Houthi naval rampage: Unleashing chaos in global waters

In a tumultuous saga at sea, Houthi rebels target a U.S.-owned ship in the Gulf of Aden, escalating tensions in the Red Sea. As Houthi strikes reverberate, the world witnesses a perilous dance on the high seas, with significant implications for global trade and supply chains.

Houthi rebels targeted a U.S.-owned ship near Yemen in the Gulf of Aden with a missile, following a similar attack on an American destroyer in the Red Sea. The Gibraltar Eagle, a Marshall Islands-flagged bulk carrier, was hit about 110 miles southeast of Aden, as reported by the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, resulted in U.S. fighter aircraft successfully intercepting and shooting down a missile launched by Houthi rebels based in Yemen.  The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, which adds to escalating tensions in the Red Sea amid U.S.-led strikes on the rebels. The incident, along with ongoing conflicts like Israel’s war with Hamas, has disrupted global shipping in a key corridor linking Asian and Mideast shipments to the Suez Canal and Europe. Despite the attack, the Eagle Gibraltar reported no injuries or significant damage, continuing its journey as confirmed by the U.S. military’s Central Command.

 

Brief History

The Houthi movement, also referred to as Ansarallah or Supporters of God, has played a significant role in the Yemeni civil war that has persisted for nearly a decade. Originating in the 1990s under the leadership of Hussein al-Houthi, the movement began as “Believing Youth,” a revival movement for Zaidism, a Shia Islamic subsect with a centuries-old history in Yemen.

Zaidis had historically ruled Yemen but saw marginalization under the Sunni regime that emerged after the 1962 civil war. Al-Houthi aimed to represent Zaidis and resist radical Sunni ideologies, particularly those influenced by Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia. His followers, known as Houthis, became the core supporters of this movement.

The Yemeni civil war ignited in 2014 when Houthi forces seized control of the capital, Sanaa, leading to the overthrow of the internationally recognized and Saudi-backed government. This event marked the beginning of a complex conflict. In 2015, the situation escalated further as a Saudi-led coalition intervened to push back the Houthi forces, turning the internal strife into a broader regional conflict.

After eight years, the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts to remove the Houthi rebels from control in Yemen have proven unsuccessful. Despite a ceasefire being signed in 2022, it lapsed after only six months. Fortunately, the warring parties have not immediately reverted to full-scale conflict.

In the aftermath of the ceasefire, the Houthis have managed to strengthen their grip over the majority of northern Yemen. Additionally, they have engaged in negotiations with the Saudis in an attempt to reach a lasting agreement that would bring a permanent end to the war. The Houthi’s objective is to solidify their position as the ruling authority in Yemen.

 

Why are the ships in Red Sea Houthi’s target?

The Houthis, while lacking the capabilities of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, are causing a different form of impact by targeting commercial vessels in the Red Sea. This region, from the Bab-el-Mandeb straits near Yemen to the Suez Canal in Egypt, holds substantial global economic importance, facilitating 12% of worldwide trade and 30% of global container traffic. The events of 2021, such as the grounding of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal, underscore the vulnerability of this crucial trade route, with disruptions causing significant financial losses and prolonged effects on global supply chains.

Concerns are mounting over the ongoing Houthi drone and missile assaults targeting commercial vessels since December 9, with potential repercussions for the global economy. Major shipping entities such as Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd, CMA CGM Group, and Evergreen, as well as oil giants like BP, have temporarily halted shipping through the Red Sea due to the fear of Houthi attacks. This cautious approach has contributed to a surge in oil and gas prices.

The continuous attacks pose the risk of compelling ships to opt for a significantly longer route around Africa, leading to a spike in insurance costs. Companies, grappling with increased expenses for transporting goods, may transfer these additional costs to consumers, resulting in elevated prices. This scenario unfolds at a time when governments worldwide are already wrestling with efforts to control post-pandemic inflation.

The Houthi attacks appear to have a dual purpose: first, to impose economic hardships on Israel’s allies, potentially pushing them to influence Israel to halt its bombardment of the enclave. Second, championing the Palestinian cause could serve as a strategy to gain legitimacy domestically and regionally, especially as the Houthis aim to consolidate control over northern Yemen. This stance may also provide the Houthis with a strategic advantage in their relations with Arab adversaries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whom they accuse of aligning with the interests of the U.S. and Israel.

 

A timeline of Houthi attacks

 

October 7: Hamas Surprise Attack

On October 7, Hamas launches a surprise attack on southern Israel, resulting in the tragic loss of approximately 1,200 lives. Additionally, around 200 individuals are kidnapped and taken back to Gaza. In response, Israel initiated its attacks on Gaza later that same night.

October 19: Houthi Missile and Drone Attack

On October 19, the Houthis make their first significant move in the Israel-Hamas conflict by firing four cruise missiles and deploying 15 drones towards Israel. Fortunately, all of the missiles are successfully intercepted, thanks to a combination of Saudi air defences and the USS Carney.

October 27: Houthi Drone Launch

Later, on October 27, the Houthis launched two drones, reportedly targeting Israel. However, both drones miss their mark and fall in Egypt, causing injuries to six individuals.

October 31: Houthi Missile and Drone Launch

On October 31, the Houthis announced the launch of a “large number” of ballistic missiles and drones towards Israel, vowing to continue until Israeli aggression stops. This triggers air raid sirens in the Israeli tourist resort of Eilat, prompting residents to seek shelter. Israel responds by destroying an “aerial target” over the Red Sea.

November 5: Houthi Missile Attack

On November 5, the Houthis launched an undisclosed number of missiles towards Israel, but all of them were successfully intercepted by Israeli defences.

November 8: Houthi Downing of American MQ-9 Drone

On November 8, the Houthis claimed responsibility for shooting down an American MQ-9 drone, alleging it was conducting hostile surveillance and espionage activities in Yemeni territorial waters as part of American military support for Israel.

November 14: Houthi Warning and Missile Launch

Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi warns of targeting Israeli ships in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait on November 14. Additionally, the Houthis fire several missiles towards Israel, all of which are intercepted by the USS Thomas Hudner.

November 19: Houthi Helicopter Attack on Cargo Ship

On November 19, the Houthis executed a daring helicopter attack, successfully capturing the Galaxy Leader, a cargo ship owned by Israel and operated by Japan, in the Red Sea. The assailants take control of the vessel along with its 25 crew members, transporting them to Hodeida in Yemen. The Houthis released footage of the audacious assault.

November 22: Houthi Cruise Missile Launch

On November 22, the Houthis launched a cruise missile towards Israel. Israeli officials report that the missile is intercepted and shot down by an F-35 jet.

November 23: USS Hudner Shoots Down Yemen-launched Drones

On November 23, U.S. officials confirmed that the USS Hudner, operating in the region, successfully shot down drones launched from Yemen.

November 29: USS Carney Intercept and Drone Shootdown

The USS Carney intercepts missiles fired from Yemen and successfully shoots down an “Iranian-made” drone that US officials describe as heading towards it.

December 3: Commercial Vessel Attacks and USS Carney Response

US military officials report three commercial vessels being attacked in international waters in the southern Red Sea. Houthis claim drone and missile attacks on two Israeli vessels. The USS Carney shoots down three Houthi drones.

December 9: Houthi Threat to Target All Ships Heading to Israel

Houthis announced their intention to target all ships heading to Israel, irrespective of nationality, if Israel does not allow the delivery of essential supplies.

December 12: Houthi Cruise Missile Attack on Norwegian Vessel

Houthis targeted a Norwegian vessel with a land-based cruise missile, causing a fire on board. In response, Israel announces the deployment of one of its most advanced warships in the Red Sea.

December 16: USS Carney Shoots Down 14 Drones

The Pentagon reports that the USS Carney shot down 14 drones launched by Houthis over the Red Sea.

December 18: Intensification of Attacks on Commercial Vessels

Houthis announce two more drone attacks targeting cargo vessels in the Red Sea: MSC Clara and the Norwegian-owned Swan Atlantic.

December 23: US Shoots Down Drones, Houthi Strikes on Tankers

The US shot down four drones launched from Yemen towards a US destroyer. Houthis nearly hit a Norwegian oil tanker with a drone and struck an Indian-flagged crude oil tanker.

December 26: Houthi Missile Attack on MSC Container Ship

Houthis launched a missile attack on an MSC container ship in the Red Sea and attempted to hit Israel with drones.

December 28: USS Carney Shoots Down Drone and Ballistic Missile

The U.S. shoots down one drone and one anti-ship ballistic missile in the southern Red Sea, both fired by Houthis. Reuters notes it is the 22nd attempted attack on international shipping since October 19.

December 31: U.S. Forces Kill 10 Houthi Naval Personnel

U.S. forces kill 10 Houthi naval personnel attempting to board a commercial vessel with three boats in the Red Sea.

January 3: Final Warning to Houthis

The US and 12 allies issue a final warning to Houthis, urging them to cease their attacks on vessels in the Red Sea or face military action. The countries emphasize the immediate end of illegal attacks and the release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews. The Houthis are warned of bearing responsibility for the consequences if they persist in threatening lives, the global economy, and the free flow of commerce in critical waterways.

January 4: Houthi Unmanned Surface Vessel Attack

Houthis launched an unmanned surface vessel that detonates “a couple of miles” away from US Navy and commercial vessels in the Red Sea, according to US officials. Vice Admiral Brad Cooper notes that this marks the first instance of the Houthis using an unmanned surface vessel since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war.

January 9: Largest Houthi Attack

Houthi forces launch their largest attack to date on January 9, firing 21 drones and missiles towards the Red Sea. All projectiles are successfully intercepted by British and US forces. The Pentagon reports this as the 26th Houthi attack on commercial shipping lanes in the Red Sea since November 19. British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps expresses concern, stating that the situation “cannot be allowed to continue.”

January 11: Houthi Anti-ship Ballistic Missile

On January 11, the Houthis fired an anti-ship ballistic missile into international shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden.

 

U.S.’ Response

On a joint initiative, the United States and Britain, backed by Australia, Bahrain, Canada, and the Netherlands, conduct air and missile strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen. The strikes are aimed at various locations, including the capital Sana’a, Sa’ada, Hajjah, Hudayadh, and Taiz governorates. The Pentagon reports that more than 150 precision-guided munitions were utilized to target 60 locations. In response, U.S. President Joe Biden stated, “These targeted strikes are a clear message that the United States and our partners will not tolerate attacks on our personnel or allow hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation.”

The U.S. military has conducted another strike against the Houthi forces, targeting anti-ship missiles in the third assault on the Iran-backed group in recent days. As per a statement from the U.S. Central Command, the strike successfully destroyed four Houthi ballistic missiles that were poised for launch, posing an imminent threat to both merchant and U.S. Navy ships in the region.

The United States reportedly destroyed or damaged 93% of the selected targets during a military operation. However, some U.S. officials privately admitted that despite this high success rate, the operation did not significantly hinder the Houthi rebels’ capability to continue launching attacks on international shipping.