the port for Yemeni citizens.
The Bab al-Mandab strait is a strategically vital maritime route connecting the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. This strait is vitally sensitive, not only to all countries bordering the Red Sea, but to the world trade as a whole. Warships operating in the Bab al-Mandab will be at risk until Yemen's coastline is secure. Operation Golden Spear aimed at liberating the Bab al-Mandab strait, all the west coast of Yemen, including the ports and entire Taiz province. The attack on the Saudi vessel should be considered as a part of the ongoing fighting between the coalition forces, and the Iran-backed Houthis over the control of the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the west coast of Yemen.
Yemeni government increased military pressure on the rebel alliance to create fissures between the Houthi movement and the Saleh loyalists. Beyond tactical military gains, the operation appears intended to achieve the broader political goal of the resumption of negotiations. Already the Houthi-Saleh bloc agreed in November 2016, to negotiate on the basis of the UN roadmap. It seems that now the government and coalition are determined to try to break the military stalemate and bring them back to talks in a weaker position.
The attack on the Saudi Arabian ship raises two main questions: (1) what was the modus operandi of the attack (anti-ship missile or suicide attack); and (2) what was the target of the attack (American or Saudi) vessel.
Saudi Arabian ships are high priority targets for the Houthi rebels, and they claimed responsibility for several attacks against Saudi Arabian ships but the Saudis denied all the Houthi claims in the past.
If the attack has been intended for a US ship, then the attackers either believed the ship belonged to the US or were using the attack as a dry run for an attack on US ships.
If the Saudi report is the correct one, then it was the first naval suicide bombing conducted by the Houthi rebels in a repeat of the incident in which al-Qaeda attacked USS Cole in 2000, killing 17 US sailors. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps use small, fast boats regularly in the Persian Gulf using tactics similar to those seen in the Saudi frigate attack.
The Houthi rebels have used anti-ship missiles in October 2016 against UAE and American vessels, and it might be considered as a permanent threat to US, Saudi and other coalition ships operating in the area.
This incident has even wider implications. Iran's backing of the Houthi rebels necessarily raises comparisons between the Bab al-Mandab situation and the significant choke point in the Persian Gulf's Strait of Hormuz and Iran is watching how the Trump administration and the Saudi coalition respond to the incident.
Several US vessels are in the area in support of the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels, and the US warships are well equipped and prepared for such attacks, but the Saudi coalition naval forces will have to find the technological and operational responses to the threat of suicide boats and anti-ship missiles.