Indian Ocean Region Strategic Net Assessment: The Red Sea and Horn Subregion
April 14, 2016
While almost every state in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa subregion qualifies as high risk internally, none of the countries in the subregion constitute a serious strategic risk to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Two key strategic issues affect the subregion and the IOR: 1) maritime piracy and 2) the security of maritime traffic and energy exports through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Currently, these strategic issues present a low overall risk to the IOR.
The international community’s anti-piracy efforts have been a great success in the subregion. As reported by NATO, since May 2012 there have been no successful pirate attacks off of the Horn of Africa; this is down from the peak point in 2009, a year that saw 52 successful hijackings. Anti-piracy policing efforts, such as NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield (OOS), the EU’s Operation Atalanta, and the US Combined Task Force 151, provide a significant force presence in the Indian Ocean, forcing pirates to reconsider conducting operations. Out of 190 globally reported instances of piracy in 2015, not a single one took place in the Red Sea or off of the Horn of Africa. At present, NATO’s OOS only deploys surface vessels intermittently, signaling the alliance’s confidence in the IOR’s maritime security.
Kenya’s military intervention against al-Shabaab in Somalia also contributed to the demise of piracy near the Horn of Africa. Operation Linda Nchi resulted in the capture of the major al-Shabaab stronghold at the port of Kismayo in southern Somalia. Additionally, commercial vessels transiting the region have increased precautions; either by fortifying themselves against attacks using a wide array of non-lethal weapons, or by rerouting altogether. It is difficult to gauge what would happen if anti-piracy operations were to cease near the Horn, but instability in Somalia, and now in Yemen places many young men into extreme financial- and security-related trouble, priming the region for the potential resumption of piracy operations should maritime policing ever wane to a point where these activities could be deemed viable again.
Egypt, as the predominate military power in the subregion and the owner/operator of the Suez Canal and the SUMED pipeline, is largely responsible for the security of maritime shipping and energy exports that transit the Red Sea. Despite economic troubles, Egypt fields a strong military, and its navy and air force eclipse others in the subregion. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime appears to be secure in the near-term, but given Egypt’s recent volatility, the possibility of future political upheaval in Egypt should not be discounted when considering risk to the IOR.
Following the 2013 government crackdown on Islamist groups, Egyptian Islamic militants have increased their operations, especially Wilayat Sinai (formerly Ansar Beit al-Maqdis). The group declared allegiance to ISIS in November 2014 and has conducted serious attacks on hard military targets, government buildings and officials, and civilians; most notoriously, Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for the October 2015 downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai desert, killing 224. Other terrorist attacks in Egypt hit such soft targets as the Cairo metro, the outside of the foreign ministry building, and the area near Cairo University. The Sinai serves as a base of operations for the majority of these groups. Despite the Egyptian military’s increased presence in the Sinai, aimed at providing greater levels of security, attacks by Islamist fighters continue; the violence is particularly prevalent in the northern portion of the peninsula.
The escalation of Islamic militancy in Egypt leads to concerns over the security of the Suez Canal and its eastern approaches, as well as the SUMED pipeline. Fighters have attacked tourist sites in the Red Sea and fired rockets at ships near and in the Suez Canal. Approximately 8% of world maritime trade transits the canal per annum, and Egypt has tightened security accordingly. Egypt is signaling that it is serious about protecting the Suez Canal, especially given its recent expansion, which cost $8.2 billion. It has also increased security for the SUMED pipeline, which, together with the Suez Canal, accounted for 5.2 million barrels of oil flows per day in 2014. Despite the increase in security, the Suez Canal and SUMED pipeline remain potential targets for Egyptian militants. If the Egyptian military cannot eliminate the Islamic militant groups within its own territory or seriously reduce their activity, then these key pieces of infrastructure will continue to be vulnerable and pose a threat to the economic stability of the IOR.
As the following report shows, the Red Sea and Horn of Africa subregion present a low overall risk to the IOR in the near-term. However, if international anti-piracy policing efforts are scaled back too drastically or Egypt cannot reduce domestic terrorism, then situations may arise that could threaten the security of maritime trade and energy flows in the IOR.