On October 25th, an LNG (liquefied natural gas) tanker named Galicia Spirit was attacked off the coast of Yemen. What makes this case stand out is that experts and authorities are treating it as a terrorist attack and not your run-of-the-mill Somali pirates angling for hostages. The skiff that conducted the attack was carrying a “substantial quantity of explosives.” We know that because, while the attackers charged with guns blazing, upon getting within 30 meters of the ship, they exploded.

Location of the attack outside of Mandeb Strait.

My take: As the ship had no security on board to put pressure on the attackers with rifle fire, someone on the skiff must have just been too eager, riding with his finger on the trigger, and detonated prematurely—much to the relief of the tanker crew.

Another detail that paints this as a terrorist attack is that LNG tankers are not among the favorite targets of pirates for two reasons: First, because the vessels carrying said cargo are fast and thus hard targets. Second, their cargo needs attention and expertise so as to prevent mishaps—not a job your average pirate can perform. Despite the fact that LNG tankers have a multitude of safeguards built in due to the volatile nature of the cargo, I doubt that anyone could predict what would happen if a large enough bomb were to go off beside one such vessel. That is exactly what would make them a lucrative target for a terrorist. A possible catastrophic failure following an IED explosion would produce the shock-and-awe effect a politically driven actor would want.

A potential trend of terrorist attacks in the Gulf of Aden area is an added problem for the shipping industry and the people working as security on the ships crossing the Indian Ocean. The tanker in this instance was carrying LNG from Qatar. There is no information at this time whether the ship had been targeted because of the country of origin or its cargo. (Qatar is aligned with the Saudis, who oppose the Houthis in Yemen.)

Also, since Qatar is the world’s largest LNG producer, it could simply be a coincidence, as many ships carry Qatari LNG. It could very well have been a target of opportunity for a terrorist wanting an impressive hit, as LNG tankers have a very distinct appearance that could help attackers spot them from miles away. Another aspect of the potential terrorist threat is that, if the ships carrying LNG from Qatar avoid the route through the Red Sea for fear of attack, this will drive prices up, since the alternative path is down to South Africa and up again from the West African coast—a much longer route.

I have mentioned security teams before and they will have the most difficult role in all this. A potential terrorist threat will change the rules of the game and a quick adaptation to the new situation will be of the utmost importance. This adaptation is not just the duty of members of security teams, but also the whole industry’s, since ROEs and procedures are now oriented toward facing pirates, not suicide bombers (pirates want to live). So it is up to the industry and ship owners to give the teams the right tools to fight this new threat, both in renewed procedures and in equipment.

Maritime security ROEs are based upon an escalation-of-force model designed for deterrence; you don’t want to have to go kinetic if you can avoid it. You are there to protect the ship and the crew, and an exchange of fire, however brief, puts the crew in danger. This does work with pirates who are overt in their approach and also have signs you can spot. Too many people on one skiff? Keep your eye on them. Large engines? Yep, keep looking.

And when they start preparing to board, you can see weapons and climbing gear—large, homemade contraptions used as ladders. Evidently, this will not work with a suicide bomber, who will lurk and wait. Moreover, a terrorist has no need of showing or using or even having weapons on board, or having a ladder that extends outside of his skiff, showing his intentions. But with no such signs, the team on board are in a difficult position. There are very few recorded pirate attacks at night. It’s doubtful that will be the case with suicide bombers. With some cheap NVGs, food and water, given the volume of ship traffic in the area, he will find a target.