Fatal Attack On Tanker Off Oman Blamed On Suicide Drone: Report

The attack on the Israeli-operated ship claimed two lives and comes amid a shadowy tit-for-tat maritime campaign being waged by Iran and Israel.

MERCER_STREET
Johan Victor via AP

Two individuals on board Israeli-operated oil tanker have been killed in what may have been a drone attack on the ship in the Gulf of Oman. Details of what happened aboard the M/T Mercer Street are still emerging, but, if this was indeed an attack, the deaths of a British and a Romanian national onboard the vessel would represent a significant escalation over previous incidents involving commercial shipping in the region in recent months. Many of these attacks are at least widely suspected to be the work of Iran or its regional proxies, and appear to be part of a shadow war on commercial and military ships between Israel and Iran.

According to online ship-tracking data, the M/T Mercer Street had departed from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania on July 21 and was heading to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates when it came under attack at around 6:00 pm Coordinated Universal Time on Thursday, while it was 152 nautical miles northeast of Duqm, Oman.

Johan Victor via AP

The M/T Mercer Street off Cape Town, South Africa, in 2016.

The oil tanker, at 28,400 gross registered tons, sails under the Liberian flag and has a Japanese owner. It is operated by Zodiac Maritime, a London-based company that belongs to the Israeli Eyal Ofer, a billionaire real estate and shipping magnate, and a philanthropist. According to the Jerusalem Post, there was no oil or other cargo aboard Mercer Street at the time of the attack.

While Zodiac Maritime initially described the attack as a “piracy incident,” the company since seems to have stepped back from that, removing the statement from its website, while the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), a body that monitors maritime security in the region, has said stated that it was a “non-piracy” attack. The company has also said it is not aware of anyone else on the vessel being injured in the incident.

Though the exact nature of the incident remains unconfirmed, according to Associated Press, a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said the attack appeared to have involved several drones, including a “one-way” drone — which was presumably responsible for pressing home the attack itself. The official said it wasn’t immediately known who launched the attack.

Separately, Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence company, reported that an unspecified unmanned aerial vehicle deployed flares in the vicinity of the tanker, triggering a first advisory notice from the UKMTO. A second event, according to Dryad Global, resulted in an explosion on the vessel, but it did not provide further details.

Of those killed, the British national was a security guard working for Ambrey Ltd, a company that describes itself as offering a “fully integrated, intelligence-led maritime security service solution.” The Romanian national appears to have been a member of the ship’s crew.

The UKMTO has said that an investigation into the incident is currently underway and that regional search and rescue authorities and coalition forces have been tasked to assist the vessel. Meanwhile, Zodiac Maritime says that the ship is “sailing under the control of her crew and under her own power at 14 knots to a safe location with a US naval escort.” There is U.S.-led maritime security construct in place, which includes a multi-national naval task force, in the region specifically focused on protecting international shipping from the kinds of attacks that Mercer Street was reportedly the victim of.

Mercer Street is not the first Zodiac Maritime-linked vessel to come under apparent attack this month. A fire that broke out aboard the CSAV Tyndall, in the northern Indian Ocean, on July 3, was blamed by Israel on an Iranian attack during which it was struck by an “unknown weapon.” This ship had previously been owned by Eyal Ofer’s firm, but had been sold several months previously.

In April, there had also been a reported attack on the Israeli-owned cargo ship Hyperion Ray, which may also have been carried out using a drone of some kind. The month before that, another Israeli-owned vessel, the container ship Lori, was reportedly the victim of a missile attack in the Gulf of Oman. In both cases, Iran, or its proxies, was suspected of being responsible.

In February, Israeli officials had again blamed Iran for an attack on Helios Ray, a sister ship of Hyperion Ray, which was also sailing in this same general region, Iranian authorities, in turn, accused Israel of carrying out a false flag operation.

Iran had also been linked to a string of attacks in 2019 on foreign tankers involving limpet mines placed on their hulls, likely by combat swimmers or personnel in small boats. While the use of a drone in this reported attack on Mercer Street, as well as other incidents in recent months, is unconfirmed, Iran operates a number of different drones that would be capable of carrying out such a strike, technology that it has also passed on to proxies across the Middle East. Iran has also previously touted the ability to launch certain types from small boats at maritime or coastal targets. 

There has already been the suggestion that an Iranian delta-wing Shahed-136 unmanned aircraft, a type close associated with the drone and missile strikes on oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia in 2019, which have also been blamed on Iran, may have been use in the apparent attack on Mercer Street. However, there is, so far, nothing to confirm that report.

Regardless, an attack on Mercer Street would be in line with this uptick in reported Iranian attacks on Israeli-linked shipping around the Gulf of Oman in the past few months. As well as the targeting of Israeli ships, there have also been reported attacks on Iranian vessels in recent months, indicating that a tit-for-tat maritime campaign is now underway. In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that Israel had targeted at least 12 ships bound for Syria, most of them transporting either Iranian oil or weapons.

Among the high-profile Iranian victims of apparent attacks is the M/V Saviz, reportedly targeted in the Red Sea in April. This vessel has been alleged to have been used by Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps uses to assist Houthi rebels in Yemen and conduct other covert activities in the region.

The incidents have spiked amid growing tensions between the two countries related to the Iranian nuclear deal, which President Biden's administration has been seeking to rejoin after President Trump withdrew the United States from it in 2018. Israel has remained firmly opposed to the deal and has launched preemptive military action against suspected nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria.

Iran has also blamed Israeli for an attack on Iranian soil, targeting the Natanz nuclear site, in April. Again, the nature of the attack remains unclear, with some reports suggesting a cyberattack and others saying the attack was carried out using an explosive charge.

The exact details about many of the reported attacks on Iranian and Israeli shipping in the Gulf of Oman and beyond are, by their nature, murky and have been subject to dispute on both sides. However, if this new incident involving the Mercer Street is indeed linked to this broader campaign, the fatalities would represent a clear and serious escalation that could demand more forceful responses from various parties. So far, there has not been a formal comment from Israel or Iran, but we will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com