From aboard a tugboat, rising and falling with the light swell of the Gulf of Oman, I could see part of the ship’s steel hull gaping like a ripped-open tin of sardines. Water swirled in and out, the jagged hole big enough to swim through.
At 183m long, 32m wide, the Norwegian-flagged tanker is not the biggest of the 140 ships at anchor near the Strait of Hormuz off the port of Fujairah on Sunday, but it is typical of the international flotilla that uses this geostrategic chokepoint as a maritime parking lot.
The MV Andrea Victory had arrived at noon on Saturday, its crew resting following a two-week sail from South Africa. They were waiting to fill up its near-30,000-ton tank when what appears to be an explosion ripped open its side.
Early in their investigation Emirati officials suggested the hole could have caused by a rocket or missile. Since then, with US help, they have concluded it may have been a caused by mine or improvised explosive device attached to the side of the ship.
Precisely who carried out the attack however is still under investigation.
So far, the US appears to be eyeing Iran as a possible culprit — though no evidence of its involvement has been presented.
Iran has denounced the incident and denies any involvement. However, their international credibility is in tatters, and they tick too many bad boy boxes. They have both the capability, and intent, according to US intelligence, as well as decades of form undermining US regional interests.
People around here fear we are all getting spun, that the US wants confrontation with Iran by any means and local people could be collateral in a conflict.
“I’m hearing little stories about Iran,” US President Donald Trump told reporters Monday. “If they do anything, they will suffer greatly. We’ll see what happens with Iran.” But he offered no details on those “little stories.” Meanwhile, even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seems to be backpedalling, fearful the US may be stumbling into a fight, swearing, “We fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran.”
What we know
What we are learning so far is that at 6.35 a.m. Sunday morning, a call was made by a ship reporting something wrong with its engine, that there seemed to be water in the engine room.
By 8 a.m., Emirati authorities realized four ships were struggling with unexplained incidents. On several of those vessels, water was getting in below the water line.
The four vessels that were damaged were the Saudi-flagged Almarzoqah and Amjad, the UAE-flagged A. Michel and the Norway-flagged Andrea Victory. I have seen all of them except the Amjad.
The Emirati tanker Michel was clearly listing and heavier at the stern than bow appearing to have taken on water, with several smaller vessels clustered around its heaviest corner.
Around the rear of the 243m-long Saudi tanker the Marzoqah, I saw four US-flagged armoured naval speed boats carrying out what seemed to be inspections.
All appeared to have been targeted at their rear, an area that maritime experts say is the most vulnerable part of a vessel. It is the hardest area to cover by radar, and the most difficult to see with the naked eye.
An attack on those vessels from that angle would suggest that the culprit knew what they were doing, and that the damage was precisely what they intended. Holes big enough to take on water but not large enough to sink the ships.
In other words, a momentarily painful message, but not a declaration of war.
One weapons expert who reviewed images of some of the damage thinks the holes may have been caused by limpet mines, which are used at or below the water line, easily stuck to the hull by a diver or attacker in a small boat, and detonated by a timer.
He based his analysis on the size of the hole, consistent with a 5kg charge (about the amount of explosives in a Limpet mine) and the lack of scorching or burning a rocket or missile might leave.
He described it as a sophisticated operation, with the culprit getting clean away, a professional job.
A picture emerges of well-trained operatives moving across the water under cover of darkness, placing mines on selected ships over a wide area. If Limpet mines can be blamed, they would have been timed to go off within a few hours of each other in the morning, with no sight nor sound of attacker ever detected.
It is quite possible no one on board would have heard the explosions and the first sign of trouble could well have been water inside the ship, as indicated in the calls ashore.
Nothing like this has been seen around Fujairah before. However, off the coast of nearby Yemen, where Iranian-backed Houthis are fighting the Saudi-and-UAE-backed Yemeni government, Houthis have used mines to target Saudi ships. On Tuesday, Houthis claimed responsibility for a bold drone attack on an oil pipeline deep inside Saudi Arabia.
But even if a forensic match could be made between past Houthi mine attacks and the sabotage at Fujairah this Sunday, there’d be little to prove that Iran was behind it or even knew about it.