The Saudi-led coalition said it intercepted and destroyed an explosives-laden boat launched from Yemen by the Iran-backed Houthi group on September 19, 2019, an incident that could further increase regional tensions after the attack on Saudi oil installations.
“The coalition’s naval forces detected an attempt by the terrorist Houthi militia backed by Iran to carry out an imminent act of aggression and terrorism south of the Red Sea using an unmanned, rigged boat... launched from Hodeidah province,” coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki said in a statement. Malki said that the foiled attack represented a threat to regional and international security and the safety of maritime routes and international trade. He did not specify the intended target.
There was no confirmation by the Houthi movement, which had claimed responsibility for the September 14 attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Riyadh has rejected the claim and said those strikes did not come from Yemen.
The Saudi Response
The coalition launched a military operation north of Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah against Houthi military targets just hours after it intercepted the bomb-laden boat. The coalition said it had destroyed four sites used in assembling remote-controlled boats and sea mines to help protect the freedom of maritime navigation.
“These sites are used to carry out attacks and terrorist operations that threaten shipping lines and international trade in the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the southern Red Sea,” coalition spokesman Col. Malki said in a statement.
The Houthi movement in Yemen said through its Masirah TV that the coalition had breached an UN-brokered ceasefire deal that reached in Stockholm last year to halt the fight in Hodeidah, saying that they are ready to confront “any possible military escalation.”
The Rising Threat of Suicide Unmanned Craft
The IRGCN has concentrated on acquiring and developing small fast boats: patrol boats, commando boats, missile boats, torpedo boats, and fast attack crafts. Those developments have included unmanned surface craft. The unmanned fast boats have been in the Iranian inventory since 2010.
Booby-trapped boats are among the most significant modifications made by Iranian-backed Houthi militia. The boats used by the Houthis were modified speedboats powered by two outside engines, equipped with cameras and navigational computers, GPS systems and many electronic components, and laden with explosive devices. The boats were adjusted to reduce their visibility on the water surface.
According to a US military assessment on threats from unmanned craft, “utilizing suicide unmanned surface craft is an asymmetric strategy which both allows Iran and it’s proxies to compete on an uneven playing field and poses a risk by allowing operators to pick and choose targets of opportunity. The asymmetric advantage the Iranians have provided the Houthi’s have been instrumental in extending the conflict.”
Houthi Naval Attacks
Over the past three years, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have faced a number of attacks by the Houthis, who used explosive-laden boats against military and commercial targets, including oil tankers.
On July 9, 2019, naval forces from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen foiled an attempted Houthi attack on an unidentified commercial ship in the southern Red Sea. Spokesman Col. Malki said the coalition had destroyed an unmanned boat laden with explosives which the militants had used for the attack. A Houthi military spokesman denied targeting commercial shipping in the area, the group’s Al Masirah TV reported, calling the claims “pure slander and completely baseless.”
On September 9, 2018, Yemeni naval forces foiled a bombing operation in which Houthi militias were planning to attack international shipping in the Red Sea with a booby-trapped boat. An improvised explosive device was planted on the boat and was speeding on international waters in the Red Sea. Yemeni naval forces were able to stop the boat and force it toward one of the uninhabited islands close by.
On August 23, 2018, the Arab coalition foiled an attack by Houthi militants using a booby-trapped speed boat full of explosives to target commercial vessels. The boat was launched from the shore near the port of Hodeidah.
In August 2018, the Saudi-led coalition denied it had been hit by a Houthi rebel attack, saying it had foiled a booby-trapped boat attack by Yemen’s rebels in the Red Sea. The rebel-run Saba news agency stated that the Houthis hit a Saudi military target inside the kingdom’s territorial waters.
On July 8, 2018, the Houthis attacked two Saudi tankers in the Red Sea, one of which sustained minimal damage. The Houthis used unmanned, booby-trapped Blue Fish boat. Riyadh responded by temporarily suspending oil shipments through the strait, which the Houthis have in the past threatened to block.
On August 16, 2017, Yemeni forces destroyed an explosives-laden boat targeting a United Arab Emirates military vessel in Al-Mocha port. The Yemeni forces eliminated the threat before it reached the docked ship.
On July 29, 2017, Arab coalition forces in Yemen announced that the Houthi militias targeted Al-Mocha port with a remote-controlled booby-trapped boat. The boat hit a pier near a group of ships where it exploded but caused no losses.
On April 25, 2017, Saudi Arabian border guards in Jazan foiled a terror plot attempting to blow up a Saudi Aramco oil depot and distribution station using a booby-trapped boat. The boat was spotted at the time of its launch from one of the small islands in Yemeni waters. The boat’s speed increased to 34 knots when it entered Saudi waters, and it was headed to the petroleum products distribution station. When the border patrols intercepted the boat, it became clear that there were no people on board and that it was remotely controlled. The guards decided to fire at its engines and disable them before the boat could reach its target.
On January 30, 2017, a Saudi frigate Al Madinah came under attack while it was on patrol west of Yemen’s Hodeidah port. It was the first attack by an unmanned, remote-controlled craft in the Red Sea. A Houthi boat collided with the rear of the Saudi warship, resulting in the explosion of the boat and a fire at the rear of the ship. The crew was able to extinguish the fire, but two members of the ship’s crew were killed and three others were injured. The Saudi frigate presumed military mission, enforcing a blockade on the nearby Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah.
Since 2015, strategic sea trade routes near Yemen have come under increasing threats, and vessels near Yemen’s coast have been attacked by Houthi militants. The Houthi rebels used different tactics and weapon systems, including anti-ship missiles, armed speed boats, remote-controlled booby-trapped boats, and naval mines, all supplied by Iran.
The Houthis, who have threatened to widen attacks on Saudi Arabia, have in the past targeted vessels off Yemen, which lies on one side of the Bab al-Mandeb strait at the southern mouth of the Red Sea, one of the world’s most vital oil tanker routes.
The last incident came as the United States and Saudi Arabia consider responses to the assault on Saudi oil facilities, which Washington and Riyadh blame on common foe Iran. Tehran denies any involvement.
The escalating tension could hamper United Nations efforts to implement a stalled troop withdrawal deal in the main port of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis, which was agreed at peace talks in Sweden last year.
[Sources: Ahram Online, Middle East Monitor, USNI News, The Reference, Haaretz, Al Arabiya, The New Arab, Gulf News, sabanew.net, Jane’s Defense Weekly]