December 19, 2023

China's Influence In The Red Sea And The History of Mines In The Red Sea

An excerpt from, "China’s Impact on Conflict Dynamics in the Red Sea Arena" (PDF) US Institute of Peace, 2020: 

The Red Sea arena—which this report defines as the eastern and western shores of the Red Sea, from the Arabian Peninsula to Egypt and the Horn of Africa, and the strategic waterways that run between, including the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and the Suez Canal—has long been a center of political turbulence, regional rivalries, and geopolitical interest. Historic political transitions currently underway in Sudan and Ethiopia, burgeoning economic investments amid fragility and debt in the Horn, continued conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Middle Eastern rivalries and their impact on regional conflict dynamics, and the growing presence of China have further heightened geopolitical interest in this arena. This report focuses on China’s influence and activities in the region and its relationships with twelve Red Sea arena states: Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen .

With the rapid expansion of its economic, diplomatic, and military activities in the region, China has become a significant player in the Red Sea arena over the last two decades . This engagement, particularly through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has brought infrastructure and economic opportunities to the region that could benefit Red Sea states under certain conditions. Questions remain, however, about the long-term impact China’s engagement might have on countries in the Horn and the Gulf. The opening of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti, along one of the world’s busiest and most critical waterways and in proximity to the military bases of the United States and three other states, has further elevated the geopolitical stakes in the region and raised concerns about the increasing militarization of the Red Sea .

An excerpt from, "Red Sea Mines" Strategic Studies, Autumn 1984:

Twenty vessels of various countries, including Soviet, Chinese, Turkish, Greek, Liberian and East German ship were damaged when they struck mines in the Red Sea between July and September 1984. The first five ships to be struck were all in the Gulf of Suez, where the Red Sea joins the Mediterranean, while many more hit mines 1900 km away in the Straits of Bab Mandab at the Red Sea's southern entrance.

1700 ships including passenger ships use this route every month. It is the main trade route linking North America and Europe with the Middle East, South Asia, and South East Asia. Efforts by Western minesweepers and mine detecting aircrafts for retrieving the mines have so far failed to solve the mystery. These operations, however, have led to an unprecedented naval presence of Western forces - American, British, French and Italian - in the region. Moscow, unhappy at this naval build up, accused America for laying the mines as a pretext for what it called Natoization of the Red Sea.

Shortly after the mines began damaging ships, an organization calling itself the 'Islamic Jihad' claimed it had planted 180 mines in the 1400 km area of the Sea. However, most observers believe that the 'Islamic Jihad' is a fictitious organization which a country equipped with advanced technology was using for disrupting shipping in the area. 

Tehran radio's prompt approval of the Red Sea mining gave credence to allegations that Iran was responsible for the mining. According to this view, Iran had planted mines to exert pressure on Arab allies of Iraq. If the mines could endanger shipping in ports of Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, the Yemens, and Jordan, the argument ran, those countries might then ask Iraq to stop its mining of Iranian ports of Bandar Khomeini and Bushehr. Ayatollah Khomeini's equally prompt condemnation of the mining operation as 'un-Islamic', while dispelling some doubts added to the confusion. Following the Ayatollah denial, Egypt, which had initially signled out Iran as the most probable source of the trouble, shifted the focus of accusation to Libya. A Libyan ship, it was alleged, had sailed in the affected area during July. 

The mystery is compounded by the fact that despite all the sophisticated means at its disposal, the West has so far failed to identity the country that had laid the mines. This has given rise to another set of speculation which focuses the blame on America and Israel for the mining. According to this argument, the presence of Western fleets in the Red Sea have taken place in an atmosphere of improving Soviet-Arab relations: While Cairo and Baghdad are exchanging Ambassadors with Moscow and Washington respectively, Kuwait has signed a $ 370 million agreement with Moscow for arms. Moreover, since the Arabs have generally welcomed the new Soviet initiative for Middle East peace, it is argued that the mines were planted to disrupt this atmosphere by creating suspicion against Moscow and its allies in the Middle East.

The discovery of two mines after weeks of search did little in solving the mystery. British minesweepers were the first to find a mine, but it turned out to be a World War II German-mine. A Soviet made mine found and detonated by the French was reportedly a leftover from the 1973 Arab-Israel War. Since some of the mines were reportedly mined by sophisticated submarines, and Israel, Libya and Egypt are the only countries in the region that possess such submarines, Israel has also been included in the list of 'suspects'. The reported presence of two Israeli intelligence officers who were carried by a British mine-sweeper to the Egyptian Al-Adabeyah port on the Red Sea has strengthened suspicion in some Arab quarters of U.S.-Israel collusion in enacting the Red Sea drama.

As for the 'Islamic Jihad', the only claimant to the mining operation, Sheikh Fadhallah, a Lebanese Shiite Muslim Leader who is often linked to this organization in press reports, ridiculed the claims of the organization: "This (Islamic Jihad) organization must be immense with its sophistication that it mined the Red Sea and the whole world was unable to find a clue". Sheikh Fadhallah repeated the commonly held view that different countries or forces could be using the 'Islamic Jihad' as a cover. "They could be Islamic, or some people who want to give Islam the brand of terrorism. They could be Western intelligence agents or Lebanese Christians". The fact that neither the CIA nor any other agency has resolved the mystery of the 'Islamic Jihad', nor of the Red Sea mines, would seem to strengthen this agrument.

An excerpt from, "Revisiting the 1984 Naval Mining of the Red Sea: Intelligence Challenges and Lessons" (PDF) By Richard A. Mobley, Central Intelligence Agency, June 2022:

With respect to Libyan aims, the CIA memorandum argued that Qadhafi’s motives for mining the Red Sea stemmed from his ambitions and feuds with others in the Arab world and with Israel and the United States. It observed that “Qadhafi may be making good on threats made last June against Arab regimes who fail to unite against Israel and the United States,” and he wanted to “seize the initiative in regional affairs from moderate Arab regimes, and the mining would be a way to emphasize to Arab moderates the consequences of close relations with Washington.” The memo also asserted that Qadhafi might have viewed mining as a way to “embarrass Egypt’s President Mubarak by highlighting Cairo’s dependence for security on the United States and Western Europe.”

The Libyan-flagged ship that aroused suspicion was the RO/RO (roll-on/roll-off) ship Ghat. The extensive documentation Suez Canal officials required from each shipment provided the strongest direct evidence—cited in US and UK documents on the subject—of the Ghat’s and Libya’s responsibility. Foremost of these were the Ghat’s changing crew lists. Also providing strong circumstantial evidence are the few location/time points known along the Ghat’s south- and northbound voyages. 

Egyptian authorities had come to the conclusion that Libya was responsible by August 17, when Egyptian Defense Minister Abu Ghazala in meeting with a US congressional delegation on August 19 said he was “in a position to say it is Libya [who is responsible for laying the mines]. . . . Since two days ago, 100 percent sure.” He based his judgment on the “timing of Ghat’s passage through the area and that Libyan military officers had been substituted for regular crew members prior to that passage.” Ghazala also claimed to “have information” that the mines used came from Italy.

. . .The Ghat’s probable track could have put it in position to lay mines. A UK Ministry of Defence memo dated September 12 concluded that the Ghat’s “dates of passage fit well with the earliest mining incidents at both ends of the Red Sea.”19 The Ghat’s declared cargo was “agricultural machinery” to be delivered to Assab, Ethiopia—the Ghat’s only port call. In fact, it delivered 950 tons of military materiel, mostly ammunition and small arms. It was scheduled to arrive in mid-July, according to UK diplomatic sources.20 Unfortunately, other than Assab, there are few datapoints revealing the ship’s actual locations during its two transits through the Red Sea south of the Suez Canal. 

As noted above, the duration of the Ghat’s trip from Libya to Ethiopia was suspicious. The voyage lasted 15 days—seven days longer than a typical merchant ship would take to traverse that distance. Only three days sailing time was typically required for a RO/RO to steam from Suez to Assab, according to the UK Defence Intelligence Staff.

Consideration of a Libyan mine warfare planner’s likely planning precepts would suggest an explanation. To make the most of a single shipload of mines, important priorities would have been stealth, speed of delivery, focus on mining choke points, and measures to make sure no explosions took place before the Ghat was able to get back to the Mediterranean.

The requirement for stealth depended on confidence that any inspection on entry into the Suez Canal would not lead to discovery that the ship’s cargo manifest was false. With respect to speed, mines would have to be quickly and stealthily laid since secrecy was paramount and accuracy was secondary. Parts of the voyage absolutely had to be clandestine.

The cargo apparently did go undetected, and the ship’s minelaying efforts were unseen, but the Ghat did not carry out its operations quickly enough to avoid suspicion, although it succeeded in distributing its full load in key choke points. Possibly the need to set timers to arm the magnetic/acoustic bottom influence mines—eventually determined to be the type laid—most likely slowed the process. Still, the Ghat completed its return, northbound transit of the Suez Canal and avoided Egyptian seizure of the ship as a suspect. Indeed, once the series of incidents occurred, the Egyptians did seize or escort suspect ships. 

The Ghat could have laid mines on both north and southbound runs to reduce time spent laying mines going in either direction. The first explosion, three days after its southbound passage, suggested the RO/ RO laid mines on the southbound run out of the Suez Canal. According to UK Defence Intelligence Staff analysis, the Ghat also would have been positioned to lay mines on the northbound run in the Gulf of Suez, approximately nine days before most of the mine strikes started occurring there on July 27. The timer on the surviving Type 995 mine had been set to arm the mine in just under nine days, suggesting the timing and positioning would have coincided with the mine strikes nine days after the Ghat passed through the area.

An excerpt from, "'Floating Death': Houthis' Red Sea mines pose lasting threat" By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi, Al-Mashareq, June 10, 2022:

In recent years, the Al-Ain News report said, mine removal operations carried out by the Arab coalition, the Joint Forces and the Yemeni army have revealed that the Houthis deploy three types of mines in the Red Sea.

The group uses two types of Iranian sea mines, Sadaf and Qaa, as well as primitive mines that vary in size, with some the size of a domestic gas cylinder.

The primitive mine is the most dangerous, according to the report.

These mines are moored at a depth of 2 metres and are tethered to a metal base. They break free when the mooring cables are cut, and are then swept away by the wind and tides, becoming floating bombs drifting in the sea.

They can be dangerous for many years.

According to Yemeni Deputy Minister of Legal Affairs and Human Rights Nabil Abdul Hafeez, "the sea mines used by the Houthis came with the support and training of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)".

This was in addition to providing the Houthis with sea mines manufactured in Iran, he said.

Sea mines planted by the Houthis "have killed more than 100 fishermen", Abdul Hafeez said, noting that this figure would likely double "if accurate documentation is done".

He said the sea mines are "a human catastrophe due to their nature and the fact that they will continue to pose a danger for years if they are not discovered".