MariTrace, 17 January 2024
Just before 6 a.m. local time on 9 January, a cargo ship left berth 18 at the port of Jebel Ali in the UAE. At 187 metres length, SHIBA would have been an unremarkable sight among the tankers and other large cargo vessels moving around the busy commercial port. Proceeding northeast into the busy shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz, SHIBA maintained a steady speed of 15 to 18 knots until the morning of 10 January, when she paused for about eight hours around a position 2NM (2.5 miles, or 4km) from the peninsula of Bandar-e Jask, on Iran’s southern coast.
Jask is served by a 2,000m runway and a port on the northern side of the peninsula that provides a base for Iran’s navy since 2008. Jask was also the destination for the ST NIKOLAS, formerly known as SUEZ RAJAN, a tanker that was seized by Iran’s navy on 11 January.
At approximately 3 p.m. local time, SHIBA continued her journey southwest, entering Oman’s territorial waters at 9 p.m. and following a route that is typical for vessels of her size and type, around Oman’s coastline, arriving at the eastern gateway to the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) at 9.56p.m. on Friday 12 January. By 6.am. on Sunday morning, SHIBA cleared the western limit of the IRTC - just one of eighty other commercial vessels in the Gulf of Aden that morning, despite the current increased risks to shipping.
At 8.32 a.m. local time on Sunday 14 January, arriving at the margin of Djibouti’s EEZ, SHIBA turned abruptly south, suddenly slowing about an hour later at a position 25 NM (about 30 miles, or 48km) from the islands fringing Somalia’s northwestern shore. Nearby, another cargo vessel, BEHSHAD had been performing similar manoeuvres since the early hours of Sunday morning.
By 10a.m. both vessels were moving within 2 NM of each other, apparently sailing almost side-by-side until about 6p.m. local time, when BEHSHAD appears to depart the area in a NE direction. The two cargo ships encountered each other very closely again at 11.45 local time on Monday morning, 15 January, at Somalia’s 24NM limit before parting ways later on Monday afternoon. At 5p.m. local time SHIBA proceeded toward the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. BEHSHAD moved east into the Gulf of Aden until 1.am. on Tuesday morning, when her course again abruptly slowed and circled back west, still within the Somali EEZ.
The passage of a cargo ship through the IRTC is unremarkable: typically, several hundred vessels ply the two-lane traffic corridor connecting the Gulf of Aden with the Arabian Sea. However, in this case, SHIBA is an Iranian-flagged vessel subject to secondary sanctions in the US since September 2008. SHIBA was built in 2010 and is owned by Iran Shipping Lines (among others), sailing under the flag of Malta until May 2012, when she became known as SHIBA and adopted the Iranian flag. BEHSHAD (also subject to US sanctions) is older, built in 1999 and renamed four times, initially sailing under the flag of Malta before joining the Iranian flag in 2012. BEHSHAD gained notoriety at the onset of attacks by Yemen's Houthi on commercial shipping in November 2023, when it became widely known that the old cargo vessel very likely provides targeting information and intelligence to the Houthi, from an almost stationary position mid-way between Eritrea and Yemen, in the southern Red Sea. The role was not new: BEHSHAD had replaced SAVIZ - another Iranian-flagged cargo ship - at the same location in 2021, after SAVIZ sustained damage in a limpet mine attack by Israel. BEHSHAD departed her usual location in the Red Sea on 4 January but did not travel far, exiting the Bab-el Mandeb Strait on Thursday morning (11th January) to occupy a holding pattern in Somalia's EEZ, approximately 56 miles (100 kilometers) east of the port of Djibouti.
The two ships were also not alone during their meeting east of Djibouti. Two Iranian Navy vessels are thought to be very close by - IRIS Alborz (F-72) and IRIS Bushehr (422). As at 16 January, at least 12 navy vessels of various members of the Combined Maritime Forces are patrolling the area. A further 6 US Navy vessels are currently thought to be in the southern Red Sea.
The favoured location for SAVIZ and BEHSHAD is just within Eritrea's EEZ, about 460 miles (760 kilometers) from Sana'a, Yemen's capital. Eritrea’s territorial waters are no stranger to the presence of foreign geostrategic interests. Prior to Eritrea's independence, Ethiopia’s navy bases were at Mitsiwa and Assab. Assab included a ship repair facility and Ethiopia retained a small contingent of retired British navy personnel as advisers there, until 1974. Soviet naval vessels made frequent calls at Ethiopian ports for resupply and refit. When the Soviet Union were expelled from Somalia in 1977 for siding with Ethiopia, they moved a dry dock previously at Berbera (on Somalia's northern shores) to Assab and later re-positioned it in the Dahlak Islands - now a popular dive site for wreck explorers. The Soviet Union also had Il-38 maritime reconnaissance aircraft stationed at Asmera: by 1989 these had moved to Aden after a raid by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. Eritrea gained de facto independence from Ethiopia in 1991 and de jure independence in 1993. The Doumeira Islands were among the focus of border disputes between Eritrea and Djibouti; the two parties stabilised relations in 2018. Eritrea’s dispute with Yemen over the Hanish Islands was concluded in an arbitration agreement between Eritrea and Yemen in 1999, that created a single all-purpose boundary between the two countries, that also reflected offshore petroleum agreements entered into by Yemen, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.
Remaining largely silent (so far) in the current phase of conflict that threatens commercial shipping in the Red Sea, Eritrea's position in the geopolitical complex is opaque. If Eritrea does choose to engage in the current events, the risk of re-igniting old grievances over territory may further exacerbate threats to commercial shipping. While among the least developed countries on the shores of the Gulf of Aden, Eritrea does have a large military. By contrast, across the Bab-el Mandeb Strait, in 2015 most of Yemen’s Navy was lost during an attack on the port of Aden, amid a Saudi-backed campaign against the Houthis within Yemen that generated one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises, ongoing to the present day. Houthi controlled navy assets were nucleated in the wake of the 2015 Saudi-led intervention and are thought to include 5 fast attack patrol craft, 4 water-borne IEDs, 4 anti-ship ballistic missiles and rockets, 5 anti-ship missile systems, 15 floating and fixed naval mines. Not including the current cycle of events, the Houthi controlled fleet are thought to be responsible for the missile attack and destruction of the US vessel HSV-2 SWIFT in 2016; a waterborne IED attack on a Saudi frigate AL MADINAH in 2017; the sinking of an Emirati minelayer in 2017; and damage and capture of two Saudi landing craft in 2020 and 2022.
If the Houthi have been receiving targeting information from BEHSHAD, the choice of commercial ships targeted in November and December 2023 seems largely random in terms of flag, vessel type and owner. Since November 2023, out of the 51 incidents recorded by MariTrace only two ships have sustained a direct hit (fortunately neither resulting in loss of life or sinking). The pattern may yet change: it is possible the BEHSHAD has been relocated, or is being replaced. The purpose of SHIBA's voyage north into the Red Sea remains to be seen: the cargo ship currently appears to be on route to the Suez Canal. The US (and others) routinely use reconnaissance drones to track Iranian navy assets and IRGC ships. Perhaps Yemen's territorial waters are being utilised as a training ground for similar capabilities, using commercial ships to train targeting equipment and operators. Whatever their intent, it is clear that the Houthi are achieving significant effect in control of the maritime domain - even without warships.
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 discover how to use vessel tracking features in MariTrace and enquire about risk assessment for your specific operational needs, please contact us.
© MariTrace Limited. All rights reserved.