Houthis and Somali Pirates in a Hijacking Whodunit

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Two ships with Israeli ties were seized near Yemen and Somalia, yet questions about who was responsible, why and how remain unanswered

Piracy returned to the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa in November, following a strange constellation of events that had less to do with armed Somalis in skiffs (though not nothing at all to do with them) than with the war in Gaza.

The first alarming event happened on Nov. 19, when a sophisticated group of Houthis hijacked a Japanese-run cargo vessel, commando-style, using a helicopter. The MV Galaxy Leader has been held near Yemen’s Red Sea port of Hodeida ever since. The vessel had some investment from an Israeli tycoon named Abraham “Rami” Ungar, but no Israeli captain, flag or crew. (Japanese ministers have started negotiations with the Houthis.) But Houthi leaders have crowed in the meantime that Israeli ships are “legitimate targets for us anywhere … We will not hesitate to take action.”

The helicopter was a high-tech piece of equipment for such a rogue operation, and it nudged the incident closer to looking like a government interception, rather than a freelance act of piracy. A British expert named Col. John Steed — who has negotiated for the release of more than one hostage crew from Somali pirate gangs — told me the Galaxy Leader case fitted an Iranian pattern. “The attack by the Houthis was well orchestrated, and the use of a helicopter makes it very political, especially given the ‘apparent’ Israeli ownership links. This is the same style Iran uses in the Gulf,” he said.

Another cargo ship linked to Ungar suffered an act of sabotage in the Gulf of Oman two years ago. Israel claimed an explosion on the ship was caused by a mine fixed to the hull, “apparently in a night-time navy commando operation” — which would fit a pattern of limpet-mine attacks on U.S. vessels by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, from about 2019.

Like Hamas, the Houthis have funding from Iran. It’s assumed by regional experts that Iran wants to wage a low-level proxy war against Israel in support of Hamas. Ever since Oct. 7, Iran-linked groups in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria have attacked U.S. and Israeli targets. And one week after the Galaxy Leader hijacking, a Lebanese camera team from Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV was even allowed to board the hijacked ship, “which is being held off the Yemeni coast,” as the reporter said, “in support of Gaza and Palestine.”

The U.S. therefore sees a danger of escalation with Tehran through these attacks. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a proxy ‘war,’” Sean Savett, deputy spokesman for the National Security Council, told New Lines, “but they’re definitely using proxy forces to make life difficult and threaten Israel. They seem to want to raise the temperature.” The Biden administration, he added, has been “very clear publicly about how we don’t want escalation with Iran.”

Over the weekend of Dec. 3, however, the Houthis took responsibility for a number of missiles and drones fired from Yemen at vessels in the Red Sea, including three commercial ships with no clear links to Israel. The three vessels were hit, none seriously damaged, and a U.S. destroyer called the Carney shot down three attack drones before they could land on a target. U.S. Central Command would not say whether the Carney itself was a target, but added in a statement, “We have every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran.”

The strangest event, however, happened in the Gulf of Aden on Nov. 26, just north of Somalia. Five armed men in a boat caught up with the MV Central Park, a chemical tanker loaded with phosphoric acid. The crew radioed for help and retreated to a safe room until an American destroyer called the USS Mason responded. The attackers fled the Central Park in their boat but were captured by the warship. The Central Park has Israeli investment through its operator, Zodiac Maritime, and early rumors suggested the hijackers were Houthi. But on Nov. 27, a Pentagon press secretary, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, told reporters in Washington, “We know they are not Houthi.”

He suggested, instead, that they were Somali pirates. “They’re currently aboard the USS Mason,” he said. “We’re continuing to assess, but initial indications are that these five individuals are Somali.”

That was strange enough. Yet 90 minutes after the attackers were captured, a pair of ballistic missiles fired from Houthi-held territory in Yemen landed in the Gulf of Aden roughly 10 nautical miles, Ryder said, from the “general location” of the Mason and the Central Park. “Does the department have any indication of how the Houthis would have known the location of the U.S. warship?” one reporter asked. “I don’t have any information to provide on that,” said Ryder, and the Pentagon released a statement the following day claiming the Central Park was the missile’s probable target, not the destroyer.

All of which left piracy experts scratching their heads.

Let’s recap: Houthis fired missiles in support of some reenergized Somali pirates, who were under contract to bring a cargo ship with Israeli connections back to Yemen?

“I would caution against making a clear link,” said Sean Savett, the spokesman at the National Security Council. “It may be the case that Houthis were firing at the ship because of the Israeli linkages, and it may be independent from the pirates — that the Houthis just saw this ship and fired and had very bad aim. It may have been two independent events.”

Curiouser and curiouser. But the likelihood that Somali pirates would just happen to reappear in the context of the Gaza War has also been hotly debated. Are they phantom pirates? In other words, does the Pentagon just want to lower the temperature with Iran? Or have the Houthis themselves resorted to proxy warfare?

The hijacking happened across the water from Somaliland, which has never served as a serious hotbed for pirates. Puntland, to Somaliland’s east, is a different story. Small groups of Somalis were also known to camp on the Yemeni side of the gulf when piracy was at its peak — but whenever those ragged teams managed to capture a ship it was always hauled to Somalia. Early reports from the Central Park suggested the ship was moving toward Yemen when it was intercepted by the Mason. “Unless they were foreign fighters working with Houthis,” said Steed, “then like a lot of these [ship] approaches they were probably Houthi and Yemen conflict-related, not Somali pirates.”

But that was just his first impression. He added that some 50,000 Somalis live in Yemen because of unemployment in Somalia. For that reason, pirate gangs have turned to human smuggling in the Gulf of Aden: They use skiffs to move Somali migrants across to Yemen. They also smuggle weapons in the other direction, because of Somalia’s ongoing civil war. So it’s possible to imagine Somali criminal networks forging a positive relationship with Houthis.

Hijacking an entire ship on their behalf, however, would be something new. Since the hijackers boarded the Central Park during a five-day cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, one line of speculation is that the Houthis — and therefore Iran — wanted plausible deniability. Vice News quoted an anonymous security consultant who said the Houthis had “outsourced the operation in an effort to avoid being seen breaking the ongoing ceasefire in Gaza.”

Gaab TV in Somalia, meanwhile, found a man to back up the claim of pirate involvement. Details were sketchy, but “Abdi” said a pirate gang based in Garacad — on the eastern Somali coast — had boarded the Central Park in the Gulf of Aden. “The team was responsible for the attack. It was not successful, but it was an operation in support of the brothers in Gaza,” he said.

Garacad is nowhere near the hijacking location, though it is in Puntland, where early gangs of Somali pirates were incubated. Puntland has a shoreline along the Gulf of Aden, and counterpiracy patrols by Puntland officials have increased there in the meantime, maybe to keep up appearances. So a number of people in Somalia are behaving as if the story is true. And Steed admits he can’t be sure. If pirates operating from Puntland did catch the Central Park, he said, “The question is why and for who?”

The drone and missile attack on Dec. 3, after the ceasefire ended — which Houthis were happy to take credit for — may give credence to the notion that they wanted to outsource their harassment of ships during the ceasefire. But it’s still bizarre. Nur Hassan, a Somali journalist who divides his time between Mogadishu and Nairobi, told me that Garacad on Somalia’s east coast now has a new, well-functioning port, so it would be disappointing if the town had a resurgent pirate network. On the other hand, a small gang of clan militiamen near Eyl, south of Garacad, did capture an Iranian fishing dhow in November that had strayed too close to Somalia’s east coast. The dhow has since been released, but it’s been treated as the first successful instance of a Somali pirate hijacking since 2017.

“Very conflicting on this,” quipped Nur, referring to the case of the Central Park. “I won’t be surprised if al-Shabab claims to have hijacked this ship!”

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