I would not want to be a Houthi guard aboard that hijacked merchant ship right now


While the Israeli war in Gaza against Hamas may be set for a temporary ceasefire, there is another Iranian-sponsored proxy that is definitely not taking a break – the Houthis. Yesterday and on the 15th of November they fired drones from their bases in northwest Yemen up the Red Sea towards southern Israel. Both times the drones were shot down by the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, USS Thomas Hudner, on patrol in the Red Sea as a missile and drone picket, and doing it rather well.

USS Carney did this before her, on 21 October, shooting down 19 drones and four cruise missiles. I don’t know if the US Navy still silhouette ‘kills’ on their bridge wings but she and the Hudner now have quite a collection. At the very least, I would hope that the respective Commanding Officers are bantering each under a thin veneer of congratulations.

Meanwhile, the Houthis have diversified their disruption efforts by hijacking a cargo ship in the southern Red Sea. Their leader, Abdul-Malik Badr al-Din al-Houthi, had previously stated, “all ships belonging to the Israeli enemy or that deal with it will become legitimate targets”. Despite the ongoing US and Israeli presence in the Red Sea, he has now acted, taking 25 crew members hostage in the process. Since then, two more vessels from the same group have been stopped whilst transiting the Red Sea.

As ever with merchant shipping, ownership isn’t simple. The Galaxy Leader, now in Houthi hands, is Isle of Man owned (Ray Car Carriers), Bahamas flagged, Japanese-operated, classified by Norwegian company DNV and insured by the West of England P&I. Her crew is from the Phillippines (majority), Bulgaria (Captain), Romania, Ukraine and Mexico. None are from Israel. In fact, the only link with Israel is Ray Car Carriers, a subsidiary of billionaire Abraham ‘Rami’ Ungar, whose company is domiciled in Israel. The Galaxy Leader also had no cargo onboard. It would have been hard to pick a less appropriate vessel.

One of the problems with transiting the Red Sea, and the thing that always made me cautious even in a warship, is that the chokepoints at the top and the bottom make it easy for people to get a fix on you. To go through the Suez Canal you hand over a load of information about the ship (which can be ‘obtained’) and then leave the area on a known course and speed. It’s therefore easy to work out when you will be at the bottom especially as the Iranian surveillance and special-operations support ship Behshad clocks you on the way past.

Ships often get identified in the Bab-el-Mandeb (the “Gate of Tears”) strait at the southern end of the Red Sea, too: distinctive vessels such as US aircraft carriers are easy to pick out on commercially available satellite pictures. Such a “drinking straw” view wouldn’t be very useful if you had to scan a whole ocean, but in the case of a narrow, unavoidable strait the bad guys and ship spotters know exactly where to look.

The Galaxy Leader wasn’t transmitting on her Automatic Identification System (AIS), an increasingly popular move by ship’s captains operating in areas with a high risk of piracy, but on this occasion it wouldn’t have mattered – she would have been tracked by other means; visually, by satellite, radar or by her electronic transmissions on radar. Turning off your AIS is a mixed blessing anyway; nothing says you have something to hide quite as clearly. Besides, the Houthis had made it clear that they would specifically target vessels transiting with AIS off.

The boarding itself, whilst an order of sophistication higher than the usual pirate boardings off the Horn of Africa, was rather Keystone Kops in its execution. The ageing MI-17 helicopter wobbled in all over the place and the boarding team of nine leapt out hitting their weapons on stanchions and pointing them everywhere, including at themselves. But with seemingly no resistance offered by the ship, the takeover was a success which they duly celebrated with a little dance. The amount of footage captured both during and after the capture makes it clear that they were going for maximum propaganda impact. It is also clear that many of the counter-piracy measures developed over the last decade have been forgotten, on this ship at least.

Whilst a helicopter boarding is a first for the Houthis, it is a tried and tested Iranian tactic. Tehran is denying all knowledge, but it’s clear where the idea, equipment and training came from.

USS Bataan underway in the Red Sea last month with elements of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) embarked. Note Marine helicopters, tiltrotors and Harrier jump jets parked on deck

USS Bataan underway in the Red Sea last month with elements of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) embarked. Note Marine helicopters, tiltrotors and Harrier jump jets parked on deck – Mass Communications Specialist 3rd Class Riley Gasdia/US Navy

It would be interesting to know if the Hudner was anywhere near when it happened. If she was positioned as a missile picket, she would likely have been too far up the Red Sea. If the Galaxy had time to issue a mayday, then any nearby warship would have closed at flank speed but as ever in these cases, even the relatively confined waters of the Red Sea aren’t actually that confined and you have to be lucky with your positioning because, by the time they are onboard, you are too late. Royal Navy doctrine dictates that if you want to counter-board a hijacked vessel that has hostages being held aboard, then that is a Special Forces gig which a destroyer crew isn’t allowed to carry out.

That said, the US amphibious ship Bataan is in the area with elements of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard. The 26th is designated as a special-ops capable unit, and will have Navy SEALs and spec-ops Marines trained in hostage operations. As of earlier in the week the Bataan was reportedly alongside in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, about halfway up the Red Sea. It’s also known that the US has an Ohio-class SSGN submarine in the area, with a docking bay and lockout chambers for mini-submarine and frogman operations and probably carrying another force of SEALs.

It will be worth watching both Bataan and the carrier Dwight D Eisenhower – the Ike, currently in the Gulf of Oman – over the next few days to see if either of them starts closing on the Bab El Mandeb strait. The Ohio-class, of course, could be anywhere. Given the strategic importance of the Red Sea to global trade it is hard to imagine the US allowing this sort of thing to carry on for much longer.

In terms of timelines, the Houthis originally promised that they would destroy the Galaxy Leader, so the clock is ticking. More generally it is clear that the Iranian-backed Houthis remain determined to keep the Red Sea open for business as a maritime component of the Gaza war. They haven’t fired any cruise missiles for a while so it’s possible that the Ike strike group did something about those when it went past two weeks ago. Nonetheless this hijack shows that the Houthis remain undeterred by the US presence. It also shows a degree of cunning and innovation hitherto unseen by them, even if the execution was a bit wobbly.

What this will do to insurance premiums remains to be seen, particularly for vessels linked to Israel. Meanwhile if I was a Houthi I wouldn’t be volunteering for night watches on the Galaxy Leader’s bridge just now because sooner or later someone is going to want to take it back. The people I know who do this for a living aren’t the sort to do a celebratory jig on completion.


Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy officer and warship captain

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