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Hotspot – Sabotage

Hotspot – Sabotage
27 Jun
Following a series of assaults on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, owned by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Norway, Klaus Dodds examines the role of sabotage in modern conflicts

Sabotage was used by Allied forces during the Second World War to great effect. The Special Operations Executive (SOE) hand-picked and trained saboteurs who were trained to detonate and demolish. SOE successes included Operation Jaywick in September 1943, which involved a small commando force from the Allied Z Special Unit sinking Japanese ships in Singapore harbour. They approached the vessels by stealth disguising themselves as local fishermen. Direct action including sabotage was a persistent feature of the Cold War. More recently, cyber-attacks directed against critical infrastructure is, as Estonia discovered in 2007, a disturbing example of sabotage updated for the digital era. 

In May, Donald Trump was incandescent. A presidential tweet warned Iran that ‘direct action was coming’. As the US commander in chief explained: ‘If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!’ What had provoked such ire? 

Apart from the issues that preoccupy the president such as Iran’s nuclear capacities, support for Hezbollah, hostility towards Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as regional power status, the source of anger was sabotage. US intelligence alerted the president to the strong possibility that Iran was culpable for a series of assaults on oil tankers in the Persian/Arabic Gulf. Four tankers, registered to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Norway, were damaged by explosives attached to their respective hulls. The attacks took place in busy port of Fujairah in the UAE. 

The US intelligence assessment was, it was reported, shared by the insurance agency of the Norwegian vessel. Informing the assessment of Iranian culpability (either directly or via proxy) was a forensic analysis of the explosives and the four damaged vessels.

The Norwegian report carried out by the Shipowners’ Mutual War Risks Insurance Association reportedly concluded that the underwater drones carried explosives designed to detonate on impact with the targeted vessels. It is the first time that underwater drones have captured the interest of military analysts and insurance investigators. Russia is investing in drone capability and the Directorate of Deep-Sea Research is responsible for managing vessels such as Yantar which might be involved in underwater submarine cable operations. The Yantar can detect cables, jam underwater sensors and cut them using drones. Cutting cables (including accidental damage via dragging anchors or fishing activities) is more worrisome because it disrupts military and civilian communication, surveillance and information-gathering capacities. 

The timing of the attacks was not accidental. In May, the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group and accompanying amphibious ready group and bomber force task force were operating close to the Persian/Arabic Gulf. The deployment is designed as a show of military strength directed against Iran. In the recent past, there has been a history of incidents involving US and Iranian military vessels coming close to one another in strategic choke-points such as the Straits of Hormuz. National Security Advisor John Bolton was unequivocal on why the carrier group were carrying out military exercises in region; Iran was and is escalating military tension. 

Map of the Persian/Arabic GulfMap of the the Gulf (with Fujairah in the bottom right corner)The sabotage incident involving those four vessels followed on from concerns that Iran might have responsible for other acts of sabotage. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard is accused of supplying Houthi militia forces with surface and aerial drone vessels designed to attack Yemeni assets. The Norwegian insurer’s report concluded that the shrapnel found on the attacked Norwegian vessel off Fujairah appeared similar to that recovered in other drone-related incidents in Yemen. Houthi rebels have been accused of carrying out attacks against Yemeni and Saudi critical infrastructure including Najran airport, which lies to the west of Riyadh. Other attacks include ones against oil refineries in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi airport in July 2018. The patterns of attacks in the immediate region appear to be very deliberate; they are directed towards those who are supporting the Saudi-backed coalition against the Houthi rebels. The impact on civilians throughout has been dire with thousands killed and millions displaced, as the opposing sides attack and counter-attack one another. 

While the humanitarian stakes are considerable, the geopolitical and geo-economic consequences are substantial. Fujairah is a strategically vital harbour. Every day, millions of barrels of oil and gas condensates pass through the UAE’s territorial waters. The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow passage connecting the Persian/Arabic Gulf to the Arabian Sea and thereafter Indian Ocean. Gas and oil exports are crucial to European and Asia customers. When Iran threatens to block or interfere with maritime traffic, the US in particular is likely to respond with a show of considerable military force. The US Fifth Fleet is tasked with this duty. Unable to match US naval power, Iran and its proxies is likely to turn to asymmetric warfare. Industrial sabotage is a tried and tested technique and drones are facilitators par excellence.

This was published in the July 2019 edition of Geographical magazine

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