By: THE VICE
When the U.S. Navy received a call Sunday from an Israeli-owned commercial ship off the coast of Yemen, the assumption was, according to U.S. and European intelligence officials, that Iranian-backed Houthi militants had targeted the vessel as part of an ongoing campaign to harass shipping in support of their allies in Hamas.
“The problem, of course, is that the pirates were Somali,” said an intelligence official from a NATO country that closely monitors international shipping. “Which is historically common but not currently.”
That Somali pirates, who have long targeted shipping in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Indian Ocean, might attempt to hijack a vessel would have been routine a decade ago but since 2017 incidents have mostly stopped due to aggressive patrolling by an international coalition. But on Sunday, the attempted hijacking of the Central Park, a Liberian-flagged tanker owned by an Israeli billionaire, by five armed Somalis continues to baffle investigators who suspect, but cannot yet prove, a link to the situation in Gaza, which has sparked a rise in incidents by Iranian proxy forces – including Yemen’s Houthi movement – targeting Israeli or U.S. targets around the region.
The Houthis seized an Israeli linked ship, the Galaxy Leader, on Nov. 19, in a dramatic helicopter assault released on social media. The group holds the ship and its 25 member, non-Israeli, crew. The Houthis, who control much of civil war-torn Yemen, have also repeatedly fired long range drones and cruise missiles at Israel, over 1000 miles away, during the fighting in Gaza. While each of the missiles have been intercepted and Houthis have respected the now five-day ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, the continuing incidents leave officials very nervous about the security of some of the world’s busiest sea lanes and possibility of other countries being dragged into the hostilities.
The Houthis released a series of videos on Nov 25 of Yemeni social media influencers dancing on the deck of the Galaxy Leader and distributing the locally popular mild narcotic Qat to the crew. The ship’s owners have called for the release of the crew and denied a link to Israel.
On Sunday, after the five armed men stormed the Central Park from a small skiff, the crew hid in a safe room after contacting a nearby U.S. Navy warship, the USS Mason. According to a Pentagon spokesperson, the five pirates attempted to flee in the skiff after the arrival of coalition vessels but were detained.
“They were Somali, but the Central Park is Israeli owned, which in itself is quite a coincidence considering the thousands of ships that pass that corridor,” said a security consultant for a major shipping company, who asked not to be named or their client identified. “But after the hijacking was disrupted by the arrival of the Americans, the Houthis fired missiles at both ships. That makes it complicated and leads to fears the Houthis outsourced the operation in an effort to avoid being seen breaking the ongoing ceasefire in Gaza.”
At least two missiles fired from Houthi controlled areas landed within about ten nautical miles of the Central Park and USS Mason, according to the Pentagon, after the hijacking was disrupted.
“While certainly still capable of piracy, the Somalis have been much less active since 2017,” said the NATO official. “But it wouldn’t be hard to hire some guys to storm a ship in the region and maybe the Houthis wanted to add pressure without being accused of breaking the ceasefire.”
“We continue to investigate the incident for possible links to transnational terrorism,” said a U.S. official on the condition of anonymity. “But it’s entirely possible the suspects didn’t know who they were working for.”
Since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas and its Gaza-based allies on Israeli communities and bases surrounding the tiny coastal enclave of 2.2 million people that killed about 1200 people, and the Israeli response which has killed at least 12,000 people and flattened much of Gaza, allies of Hamas in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria have targeted both Israel and U.S. forces throughout the region. The recent ceasefire has been honoured by the Hamas allies, except for Sunday’s unsuccessful missile attack on the ships.
Hezbollah, a key Hamas ally in Lebanon, have exchanged artillery and missile fire with the Israelis along the UN designated border between the two countries, and despite honouring the Israeli-Hamas ceasefire, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and other Iranian-aligned groups represent a major regional threat, according to the U.S. official.
“It’s a disastrous situation overall,” they said. “The only way this gets worse is if Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Yemen continue to escalate throughout the region. This has always been the concern because the U.S. might get drawn in militarily. The efforts to avoid this involvement aren’t just up to the U.S. Iran, Hezbollah and the Houthis all get a vote on how far this goes.”
A Hamas official based in Beirut denied regional coordination between Hamas and other Iranian-backed groups over Gaza but said that each group was free to decide about its involvement.
“Hamas is focused on the war in Gaza,” said Abu Ahmed, who works with top Hamas official Osama Hamden. “The resistance bloc is aligned on the issue of [Israel] but operates independently according to their own decisions.”
A Hezbollah commander in Beirut agreed but added that the regional allies closely coordinated as peers, not proxies of Iran and other groups.
“Hezbollah trusts its leadership, both military and political,” said Abu Jawwad. “Each of Hezbollah’s allies makes their own operational decisions but the leaders work together in cooperation. These decisions will be made by our commanders.”
“Every member of the resistance [bloc] wants to confront [Israel] but it’s not an individual decision.”