Oil Tanker In Red Sea Struck In Mine Attack With Similarities To Past Iranian Strikes

A Maltese-flagged oil tanker was the victim of an attack in the Red Sea off the coast of Saudi Arabia earlier today. The damage was attributed to a naval mine, but breached the ship’s outer hull above the waterline, which might point to a limpet mine. Limpet mines were employed in a series of attacks on tanker ships that Iran or its regional proxies carried out in the Gulf of Oman last year. So far, no group has claimed responsibility, but Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have targeted commercial ships in the Red Sea in the past.

The MT Agrari, which is flagged in Malta, but operated by a Greek shipping company, TMS Tankers, came under attack early on Nov. 25, 2020, local time. Ambrey, a private maritime security company based in the United Kingdom, said that the tanker had originally set sail from Rotterdam in the Netherlands carrying an unspecified cargo, which it had unloaded at the Shuqaiq Steam Power Plant prior to the attack, according to the Associated Press. Shuqaiq is situated on Saudi Arabia’s southern Red Sea coastline around 60 miles north of the city of Jazan and less than 80 miles, at closest, from the Yemeni border.

A map showing the location of the Shuqaiq Steam Power Plant, which is close to where the attack on the MT Agrari occurred in the Red Sea., Google Maps

“Their vessel was attacked by an unknown source,” the Greek shipping company operating Agrari said in a statement to the Associated Press. “The Agrari was struck about 1 meter [~3.28 feet] above the waterline and has suffered a breach. It has been confirmed that the crew are safe and there have been no injuries.”

“The explosion took place in port limits and punctured the hull of the vessel,” Ambrey said in its own statement, appearing to refer to the port facilities at Shuqaiq. At the time of writing, the ship was still afloat and there were no official reports of oil or anything else leaking out into the Red Sea. Satellite imagery has emerged on social media showing what could be Agrari still at Shuqaiq’s dock and indicators of a potential fluid leak of some kind.

It’s worth noting that the Houthis in Yemen have employed locally-made naval mines, as well as anti-ship cruise missiles and remote-controlled unmanned suicide boats in attacks on both warships and commercial vessels in the Red Sea in the past. In 2018, Saleh Al Samad, then head of the group, had threatened the idea of “cutting off the Red Sea and international navigation” among other “strategic options” targeting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. A coalition airstrike killed Al Samad, among other Houthi leaders, that year.

An infographic that the US military previously released showing an Iranian-made explosive-laden unmanned suicide boat supplied to the Houthis in Yemen., DOD

Just yesterday, the coalition fighting the Houthis issued a statement that it had neutralized five Iranian-made mines in the southern Red Sea, blaming the attempted attacks on the Yemeni rebel group and decrying it as “a serious threat to maritime security in the Bab Al Mandab strait.” The Bab Al Mandab Strait links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and is a highly strategic passageway for oil tankers and other commercial shipping. There has been a growing threat posed by naval mines in the area, which we detailed some time ago.

However, the detail about the reported mine causing damage to the ship above the waterline is interesting. Typical naval mines detonate at or below the waterline, which, as noted, could indicate that a limpet mine was employed in this attack. Limpet mines are manually emplaced on a target, typically using large magnets.

Limpet mines of apparent Iranian origin were used in a series of attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman in 2019. The United States subsequently accused Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of carrying out those attacks. It is possible that Iranian proxies in the region, such as the Houthis, with support from the IRGC, may have also been responsible. 

An annotated image the US Navy released in 2019 showing damage to the oil tanker M/V Kokuka above the waterline from a likely limpet mine attack, as well as what a second apparent mine that failed to detonate. , USN

Damage above the waterline could also potentially be the result of an attack using some kind of projectile, such as an anti-ship missile. At high speed, the bow of an unmanned suicide boat may rise out of the water, leading to damage to the target ship above the waterline, as well. However, these possibilities seem to be less likely given Ambrey’s report on the incident.  

It’s also worth noting that the M/V Saviz, a cargo ship, is seen in the video below. The vessel is tied directly to the IRGC. Saudi Arabia, among others, has accused Iran of using this ship to support smuggling and other activities in support of the Houthis and it has operated in the southern Red Sea in the past in the same general area where the attack on Agrari took place. That vessel could potentially serve as a mothership for teams tasked with deploying naval mines or attaching limpet mines directly to other ships.

All of this comes just days after the Houthis targeted a facility belonging to the Saudi Aramco oil company in Jeddah, another city on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast further to the north of the Shuqaiq Steam Power Plant. The Yemeni rebels claimed that the strike involved a previously unknown ground-launched cruise missile, potentially related to an earlier Iranian-supplied design. The Houthis have been launching various kinds of cruise and ballistic missiles, as well as unmanned “suicide drones” at targets in Saudi Arabia for years now.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s monarchy appears to be finding itself under increasing pressure from President Donald Trump’s Administration in the United States to normalize relations with Israel. The country’s foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, has denied that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman secretly met with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Yossi Cohen, the director of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, in the Red Sea coastal resort town of Neom, much further to the north, over the weekend. The Crown Prince, also referred to simply as MBS, did meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Neom. 

This is part of a larger U.S. government push that has already seen the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain sign their own deals with Israel and that is also aimed, in no small part, at further isolating Iran. Attacking ships in and around the Bab Al Mandab Strait would certainly be one way for the regime in Tehran, either directly or via proxies, such as the Houthis, to apply its own pressure in response.

If nothing else, the attack on Agrari underscores that the very real threats to commercial shipping in the Red Sea that the Houthis and their Iranian partners pose and how both parties might further escalate things if they feel sufficiently pushed to action by other geopolitical developments in the region. 

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com

Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.