Guardians of the Sea: Navigating the Yemen Crisis – The Indispensable Role of Private Security in Maritime Threat Management

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The growing concerns over maritime security in the Indian Ocean, particularly in the Bab al-Mandab Strait, are underscored by the increasing prevalence of private armed security teams (PASTs). These teams, often employed by maritime risk management firms like the U.K.-based Ambrey, play a pivotal role in safeguarding commercial vessels against various threats, including piracy and hostile engagements.

Ambrey, established in 2010 primarily to address Somali piracy, has evolved into the world’s leading maritime risk management firm. Under the leadership of Joshua Hutchinson, a former Royal Marine commando and the company’s Managing Director of Risk and Intelligence, Ambrey oversees approximately 500 to 600 transits monthly in the Red Sea. The firm employs thousands of contractors, primarily ex-military personnel, who undergo rigorous maritime training and certification.

In response to the growing threats in areas like the Red Sea, firms like Ambrey have stepped up their services. Ambrey specializes in providing comprehensive maritime security solutions, including armed escorts, intelligence analysis, and risk assessment for commercial vessels transiting through high-risk areas. The firm’s approach typically involves:

  • Risk Assessment and Intelligence Gathering: By analyzing the political and security developments in the region, Ambrey helps clients understand and mitigate the risks associated with their maritime operations.
  • Armed Escorts and Onboard Security: In high-risk areas, Ambrey provides armed escorts, ensuring that commercial vessels can navigate hostile waters with a higher degree of safety. Their personnel are often ex-military, bringing expertise and experience in dealing with piracy and armed robbery at sea.
  • Crisis Management and Emergency Response: In the event of an incident like the Galaxy Leader hijacking, Ambrey is equipped to offer emergency response services, including negotiation and crisis management support.

These teams, usually comprising three to eight members depending on the vessel’s size and potential risks, are equipped with bolt action or semi-automatic rifles such as the L1A1 and Steyr Scout. Their choice of weaponry is guided by British maritime law, which restricts the use of fully automatic weapons in these operations. Their role extends beyond armed response; they also provide strategic advice, training, and risk mitigation strategies to the vessel’s crew. This includes identifying safe locations onboard, implementing anti-piracy measures, and maintaining a vigilant watch.

A notable incident illustrating their vital role occurred on December 13, when Ambrey guards aboard the M/T Ardmore Encounter engaged in a firefight with Houthis approaching in a skiff. Following the standard rules of engagement, they successfully deterred the threat. Such incidents highlight the multi-faceted challenges in the region, including drone and ballistic missile attacks, as reported by the U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Ambrey’s approach to maritime security is proactive and data-driven. Their Guardian digital watchkeeping service assists in pre-voyage planning, route optimization, and threat assessment, leveraging their monitoring of over 250,000 commercial vessels globally. This preemptive strategy is crucial in navigating contested waters and avoiding areas with heightened risks, such as those near Iranian Navy assets or Houthi-controlled regions.

Despite these measures, threats persist. An example was the attack on the cargo ship CMA CGM Symi, struck by an Iranian-made Houthi drone. Such incidents are not only alarming but also reveal the complex nature of maritime threats, which can range from direct attacks to psychological tactics like radio threats.

The Bahamian Flagged M/V Galaxy Leader Hijacking: A Symptom of Escalating Maritime Tensions in the Red Sea

Contextualizing the Incident

On November 19, the maritime world was jolted by the audacious hijacking of the M/V Galaxy Leader, a Bahamian-flagged car carrier. This 189-metre vessel, empty at the time, was navigating a routine journey from Körfez, Turkey, to Pipavav, India, when it became the focal point of a high-seas drama unfolding 50 nautical miles west of Hodeida, in the strategically crucial Red Sea. The perpetrators, identified as Houthi insurgents, executed the seizure with military precision. Several small, fast boats swarmed the ship before armed personnel, descending from a Mi-17 helicopter, boarded and took control. The crew, compelled under duress, diverted their course towards the port of Hodeida. In a symbolic gesture of defiance and territorial claim, Palestinian and Yemeni flags were hoisted aboard the vessel. A video purportedly documenting this takeover was later disseminated, showcasing the insurgents’ brazenness.

The Strategic Subterfuge

Intriguingly, prior to this incident, the Galaxy Leader had disabled its Automatic Identification System (AIS), a move that raises questions about the motivations and planning behind the hijacking. Once commandeered, the ship was located at coordinates 14.9423, 42.89458, pinpointing it at the Hodeidah anchorage in Yemen. This event was not isolated but marked the beginning of a disturbing trend in the region, with the Houthi’s increasingly targeting vessels traversing through the Straits of al-Mandab. The subsequent attack on the AS Strinda, a Norwegian-flagged tanker, using a missile launched from Houthi-controlled territory, underscored a significant escalation in both the tactics employed and the range of targets.

Houthi Leader’s Declaration and Its Implications

Days before the hijacking, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the leader of Yemen’s Houthi militia, issued a televised declaration on al-Masirah, the group’s satellite TV channel. He spoke of a vigilant stance against Israeli ships in the Red Sea, a pronouncement that set the stage for the Galaxy Leader’s seizure. Houthi spokesperson Yahya Sare’e later ascribed the action to the ship’s alleged Israeli connections, citing its ties to “Ray Car Carriers,” a company purportedly linked to Israeli businessman Abraham “Rami” Ungar. Israel, however, refuted these claims, labeling the incident an “Iranian act of terrorism.”

Houthis navel forces in message to US warships

Global Repercussions and Immediate Responses

This incident swiftly drew global attention, with the Israeli military deeming it a matter of “grave global consequence.” Various governments and international bodies, including Yemen’s government, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and other Western nations, were quick to condemn the hijacking. Accusations pointed to the militia’s disruption of international maritime traffic. The crew, comprising individuals from the Philippines, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Mexico, faced an uncertain fate, with the Houthis vowing to treat them in accordance with Islamic principles. Meanwhile, shipping companies, alarmed by the rising threat, contemplated rerouting their vessels around the Horn of Africa, a decision fraught with additional time and financial costs.

The Widening Gyre of Maritime Insecurity

The Galaxy Leader incident reflects a broader and more concerning trend in regional maritime security. The Houthi’s aggressive stance, coupled with Somali piracy, indicates a significant shift in the maritime threat landscape. With attacks now encompassing a broader spectrum of vessels, including military ships, the area’s shipping lanes are fraught with danger. The Joint War Committee (JWC) at Lloyds, in response, is reportedly considering an expansion of the high-risk area within this region, a move that could further inflate the soaring costs of shipping insurance and, by extension, global trade.

The hijacking of the M/V Galaxy Leader is not just a wake-up call regarding the fragile security situation in the Red Sea; it also exemplifies the growing importance of maritime security firms like Ambrey in safeguarding international trade routes. As geopolitical tensions continue to simmer in key maritime regions, the reliance on these security services is expected to grow, making them indispensable players in the global maritime industry. The collaboration between commercial shipping entities and security firms will likely be crucial in navigating the increasingly turbulent waters of international trade and shipping.

Hutchinson and his team, based in London, remain closely attuned to these developments by monitoring live radio transmissions from ships. This insight is critical for understanding the real-time challenges faced by commercial vessels and adjusting security strategies accordingly.

Coordination with military forces is another crucial aspect of Ambrey’s operations. With entities like Task Force 153 playing a significant role in international maritime security, there is a continuous exchange of information and strategies between private security firms and naval assets. Hutchinson emphasizes the importance of such collaborations, especially in the context of operations like Prosperity Guardian, aimed at bolstering commercial shipping defenses against Houthi threats.

The role of private security firms like Ambrey in maritime security is multifaceted and constantly evolving. They are not only a deterrent force but also a source of intelligence and strategic guidance for commercial shipping in high-risk areas. As tensions and threats in regions like the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea persist, the expertise and capabilities of firms like Ambrey remain crucial in ensuring the safety of maritime commerce.

This dynamic and challenging environment calls for ongoing vigilance and adaptation, both from private security firms and international military collaborations, to effectively counter the myriad of threats faced by commercial vessels in these strategic waters.

As the situation in key maritime regions like the Bab al-Mandab Strait continues to be precarious, the role of private armed security teams (PASTs) and firms like Ambrey becomes increasingly vital. The challenges they face are not static but evolve with the changing tactics of groups like the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. These groups have demonstrated a capacity for sophisticated attacks, including the use of drones and ballistic missiles, raising the stakes for maritime security.

Ambrey’s strategy to tackle these challenges is multifaceted. Firstly, their approach is deeply rooted in intelligence gathering and analysis. By monitoring vast numbers of commercial vessels and tracking potential threats, Ambrey can provide actionable intelligence to ships before they enter high-risk areas. This level of preparation is crucial in mitigating risks associated with maritime travel in such volatile regions.

Secondly, the training and experience of Ambrey’s personnel are pivotal. Being predominantly ex-military, these individuals bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise in handling a variety of high-pressure situations. Their training is continually updated to reflect the evolving nature of maritime threats, ensuring they are prepared for the diverse challenges they might encounter.

Another critical aspect of Ambrey’s operations is their coordination with international military forces. This collaboration is essential for a comprehensive response to threats. While private security teams are adept at handling certain situations, they operate with the understanding that warships are the primary defense against more sophisticated attacks, such as drone and missile strikes. Therefore, maintaining open communication channels with naval assets like Task Force 153 and U.S. Naval Forces Central Command is crucial for effective threat response and escalation management.

The incident involving the cargo ship CMA CGM Symi is a stark reminder of the potential dangers in these waters. Such attacks not only pose immediate threats to the vessels and crew but also have broader implications for international trade and shipping routes. The role of private security in these scenarios extends beyond immediate defense; it also involves post-incident procedures and coordination with authorities to ensure the safety and continuation of maritime operations.

Looking ahead, the sustainability and scalability of these security measures are subjects of ongoing discussion and concern. As Hutchinson points out, while current efforts may be effective, their long-term feasibility, especially in light of potentially escalating threats, is a question that needs addressing. The formation of coalitions like Operation Prosperity Guardian reflects a recognition of this need and represents a step towards a more integrated and sustainable approach to maritime security.

In conclusion, the role of private security firms like Ambrey in maritime security is not only about providing armed defense but also involves intelligence gathering, strategic planning, and coordination with international military forces. As threats in key maritime regions evolve, so must the strategies and collaborations between private and public entities. The continued safety and security of international maritime commerce hinge on this adaptive and collaborative approach, highlighting the crucial role of firms like Ambrey in the complex tapestry of maritime security.

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