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Amid the fog of war, information-hijacking risks distorting accurate maritime security picture

MariTrace, 26 November 2023

US 5th Fleet escort an LNG tanker during routine operations, 2013. Ten years on, maritime security in this complex region confronts a new dimension to familiar threats: the rapid spread of misinformation. Image: USN (CC-By-2.0).

Yesterday morning, MariTrace picked up UKMTO-received reports of a commercial vessel ordered to change course by persons claiming to be Yemeni authorities. Further details are emerging at the time of writing this article. We noted with interest that a similar incident occurred in September, when an LPG tanker reported receiving a call from the UN Verification and Inspection team (who clear vessels going to three of Yemen's ports), to divert from Aden to Hodeidah. Associated Press reported at 08:08 UTC on 25 November 2023 that CMI CGM Symi, a Maltese-flagged container ship owned by Eastern Pacific Shipping, had sustained minor damage in a drone attack at an undisclosed location in international waters; the vessel is currently about 20 NM off India’s southwestern coast after a brief stop near to Kochi on Sunday afternoon. Drone strikes on commercial ships are known to have occurred in the region for at least the past year, though precise details about the attack attribution rarely surface immediately. Counter-drone technology remains very expensive and the best defence for commercial shipping is vigilance.

Elsewhere, fake media reports were circulating on 25 November of a container ship owned by an Israeli shipping company, engulfed in fire in the Indian Ocean. Our analysis of the videos circulated online on 25 November 2023 found an exact match to verified images of an incident that occurred off the coast of Sri Lanka, in May 2021, in which a chemical explosion caused a fire on a container ship.

Heatmap of conflict events and incidents of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Persian Gulf, October 2023 - November 2023. Source: MariTrace.

On 26 November, MariTrace received official reports of a merchant vessel under attack approximately 52NM (96 kilometers) off Somalia’s northern coast. The ship had been approached on Sunday morning local time, by two small craft carrying people dressed in military combat uniforms, within Somalia’s EEZ. The reported incident prompted authorities to advise increased caution for commercial vessels transiting the area. This was closely followed by another incident nearby, approximately 27 NM (52 km) from Yemen’s coast, in which a commercial vessel, likely to be Central Park (a 145m tanker owned by Zodiac Group and currently sailing under the flag of Liberia) was heard over VHF to have been boarded by unknown persons while entering the Gulf of Aden. Central Park last reported a position four days ago and appears to have been empty at the time of the incident.

The latest incidents take place in the wake of the widely reported hijacking of a car carrier in the Red Sea on Sunday 19 November that followed warnings that commercial vessels considered linked to Israel may be at risk of attack. Galaxy Leader, a car carrier managed by Greek-registered firm, Stamco Ship Management and owned by Ray Car Carriers Ltd, Isle of Man, left Yarimca, Turkey on 12 November heading for Pipavav, India. The 189m long cargo vessel, built in 2002 and currently sailing under the flag of the Bahamas, entered the Suez Canal on 15 November. The journey was routine: AIS data suggests Galaxy Leader last visited Pipavav on 26 October 2023, having departed from Jeddah on 16 October. Her last known position was recorded around mid-day approximately 60km (32 NM) southwest of the Saudi Arabian 12 NM limit.

Widely reported in the media from 19 to 22 November, the hijacking appears to have been opportunistic. The incident attracted widespread coverage by regional and global channels - and was also re-posted (and re-interpreted) on social media channels. The circulation of misinformation and factually incorrect commentary led MariTrace to investigate further. Our research found that Galaxy Leader is believed to be owned by Stamco Ship Management, a shipping company based in Piraeus, Greece. The parent company of Stamco is Ray Car Carriers Ltd, listed in the Isle of Man, company no. 088708C, incorporated in 1997, who own and/or operate 13 car carrier vessels. A similarly-named company, Ray Shipping Limited, is registered in Israel. They control a bulk carrier and own six car carriers. Ray Shipping (Israel) owns Harvest Leader (IMO no. 9690523), Helios Ray (IMO no. 9690547) and Hyperion Ray (IMO no. 9690559) - all three of which are operated by Stamco. Helios and Hyperion were the target of attacks in early 2021, which were attributed to Iran. Ray Car Carriers (Isle of Man) is currently listed as the controller of two of the car carriers (IMO nos. 9736810 and 9736808) that are owned by Ray Shipping (Israel). Further searches found a UK entity, Ray Car Carriers (UK) Ltd. (dissolved in 2018) associated with Dan David Ungar, an Israeli national with interests in 10 other maritime companies registered in the UK. Ungar was among the directors of the dissolved UK entity and is also the son of Abraham ‘Rami’ Ungar, who owns Ray Car Carriers Ltd (Isle of Man).

Taken together, the incidents of the past two weeks warrant two immediate responses: first, increased vigilance and caution by ship managers and operators for all commercial vessels traveling through the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Second, a similarly cautious approach to information posted online about dangers to shipping in regions experiencing active conflict. The reporting and re-reporting of incidents that have taken place in this complex region during the past seven days illustrate some of the risks of rapid attribution: when information is blended with AI-generated renderings and automated distribution, the risk of error propagation increases. At a time when localised conflict again risks engulfing a much broader group of regional and global actors, the requirement for analysis and decision based on trusted data has never been more urgent.

No AI was used in the writing of this article. MariTrace analysis and reporting is based on open sources; all information is human-curated and assessed via multi-phase, structured methods using industry-standard techniques to check for provenance, bias and accuracy.

To enquire about customised situational assessment for your specific operational needs, please contact us.

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