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State-Sponsored Attacks on Merchant Shipping: A Growing Scourge

Posted on October 22, 2023

In August, the United States dispatched some 3,000 sailors and marines to the Strait of Hormuz. Their task is an unusual one: They’re guarding shipping in this crucial waterway, through which some 30 percent of the world’s crude oil travels. Their mission includes not just patrolling the waters but also serving as on-board guards whenever ships ask for such assistance. Indeed, with a conflict erupting between Hamas and Israel, one that may see Israel target Hamas’s ally Iran, the Strait of Hormuz stands to become even riskier for shipping. And while the US mission in the Strait may be unusual, it was not unexpected. State attacks on commercial shipping are increasing, not just in the Strait of Hormuz but in the Black Sea and other crucial waterways, too. AEI has been monitoring these maritime attacks and is now releasing its Maritime Incident tracker with information about incidents starting in 2019.

“We’ve continued to see Iran or the IRGC disrupting the free flow of commerce within the region, which is why the secretary [of Defense] made the decision that he did to deploy capabilities and more forces into the region to disrupt the IRGC from continuing its activity within the Strait of Hormuz,” Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh told reporters as the sailors and marines departed for the Strait of Hormuz. They arrived aboard the dock landing ship USS Carter Hall and the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, which can carry more than two dozen aircraft including attack jets. In the Strait of Hormuz, the sailors and marines—and their equipment—have the task of protecting merchant vessels from attacks and harassment by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard. The IRGC, which dramatically seized the UK-flagged, Swedish-owned tanker Stena Impero in 2019, has attacked or harassed 20 commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz since 2021. AEI’s tracker shows ships being seized, hit by missiles, or harassed by Iran. Most of the vessels attacked were owned, managed, or flagged in the United States, Israel, or Britain, or carried cargo to or from these countries.

Because there’s no global maritime police, the US Department of State felt compelled to try to bring order to the Strait of Hormuz. It’s an urgent but extremely delicate task for the sailors and marines. They must demonstrate force while patrolling on their naval vessels and serving as guards on merchant ones, but they must not do anything that could cause the IRGC to retaliate—and thus risk an armed conflict between the two countries. As soon as the US naval vessels arrived in the Strait, IRGC speedboats began trailing them. The tension in the Strait of Hormuz risks escalating if Israel retaliates against Hamas’s attacks on October 6 by striking Iran, Hamas’s ally and sponsor.

Iran, though, is not the only country harassing or harming merchant vessels, and the Strait of Hormuz is not the only troubled waterway. The Maritime Incident tracker documents Iran’s attempted seizure of two merchant vessels in the neighboring Gulf of Oman this July—but also Iranian-linked vessels being attacked or harassed by Israeli vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Oman. Western countries, of course, seize vessels deemed to be violating international sanctions.

But the waterways most exposed to state aggression against merchant vessels are the Black Sea and the South China Sea. In the Black Sea, the aggression took off after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The Maritime Incident shows, among other incidents, four Russian attacks on merchant vessels in the war’s first four days: Two were struck by air strikes or missiles, and two were seized. Other ships have been seized or harmed by Russian-linked separatists from the Donetsk People’s Republic. And in the South China Sea, merchant vessels have been blocked by the Chinese coast guard.

The incidents matter far beyond the vessels, crews, management companies, owners, and insurers involved. By targeting commercial shipping, the perpetrators signal to the global shipping industry—which transports 80 percent of all global trade—that shipping isn’t safe for vessels the perpetrators dislike. (As in the Strait of Hormuz, most of the vessels targeted elsewhere have so far been owned or flagged by a geopolitical adversary or carrying cargo to or from companies based in such a country.) And random attacks on merchant vessels are hardly aggression over which the United States or any other indirectly targeted country will risk an armed conflict.

The problem is thus likely to persist despite the US sailors’ and marines’ mission to the Strait of Hormuz. And regardless of whether it succeeds, keeping track of the incidents—from the perpetrators to the vessels’ ownership and flag state—is a crucial step. Tackling it begins with having an accurate picture of its size and details. You can visit AEI’s Maritime Incident tracker here.

The Maritime Incident Tracker includes:

  • Confirmed cases of harassment of merchant vessels
  • Confirmed cases of attacks on merchant vessels
  • Date of attack
  • Outcome of the attack
  • Confirmed or strongly suspected perpetrator of the attack (if it’s either a state or a state proxy.) The tracker does not include pirate attacks or attacks on naval vessels.

The tracker exclusively uses publicly available information.


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