The Gulf of Oman shipping attacks, the Intelligence Game

The Gulf of Oman shipping attacks, the Intelligence Game

In the streets of Tehran, for many years Israel’s Mossad, Germany’s MRD, Americas CIA, France’s DGSE and of course the UK’s MI6 with many others will have been playing the potentially deadly game of HUMINT. Human Intelligence, recruiting individuals with access to pass on secrets from the organisations they have access to. If they are caught, they will almost certainly be tortured and killed, it is probable that their families will disappear, and that access will be lost. This is part of the intelligence game.

One of the key targets of the international intelligence community will be the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds force. Their special operations division, the part of the revolutionary guard that infiltrates other states, that carries out guerrilla and terrorist type attacks, that carries out ‘black’ operations, that is currently being blamed by the US and UK for the spate of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

If one of the intelligence agencies has recruited an agent inside the Quds Force then their intelligence, their presence and their access will only be known by a very very small number of people; their identity by even fewer. Their reports will be unlikely to be shared, but assessments utilising intelligence provided may be shared with allies. 

Luckily, HUMAN intelligence is the icing on the cake and not needed in all cases to form an intelligence assessment.  It is highly unlikely to have formed part of the picture that allowed the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to blame the Iranians for the attacks on Thursday on two tankersin the Gulf of Oman, just a month after four others were targeted off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.  The British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said that the Iranian regime was “almost certainly” behind it, but how would they know?

The key is knowing exactly what happened and when and that is very easy in this case. It is easy because the exact time and location is known and the ships at 06:12 (02:12 GMT) the Norwegian-owned Front Altair followed at 07:00 the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous sent distress calls following explosions and these were picked up by US naval forces in the region.  

The US has already released video from an unmanned drone flying in the region, this is one of the most highly surveilled regions in the world. The drone reportedly showed Iranian Revolutionary Guards boats evacuating crew from one of the distressed ships whilst surreptitiously removing an unexploded limpet mine.  Some commentators have questioned its validity especially as the owners of the Kokuka Courageous claim that the crew saw a flying object just before the explosion. 

One thing that people should recognise is the drone was not alone! There are layers of intelligence collection systems all watching and listening to target areas of interest, which the Gulf of Oman is. These systems have the ability to monitor the whole electromagnetic spectrum passively through satellites, drones, aircraft, ships and land based capabilities and also actively through land based, sea borne and airborne radar. 

So, what would be looked for? We have boat movement, the 2 ships that were attacked and any smaller craft that approached them through their journey. Small craft present a problem for intelligence systems as they can often get lost in the background clutter in images, or radar returns and that clutter can be caused by atmospherics, sea states and geography. This means that unless they are being actively looked for, they can often hide. Boats no matter what size leave a wake, a temperature difference in the sea as they travel, a radar and an acoustic signature, a thermal signature and if they use radar and/or radio, an electromagnetic signature. If crew members are carrying mobile phones, those too leave a unique signature in the electromagnetic spectrum. 

For limpet mines to be attached, this is either done in port or on the journey from a surface or sub surface vessel.  The location of the explosion and the alleged limpet mine that was removed can rule out a sub-surface approach. But what of the flying object?

The ships were over 50 km off shore, for anyone with experience at sea, that is a long way! Any ‘flying object’ would have to be launched from Land, the Air or the Sea. It would also have to be guided to the target either actively or using passive on board guidance systems. We are talking about a very sophisticated system to get a warhead to a ship. At that range any land launched system would have been spotted immediately through its thermal signature, the US would have called it out immediately. Again, if launched from the air, aircraft type, course, time of flight are all being recorded, not just by civil air traffic control but also military assets across the region. The USS Bainbridge, a US Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, over 500 feet long and weighing in at 9,200 tons, has some of the most sophisticated radar and other sensors and it was operating in the area. 

So, a close in missile launch would see the need for a small boat to get within a few km of the tankers, leaving its own signature and once a missile is launched, leaving another trail of ways of identifying it.  I would assess it as unlikely that a missile system was used to attack the tankers.

Will we ever know for sure? Well if samples of the explosive residue left around the site of the explosion and the size and shape of the damage to the ship’s hull can be gained – the type of explosive can be determined and the exact weapon system used therefore determined with a very high probability, if it is a manufactured weapon and not a home-made IED, even then the residue will indicate where the explosive substance came from.

So, for all the doubters out there who want to immediately counter the state narrative. Realise, it is certainly based on much more than will ever or should ever be in the public domain. Meanwhile, the attempts to recruit human assets in Tehran and elsewhere will continue.

This blog was written by Philip Ingram MBE a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence who has worked in the Gulf region. Please go to contact us if you want further comment from him.