Is the MV ASPHALT PRINCESS Incident all it seems?
The recent potential hijacking of the vessel MV ASPHALT PRINCESS has raised suspicions, not only due to the timing of the incident itself, but to the abandonment of the vessel less than a day later. Many have claimed that this was an unwarranted attack by Iranian backed forces against an innocent party. Geollect have conducted analysis on the vessel’s history and recent transits to reveal a potentially different narrative, one where the incident could have alternative explanations.
MV ASPHALT PRINCESS- Vessel Information and Recent History
The vessel involved in the recent incident is the MV ASPHALT PRINCESS. The vessel operates under the flag of Panama and is an asphalt/bitumen tanker. Satellite imagery of the vessel identifies the distinct white superstructure, as well as the red deck.
Above: MV ASPHALT PRINCESS, just off the coast of Jamnagar, India
Events on the 3rd August- Implications and Considerations
Around 1530 local time, the UK Maritime Trade Operation (UKMTO) raised the warning of a potential ship incident occurring east of Fujairah, UAE. This warning then escalated to a full-scale ship hijacking, with early reporting suggesting Iranian involvement. The vessel appeared to head north towards Iranian waters (red zone below) but turned around and was promptly evacuated by the intruders. Looking at Geollect’s platform Geonius, Geollect discovered an AIS darkness period of 120 hours from the 29th July, 2021 until the 3rd August, 2021. This period of AIS darkness is highly suspect due to the time proximity of the event taking place. The length of time could also suggest that the ASPHALT PRINCESS transited to Iran shortly before the incident to take on cargo, a behaviour consistent with that of sanctions evasion.
Figure 1. The 120-hour AIS gap leading up to the incident on the 3rd August, 2021.
MV ASPHALT PRINCESS AIS Outages
Utilising available measures on Geonius, a pattern of behaviour began to emerge regarding the AIS history of the ASPHALT PRINCESS. Within the previous year, the ASPHALT PRINCESS has multiple lengthy periods of complete AIS darkness, with each period ranging from a few hours to an entire month. These lengths of time could allow the ASPHALT PRINCESS to transit to anywhere within Iran.
Figure 2: AIS outages from the 1st of January, 2021 to the 4th of August, 2021. Many of these outages were in the Persian Gulf as well as the Gulf of Oman approaching Iranian waters. In any of these outages it would be possible for the ASPHALT PRINCESS to transit to Iran, load up on sanctioned cargo and then transit back to international waters. The outage of 722 hours (30 days) is extremely suspicious, as it occurred 50 miles off the coast of Sohar, Oman, an area notorious for AIS spoofing and AIS dark exits towards Iran for ship to ship (STS) transfers
Figure 3.The above image displays one of the AIS outages recorded by the ASPHALT PRINCESS. Taking the average speed of the vessel, Geollect assess that it is highly likely that the ASPHALT PRINCESS switched off it’s AIS to transit towards Bandar Khomeini, Iran, a well documented destination for sanctions evasion. The estimated travel time to Bandar Khomeini is under 10 hours, and the ASPHALT PRINCESS was AIS dark for 55 hours, affording ample time to take on cargo.
Figure 4. The above image displays another, much longer period of AIS darkness recorded for the ASPHALT PRINCESS. Due to the period of inactivity (7.5 days) it is likely that the ASPHALT PRINCESS could have docked at a number of Iranian ports or known STS hotspots. The eventual re-emergence in the Gulf of Oman further corroborates this theory, with the destination and surrounding waters being a well-known area for the return of dark vessels engaged in nefarious activity.
Information Linking the MV ASPHALT PRINCESS to Iran
Geollect discovered several pieces of information which links the ASPHALT PRINCESS to previous dealings with Iran. Looking at the recent inspection history, it is immediately notable that two of the most recent inspections were carried out in the Iranian Port of Bandar Khomeini
Source: Equasis: https://www.equasis.org/
When researching previous incidents, Geollect discovered a similar attack occurring just 2 years prior. The events around the seizure of the vessel MT RIAH in 2019 by the IRGC bare several similarities to the recent events around the ASPHALT PRINCESS. Both vessels have assumed links with the illicit transfer of fuel, both were seized in moments of international tension and both have the same beneficial ownership structure. The links tying the ASPHALT PRINCESS to Iran suggest the incident could have the same underlying reasoning as the MT RIAH incident, perhaps relating to a disagreement in the trading of Iranian cargo between buyer and supplier. Due to the targeted strike taking place last week on the MT MERCER STREET, It is also possible that Iran may have planned the operation on the ASPHALT PRINCESS as a message to the international community to carefully reconsider any hostile acts and accusations. The international community, as well as the majority of media outlets, have painted a story of Iranian aggression against a perceived innocent party. Our analysis would suggest that there is enough evidence to support an alternative hypothesis, where the ASPHALT PRINCESS was already well versed in dealing with Iranian entities. The realistic possibilities of this being a means of settling a cargo dispute, or a convenient demonstration of force on a known asset by Iran, during a period of heightened tensions, can not be discounted. This could also provide an explanation as to why the hijackers boarded and departed in such quick succession.
The Controversy of the Not Under Command (NUC) Declarations
One widely reported element of the incident was the multiple vessels reporting NUC- not under command (status 2). While many have taken this as a sign of Iranian interference or system jamming, Geollect propose a simpler explanation. It is not uncommon for vessels to falsely designate themselves as NUC when in waters too deep for anchorage and awaiting orders. Although this is against the COLREGs definition, it allows vessels that are drifting underway to avoid the requirement to give way to vessels engaged in fishing or sailing vessels in the area. Using available data, Geollect uncovered 7 vessels, 3 more than the 4 reported, close to the incident which were reporting a navigational status of NUC at the time. Many of these vessels had this status before the incident on the ASPHALT PRINCESS occurred. This brings in to question the reporting around the notion that the navigational status happened as a result of the incident.
Figure 5. Vessels within 0.6 miles of the ASPHALT PRINCESS at the time of the incident. Note that the first reports concerning the potential hijacking came at around 1530 LT (1230 UTC), It is possible therefore that the two incidents are not related.
Final Thoughts & Looking towards the Future
The events surrounding the ASPHALT PRINCESS on the 3rd August 2021 continue to be interpreted by reporting outlets as an attack on an innocent party by Iran. Geollect suggest that there may be an alternative explanation. The analysis within this article would suggest a previously existing relationship between the ASPHALT PRINCESS and Iran prior to this incident. It is all to easy to jump to conclusions and make assumptions before taking a step back to review the facts. The evidence presented here would suggest there is more to this incident than meets the eye. Whether this was a measure taken to settle a cargo dispute or a conveniently timed creation of chaos by beneficial assets to send a global message, only time will tell the truth on this matter, but one thing that looks certain is that the ASPHALT PRINCESS could be questioned as an innocent party.