Pentagon Suspects Somali Pirates Attacked Middle East Cargo Tanker

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
November 27, 2023Middle East
Pentagon Suspects Somali Pirates Attacked Middle East Cargo Tanker
In an undated photo released by Zodiac Maritime, the tanker Central Park is seen. (Zodiac Maritime via AP)

Somali Pirates are to blame for a raid on a tanker vessel in the Gulf of Aden on Sunday, according to initial U.S. military assessments.

A group of at least five attackers boarded a Liberian-flagged vessel, M/V Central Park, on Sunday evening. The destroyer USS Mason was the first to respond to a distress call from the tanker vessel on Sunday and a visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) team assigned to the U.S. warship managed to secure the tanker vessel and detain the suspected attackers as they attempted to flee the scene on a small boat.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the military command responsible for U.S. forces in the Middle East, did not immediately identify the maritime attackers when it first announced that a U.S. warship had foiled the high-seas hijacking effort.

Potentially complicating initial attempts to identify the motives of the M/V Central Park’s hijacker, CENTCOM reported that a pair of ballistic missiles were launched from nearby Yemen toward the USS Mason and M/V Central Park shortly after the U.S. warship intervened to aid the merchant vessel. CENTCOM said the missiles appeared to have been fired from an area of Yemen controlled by the Iran-backed Houthis; a movement that has demonstrated recent hostility toward U.S. forces.

At a press briefing on Monday, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters that the five hijackers detained by the U.S. side are now being held aboard the USS Mason.

“We’re continuing to assess, but initial indications are that these five individuals are Somali,” Brig. Gen. Ryder said, adding that the hijacking attempt was “clearly, a piracy-related incident.”

Brig. Gen. Ryder repeatedly stressed throughout the press briefing that assessments about the nationality and motives of the attackers remain preliminary, but said “we know that they’re not Houthi.”

Link Between Ship Attack, Missile Launches Unclear

While information about the M/V Central Park’s hijackers remains tentative, it’s even less clear why missiles were fired in the vicinity of the merchant ship and the USS Mason shortly thereafter. Brig. Gen. Ryder reiterated that the missiles came from a Houthi-controlled area of Yemen, but said the U.S. military could not be certain “how many other folks have missiles in that region there.” He did not specify what type of ballistic missiles were fired.

Brig. Gen. Ryder said the Yemen-launched missiles were traveling in the direction of the USS Mason and M/V Central Park, and the missiles landed in the Gulf of Aden, about 10 nautical miles (about 11.5 standard miles) from the two ships. He said the missile launches occurred about an hour and 40 minutes after the USS Mason’s VBSS team was on the merchant vessel.

“It’s unclear what they were attempting to target,” he added.

The Gulf of Aden provides a narrow opening to the Red Sea, which connects to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. The area represents a major lane for international shipments.

The M/V Central Park is managed by Zodiac Maritime, a shipping company operated by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer. The company said the tanker was carrying a full cargo of phosphoric acid at the time of the attempted hijacking and was being sailed by an international crew consisting of Russian, Vietnamese, Bulgarian, Indian, Georgian, and Filipino nationals at the time of the attempted hijacking.

The attempted hijacking and the subsequent missile launches may or may not have simply been two unrelated events. Brig. Gen. Ryder said he didn’t want to speculate and “connect dots if dots don’t necessarily exist” between the ship attack and the missile launches.

Last week, the Houthis did claim responsibility for capturing another merchant vessel in the Red Sea and said, “All ships belonging to the Israeli enemy or that deal with it will become legitimate targets.”

Regional Tensions Persist

Though there’s no clear connection between the raid on M/V Central Park and the missile launches in the Gulf of Aden less than two hours later, those missile launches could represent a new risk for escalation in the region.

If the missiles were launched by the Houthis and were indeed targeting the USS Mason, it would represent the first time the Houthis have attempted such an attack against a U.S. warship since Oct. 7, when Hamas gunmen attacked southern Israel.

The Houthis are a Zaydi Shiite movement that has intermittently fought with Yemen’s internationally recognized government since 2004. Their conflict expanded after the Houthis forcefully took over the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in September 2014, bringing on an ongoing civil war that has seen Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states intervene on behalf of the Yemeni government. The United States has supported the Saudi-led coalition throughout the conflict, and the U.S. State Department assesses that Iran is supporting the Houthi side in the conflict.

Following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and responsive Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip, the Houthis have launched multiple drone and ballistic missile attacks toward Israel.

In addition to drone and missile attacks targeting Israel, and more recent efforts to disrupt Israel-linked merchant traffic, the Houthis have also directed attacks at U.S. military assets operating in the region.

Earlier this month, the Houthis shot down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone. CENTCOM also reported that a U.S. warship shot down multiple incoming suspected Houthi drones as it patrolled the Red Sea on Nov. 23.

Brig. Gen. Ryder said the recent interactions between U.S. forces and the Houthis is not necessarily an indication that the Israel-Hamas conflict has expanded into a wider conflict in the Middle East.

“We largely see the conflict contained between Israel and Hamas. That’s not to say that you haven’t seen Iranian proxies attempt to take advantage to further their own goals,” the Pentagon spokesman said on Monday.

The Biden administration is currently considering redesignating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization. Then-President Donald Trump previously labeled the Yemeni group as a terrorist organization in his final days in office, but President Joe Biden reversed that policy just weeks after assuming office.

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