With Shooting, U.S. Navy Ship Sends Message to Iran, Al Qaeda

It remains unclear if the crew of a small vessel that got too close to a U.S. ship were working for Iran or al Qaeda.

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USNS Rappahannock
USNS Rappahannock

The crew of a U.S. Navy ship opened fire Monday on a small vessel in the Persian Gulf that the Pentagon says ignored several warnings, effectively sending a deadly message to foes like Iran and al Qaeda: Don't press your luck.

The Pentagon announced Monday that the USNS Rappahannock, a fuel resupply ship, opened fire on the small vessel in waters about 30 miles off the United Arab Emirates coast. In a statement, the Pentagon said the small vessel "disregarded several warnings and rapidly approached the U.S. ship."

The Rappahannock's crew reportedly killed one individual who was aboard the small boat, and wounded three others.

"The U.S. crew repeatedly attempted to warn the vessel's operators to turn away from their deliberate approach," the Pentagon said. "When those efforts failed to deter the approaching vessel, the security team on the Rappahannock fired rounds from a .50-caliber machine gun."

The Pentagon's description of the incident conjured up images of al Qaeda's October 2000 attack on the USS Cole. That strike—while the American destroyer was refueling in a Yemeni harbor—left 17 dead and nearly 40 wounded.

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More recently, Iran's Revolutionary Guard has used small, fast boats to taunt American naval ships. U.S. and UAE officials have yet to respond to an inquiry seeking information on the nationality of the individual killed and whether the small vessel was affiliated with the Iranian military.

It was not immediately clear why the vessel ignored warnings from the Rappahannock's crew.

"After the smaller ship was fired upon, you would certainly think most people would very quickly get out of the way," says Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "So it does raise questions."

Al Qaeda is believed to be behind several attacks on ships in the Gulf region, including a 2010 attack on a Japanese oil tanker. That ship suffered little damage and only one crew member was slightly injured.

"I have to emphasize al Qaeda's involvement as much as Iranian involvement," says Eisenstadt.

Still, after Kenyan officials last week charged two Iranians with shipping more than 200 pounds of explosives there as part of what is believed to have been a plot on American or Israeli interests, Eisenstadt says the small vessel could have been part of an "escalating shadow war" between the U.S. and Iran.

"If it was the Iranians, we thwarted their efforts," says Eisenstadt. "Given that there appear to be no lethal consequences for Americans, I don't think this leads to more than it is right now. There would be additional warnings passed from the U.S. to the Iranians."

U.S. officials "don't want to do anything that further ratchets up the tension," he says. "Still, if people of ill intent were thwarted, the message is: You can try, but we will stop you."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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