by James Spencer
On January 30, 2017, there was an explosion on a Saudi frigate sailing off the Red Sea coast of Yemen, killing two sailors. That much is uncontested. What is unclear—and politically explosive—is whether the Houthis mounted a suicide-boat attack against the frigate (as the Saudis claimed to Secretary of Defense James Mattis) or whether the explosion was caused by a surface-to-ship missile, as the Houthis claim.
At stake is more active US involvement in the Yemeni Civil War, in the name of “checkmating Tehran’s ambitions across the region.” US assistance might help get Saudi Arabia’s singed chestnuts out of a fire of its own making. It would, however, do little to checkmate Iran, as the Yemeni conflict is an intra-elite one, and Iran has only a tangential involvement, despite its politicians’ bombast and the Saudi-led coalition’s propaganda.
The cerebral Mattis would do well to look carefully before he leaps. As he well knows—and the Saudis have found out—getting into a fight is far easier than getting out of one. It’s worth a quick re-cap of the situation:
- The Saudis claimed to Mattis that “three Houthi suicide boats attacked a Saudi patrol frigate.” In fact, although there are clearly three boats and thus three camera angles filming the attack, there is only one explosion. (The Saudis have been economical with the truth on several other major issues in Yemen, such as denying the use of cluster munitions and denying responsibility for the Sana’a funeral hall attack.)
- The Houthi-Salihi faction has used surface-to-ship missiles before, destroying the HSV SWIFT and attacking the USS MASON (which defeated the missile using its ECM) in October 2016. Both of those attacks used spotters in the boats to confirm the targets (as in this case) and posted footage of the attack to the Internet (also as in this case).
- The Houthi-Salihis are not jihadis. They are Zaydi Shi’a who have no wish to die but rather want to enjoy the spoils of their rule for as long as possible. The main Muslim users of suicide attacks are Sunnis, especially Salafis. There have been similar attacks off Yemen, all by Salafi jihadis, such as the failed attack against the USS THE SULLIVANS, the successful attack against the MV LIMBURG, and the infamous attack against the USS COLE in Aden in 2000 that some have linked to the current “legitimate” vice president of Yemen.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) cheerfully asserted that “From a distance, the footage shows a third small boat approach the frigate, hit its stern, and explode in a massive fireball, seemingly contradicting initial reports of a missile strike.” However the embedded footage shows no such third small boat. Indeed, it is difficult to see much clearly. The Middle East and Africa editor for Jane’s Defence Weekly tweeted that “Analysis of Al-Masirah video of Saudi frigate attack indicates the explosion originated from a white vessel at frigate’s stern, not missile.” However, the white blur picked out appears to be about one-fifth of the al-Madina frigate’s 115 meter length: 20-plus meters seems a little long for a boat. There is no wake visible in the water, nor has the explosion thrown up any visible debris, which further shades against the suicide-boat theory.
Some information can be gained from the videos, in particular the longer version. At one stage, a voice cautions in Arabic against getting too close. Later, a different voice seems to say that he can hear an Apache, and a red ring is edited onto the video picking out the rear deck, although no aircraft is seen. (Ironically, WINEP notes that “the frigate was designed to carry a helicopter, and there is no indication one was in the air during the incident. In a U.S. encounter, Navy helicopters would have tried to block the small boat early on, using flares, smoke floats, and warning shots to keep it well away from the ship.”)
There is a growling noise which suddenly goes quiet (at around the five-second mark) then someone says what sounds like “silah” (weapon) or possible “wasila” (it’s arrived), the camera shakes, and the sound reaches the camera. The fireball at the end of the six-second mark seems quite high off the sea surface (about level with the deck), suggesting that it is not a boat-borne suicide vest improvised explosive device. Then the entire Houthi sarkha is recited, leaving little doubt as to the cameramen’s allegiance. The clip ends with an exultant declaration about being an enemy of the US—Saudi Arabia isn’t mentioned—and the burning of the battleship.
It is just possible that an attack was mounted by al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula or the Islamic State—which have flourished since the Saudi-led Coalition attacked the Houthi-Salihis (who were occupying Yemen and taking the bayonet to the jihadis with far less collateral damage than drone strikes.) There was an unconfirmed report of a premature explosion in a boat approaching a liquified natural gas tanker in early November 16. However, given the presence of three expectant Houthi boats filming (and the sarkha), such an explanation seems highly unlikely.
It is far more likely that this was indeed another anti-shipping missile launched by Salih-aligned elements of the Yemeni military. The Saudi explanation is likely to be an attempt to excuse their conduct (WINEP notes laconically that “the kingdom’s fleet is limited to daytime operations because of crewmen’s inability to fully operate the sophisticated technology on their otherwise top-of-the-line equipment”), possibly including not having had their electronic countermeasure switched on in an area known for surface-to-surface missile attacks.
The Saudis are undoubtedly trying to convince Mattis that the “Shi’a” Huthis are using suicide terrorism (although no one is reported to have overtly reminded him of the 1983 Hezbollah attack on the U.S. Marine base in Beirut.) Their hope is probably that Mattis will order the US military to more actively assist them and thus tip the balance of what is already a military stalemate—even before the really tough fighting up into and through the mountains starts.
The Houthi-Salihis are probably trying to demonstrate that not only do they have the staying power (they continue to launch raids into Saudi Arabia) and the punch to cause major damage, but also that they can internationalise the conflict if it is not brought to a conclusion by external parties. Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the internationally recognised president, has recently hardened his position.
The Iranians, meanwhile, are doubtless rubbing their hands in glee as their principal regional rivals expend billions of dollars and bog themselves down far from the Iranians’ main efforts in Syria and Iraq. There’s even a small chance that the US might get more deeply involved in a country that has gutted the Ottomans and the Egyptians. And Iran is barely involved. Sun Tzu would be impressed!
James Spencer is a retired British infantry commander who specialized in low-intensity conflict. He is an independent strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen.