Houthi attacks on Red Sea likely won’t end anytime soon


Houthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea in this photo released on Nov. 20, 2023.

Houthi Military Media | Via Reuters

Drone and missile attacks by Yemen-based Houthi militants have upended shipping through the Red Sea and Suez Canal, a narrow waterway through which some 10% of the world’s trade sails.

U.S. Central Command over the weekend said it shot down “14 unmanned aerial systems launched as a drone wave from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.” A day later, oil major BP announced it would “temporarily pause” all transits through the Red Sea, following similar decisions by shipping giants Maersk, MSC, Hapag-Lloyd, and CMA CGM.

The Pentagon said Monday it was forming a maritime security coalition with allies to counter the threat and provide protection for shippers, who as of Tuesday had diverted more than $80 billion worth of cargo away from the Red Sea.

Many tankers and cargo ships that would normally transit via the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean are instead being rerouted around the continent of Africa, which adds 14 to 15 days on average to sea voyages. International logistics firm DHL warned that “the diversion will significantly increase transit times between Asia and Europe and require shipping lines to increase planned capacity.”

The changes have already spiked insurance premiums on ships and contributed to a bump in oil prices. And U.S. military might in the area may not be enough to quell the disruptions.

Red Sea attacks pose a whole new generation of geopolitical threats, says FreightWaves

“A dedicated naval task force will be able to more effectively intercept drone and missile attacks and prevent boarding operations, but the task force won’t be able to be everywhere all at once,” Ryan Bohl, senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at Rane, told CNBC.

“So long as there are significant numbers of civilian ships moving through this area, the Houthis will have plenty of targets to choose from.”

But who are the militants attacking the ships, and why are they doing it? And will a U.S.-led naval security coalition be effective enough to make the Red Sea trade routes safe for trade again?

Who are the Houthis?

Why are they attacking cargo ships?

Yemen’s Houthis have made clear their intention of targeting Israeli ships and any ships headed to or from Israel, in retaliation for the country’s war in Gaza that has so far killed more than 20,000 people there and triggered a humanitarian catastrophe. Israel launched its offensive on Oct. 7, after the Palestinian militant group Hamas carried out a brutal terrorist attack that killed some 1,200 people in Israel’s south and took another 240 hostage.

Mock drones and missiles are displayed at a square on December 07, 2023 in Sana’a, Yemen.

Mohammed Hamoud | Getty Images

So far, the Houthis have deployed direct-attack drones, anti-ship missiles, and even physically seized a merchant ship via helicopter landing. And they don’t plan on stopping.

Mohammed al-Bukaiti, a senior Houthi political official, said during a news conference Tuesday: “Even if America succeeds in mobilizing the entire world, our military operations will not stop unless the genocide crimes in Gaza stop and allow food, medicine, and fuel to enter its besieged population, no matter the sacrifices it costs us.”

What happens next?

U.S. response in Red Sea provides deterrence but risks widening of war: Harvard's Meghan O’Sullivan

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