If any navy but the Israeli Sea Corps were in question, I would just dismiss this (after due consideration and analysis, of course). But if recent reports of Iranian smuggling ships being attacked in Sudanese ports have any validity, it would be because there is an Israeli connection. The reports are from non-experts and have internal inconsistencies, so skepticism is in order. But the events they suggest are not impossible. They are only improbable. Nothing is lost in a little analysis.
In conjunction with the reporting from March of an air attack on a smuggling convoy in Sudan, attributed to the Israeli Air Force, there was an additional, but little-remarked, report of a ship bearing Iranian cargo being attacked and sunk in the Red Sea. No details were provided with this report, but it was attributed to a Sudanese official, who said the ship attack took place in February, and the ship was “completely destroyed.”
This week saw another report of an Iranian cargo ship being attacked and sunk off Sudan, apparently in the week before the report was received by the Egyptian newspaper Al-Usbua. The timing would place the event in the week of 19-25 April, suggesting that it is indeed a separate report, and not another source reporting the February attack. More details were provided with this second report, somewhat to the detriment of its credibility. The anonymous source(s) in Khartoum stated that the ship was “torpedoed” and/or “bombed” (Haaretz appears to be faithfully reproducing the wording of the original Arabic story) as it prepared to dock in Sudan, “before transferring its load for shipment to the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip.”
MEMRI quoted Sudanese presidential media advisor Mahjoub Fadhl Badri, from Al-Sudani on 27 April, as stating that the Sudanese government had no knowledge of an Iranian ship being sunk off its coast.
We may note first that it is extremely unlikely any ships have been torpedoed off Sudan. Speculation that either attack might have come from an Israeli submarine may be dismissed. The submarines are homeported in the Mediterranean, in Haifa, and would have to transit the Suez Canal to get to the Red Sea. It would not be possible for an Israeli submarine to sneak into the Red Sea undetected by this route, nor is there the remotest likelihood of the Israelis sending a submarine around Africa. Israel’s other torpedo-armed vessels, the Sa’ar 5-class corvettes, are also homeported in the Mediterranean, and would have to overtly transit the Suez Canal to reach the Red Sea. Egypt would be well aware that either an Israeli submarine or corvette had entered the Red Sea, and would be alerted enough that reports of ship sinkings off Sudan would quickly get more attention.
In general, the biggest credibility deficit with these two reports is that if cargo ships really were sunk, we would expect other merchant crews to have seen and reported on the events. It is conceivable that the attacks occurred in a less-trafficked area, as we shall see. But there are also reasons why that is unlikely. It is not, however, impossible. Again, the reports merit analysis.
Sudan has two main seaport areas, at Port Sudan and, about 42 miles (60km) south of it, Port Digna at Suakin. Port Sudan is by far the busiest port complex in the country, but by the standards of other major commercial ports of the area (e.g., Jeddah, across the Red Sea, Port Suez, Alexandria), it is smaller and less heavily-trafficked. Port Digna, modernized but with less pier space and fewer support facilities, has been in operation since the early 1990s, with a growing traffic level, but still a low one in comparison with ports of comparable size in the area.
The piers at each port complex have to be accessed by entering a roadstead inside a breakwater that extends a substantial distance off the coast. At the Port Sudan complex there are multiple pier areas, two on long inlets, and one that faces the Red Sea but is inside a breakwater created by an extensive network of islets and shoals. The approaches to the Suakin area are dotted with an archipelago in the Red Sea, which deeper-draft commercial vessels navigate in narrowly-ordered traffic schemes. The Digna port itself is accessed through a long, narrow inlet. At each port area, there is a traffic scheme in the roadstead giving commercial ships basically one way in and one way out. The land area surrounding the harbor inlets is heavily developed around both ports, with harbor administration buildings, shipping offices, warehouses, and waterfront commercial establishments giving large numbers of observers a wide view of both port complexes – including the pier area of Port Sudan that faces the Red Sea. (It backs up to an extensive warehouse and storage area for shipping containers.)
All this is to say that, at either of these main national port complexes, it makes no sense for a ship to be attacked and sunk as it is “preparing to dock” (tie up alongside a pier), and for only small driblets of information on such an attack to come from a handful of observers or fewer. Attacking a ship inside the breakwater would be foolhardy and unnecessary to begin with; but even if it were done, a large number of people would have to see any such attack, at either port complex.
Sources who give their information in the capital city of Khartoum are almost certainly speaking of Port Sudan, or at the outside, Port Digna, when they refer to a cargo ship preparing to dock in Sudan. Nearly 100% of Sudan’s ocean-going traffic uses one of these two ports. Yet the credibility of a ship being attacked and sunk in the roadstead of either of them, or even on approach to the port’s point of entry, is questionable. We may dismiss the idea of an Israeli warship pursuing a cargo ship into an exposed (or enclosed) situation to attack it.
Israel maintains a squadron of patrol boats homeported in Eilat, on the Gulf of Aqaba, which routinely patrol the northern Red Sea and Gulf of Suez. Most of the order of battle are Super-Dvora patrol boats, high-speed boats with small crews,, a shorter patrol range, and guns that would not be able to sink an ocean-going cargo ship in a single strike. Eilat has been known to host the Sa’ar 4 and 4.5-class missile patrol craft (Harpoon- and/or Gabriel-equipped), and may well be doing so at the moment, given the cryptic description at the Israeli Sea Corps’ official website of the operations Eilat’s squadron has recently been responsible for:
“Main activities recently in the operational field: catching of Karine A, deterring of smuggling activities from Egypt to Jordan and thwarting of number (sic) smuggling attempts.”
The Sa’ar 4/4.5 has the range to operate in the central Red Sea, although it would be very unlikely to do so undetected, by Egyptian or Saudi surveillance or by merchant ships. It would be particularly unlikely for an Israeli patrol ship to attack cargo ships outside Sudanese ports without being observed or identified.
So although Israel has navy ships in the Red Sea, I do not assess that they attacked any cargo ships outside or entering Port Sudan, or Port Digna.
This leaves two other basic options. One is special forces attacks of some kind, on ships in the vicinity of one of the two major Sudanese ports. The other is the possibility that Iranian arms carriers might have been headed for a small port in Marsa Oseif, at the mouth of an inlet up the Sudanese coast – a port where the pier is not deep inside a breakwater, at the end of traffic-controlled roadstead, and surrounded by built-up coastline, but instead is remote, with almost no infrastructure ashore, and virtually open to the Red Sea.
I should note that none of the permutations of these options presents one with an “Aha!” moment. The are all unlikely. But none is impossible, or dismissible out of hand.
Options for special forces attacks near the two major ports would even be abetted by the Suakin archipelago outside Port Digna, which would provide a “blind” for forces to wait in, and constrain the approach profile of commercial shipping to known patterns. Conceptually, the simplest approach would be attaching timed explosives to a target ship’s hull as it transited past the “blind.”
The same method could be used, but with fewer and more difficult approach options, at the entrance to the Port Sudan complex. Special forces in small boats, disguised as fishermen or pleasure boaters, might linger without suspicion around islets or shoals there, but would be more likely to want to perform the actual operation in the dark. In neither case does there seem to be any advantage in making the approach to a commercial ship from inside the harbor inlets, close to the piers. If a method like this were used, however, the necessity to approach ships from “blinds” just outside the roadsteads, in order to attack explosives to them, would explain inducing the explosions close to or inside the port areas.
One interesting “special forces” possibility involves what is being called the “Death Shark,” or a remotely operated maritime (seaborne) drone developed by the Israelis. Frankly, I don’t think it is involved in any shenanigans off the coast of Sudan. It is, first of all, too likely to have been seen – to have stood out quite obviously against the normal patterns of activity around a Sudanese roadstead – which does not mean we should have expected reporting on it from local observers, but does mean the Israelis would probably consider it imprudent to deploy it there. The maritime drone would also, however, have to be part of a multi-platform operation, either cueing another platform for the killing strike, or being cued if it was performing the kinetic role. Israel is capable of such cueing, as is the USA, but the tactical accuracy required for any scenario involving the drone would entail at least one other tactical asset in the vicinity, rather than relying solely on remote means (e.g., satellite). Such an elaborate scheme, performed at a comparatively great distance, with a highly visible actor in the starring role, makes the drone an unlikely player. But the Israelis’ initiative in developing it is a clue to the level of audacity we may expect in their approach to maritime smuggling interdiction. It makes the possible scenarios harder to discount.
The other basic option that could explain, in particular, the most recent report of an Iranian cargo ship being sunk, is that the ship was headed for another port. (The timing of the first report, which suggested the initial ship sinking occurred some weeks after the air strike on the smuggling convoy, could also give the alternate port theory explanatory value.) As the map shows, the Marsa Oseif inlet is some distance (about 160 miles, or 260km) up the coast from Port Sudan. Its remoteness, and the lack of infrastructure around it, can be seen in the Google Earth image. It has a commercial-grade pier, however, which was built to support the mining industry trade of the area. It also has improved road connection to a north-south highway running east of the coastal mountain range.
In the wake of the air strike in January, the fact that this port feeds directly to a land transport artery, much further north than the main ports, near the border with Egypt, could well have been significant to smuggling planners. Their chief concern may have been shortening the time their cargo spent on the ground in Sudan, on the theory that Israel would not attack a convoy once it crossed into Egypt. A key advantage of Marsa Oseif for this concern is that it gives access to the north-south road less than 30 miles (50km) from the 22nd parallel, which marks the southern boundary of the Hala’ib territory disputed between Egypt and Sudan – and administered by Egypt.
The pier in the Marsa Oseif inlet is virtually open to the Red Sea; an attack on a ship there would not entail operating with exceptional vulnerability inside a breakwater, or acting in sight of a host of observers on land, or heavy fishing or pleasure-boat traffic on the water. A more remote coastal area, closer to Israel’s Red Sea naval base, would allow the Israeli navy to operate with more latitude and less detectability. Special forces methods would be as possible there as elsewhere, but less necessary.
As darn likeable as this theory is, its major weakness is the unlikelihood that a news source in Khartoum, telling a reporter about a ship being attacked or blown up, would be referring to an event in the remote mining port in Marsa Oseif. The most probable reference point for such a story is Port Sudan. The Marsa Oseif theory could explain a number of things at once, but the Egyptian Al-Usbua’s news source was almost certainly speaking of Port Sudan – otherwise, the story would probably have emphasized that the venue was elsewhere. Population and commercial activity are concentrated around Khartoum, and the transportation arteries that run up and down the Nile, and from Khartoum to Port Sudan. A major event that took place outside these boundaries would, most likely, be explicitly described as doing so.
Still, none of these potential scenarios is so much more probable than the others as to compel a process of elimination. The fact that the reporting is so sketchy militates against there having been two ship attacks in Port Sudan in the past 8-10 weeks. The merchant shipping world would have far greater awareness than there is evidence it has, of attacks in Sudan’s main port complex. It would be alarmed too, with warnings being issued to mariners by international organizations, and updates by Lloyd’s of London.
So if the reports are valid, one or both may well refer to ship attacks in a more remote port area. Sudan has very few improved port areas with commercial-grade piers, and Marsa Oseif is, in fact, the only one north of Port Sudan that provides a commercial pier, exposed to the open sea, and improved road access to a north-south artery.
Israel could bring off any of the attack-and-venue scenarios outlined here. Iran would not issue protests under the conditions suggested by the reports: certainly not to Sudan; and Tehran cannot be sure who is responsible, assuming that there have, in fact, been attacks. I do dismiss the possibility of the US conducting the reported attacks. But the Israelis? There are multiple realistic scenarios in which they could have done it.