It was a merchant sailor’s nightmare: armed men in balaclavas dropping from a helicopter before storming the ship’s bridge, ordering the civilian crew to lie down at gunpoint and cutting all communications.
The scene played out late last year on the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, which was seized in the Red Sea by Houthi rebels who forced it to switch course to Yemen. It was one of the most audacious of more than two dozen attacks carried out by the Yemeni Islamist movement on merchant ships over the past two months.
The assaults have disrupted shipping in the critical maritime trade route and drawn the US Navy into combat. The Islamist rebels have become one of the most active factions in Iran’s so-called Axis of Resistance since the war between Israel and Hamas erupted on October 7.
By opening a front in the Red Sea, they have exposed the Iran-linked group’s ability to harm western interests, burnished the Houthis’ credentials as supporters of the Palestinian cause and projected them on to the regional and international stage, said analysts.
The Houthis were “very good military entrepreneurs” who have jumped on the “opportunity” presented by the war, said Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni expert at the Chatham House think-tank.
“They really believe the right opportunity came for them to defend Palestine and stand against Israel, and to show how hypocritical other Arab countries are [for not doing the same],” he said. “As long as the Gaza war goes on, the Houthis will escalate in the Red Sea.”
In doing so, they have created a significant challenge to the US and its western allies, which want to protect the region’s shipping lanes but are also wary of the Israel-Hamas conflict triggering a broader regional war.
US forces have come into conflict with the Houthis as they protect global shipping in the Red Sea through which about 15 per cent of global sea trade passes.
On New Year’s Eve, US Navy helicopters returned fire against small Houthi boats that were attacking an AP Møller-Maersk container ship in the Red Sea, sinking three of the rebels’ vessels and killing their crews.
Two days later they fired anti-ship ballistic missiles into the sea, the rebels’ 24th attack on merchant shipping in the region since they captured the Bahamas-flagged Galaxy Leader on November 19. The impact was felt by “multiple” commercial ships in the area, according to the US military, serving the Houthis’ aims of creating fear and disruption in the sea. The rebels have also fired drones and missiles at the southern Israeli port of Eilat.
Late on Tuesday, the Houthis launched one of their biggest combined attacks so far, according to US Central Command, with US and UK warships and aircraft shooting down 18 drones, two anti-ship cruise missiles and one ballistic missile.
Maersk, the Danish shipping company, recently suspended all transits through the Red Sea for the “foreseeable future”, joining about a dozen other companies including energy group BP in avoiding the route. Container ships and oil tankers instead have to take a 5,000-mile diversion around Africa to reach Europe.
In a sign of growing western concern, the US and UK and 10 other states issued a joint statement this month warning the Houthis that they would bear the consequences “should they continue to threaten lives . . . and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways”. The warning came amid speculation that US forces could launch strikes against the Houthis.
Washington has announced plans to step up the Red Sea maritime task force, but there were still only five warships from the US, France, and the UK patrolling the southern Red Sea and the western Gulf of Aden.
The US hopes other countries will deploy vessels, but it faces challenges in countering the threat. Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow at the Rusi think-tank, said one issue was that western warships only had a finite stock of interceptor missiles used to destroy projectiles. Once these were expended, ships had to return to base to resupply.
“The sheer tempo of activity means the Houthis can present the coalition with a challenge, even if the targets are quite simple,” said Kaushal.
Even if the task force were to be able to provide security, the success or failure of a convoy operation “exists at the level of perception that private sector actors, and particularly the insurers, believe to be true”, he continued. And as insurers increased premiums, it would become more economical for shipping companies to reroute their vessels, Kaushal added.
US officials accused Iran of being “deeply involved” in planning the Houthis’ assaults against shipping, saying the rebels have used Iranian drones and that Tehran provided “tactical intelligence” to the group.
Iranian officials have praised the Houthis’ attacks, but have rejected US claims that Tehran has been involved in the planning or supplied the group with weapons.
Tehran has insisted that militant groups within its Axis of Resistance — which also includes Hamas and Lebanon’s Hizbollah — act independently.
The Houthis, who are members of the Zaydi Shia sect, are not as ideologically aligned with Iran as other Shia militant movements in the region. However, they have moved closer to the Islamic republic as they have fought a nearly nine-year war against a Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen’s civil conflict after the Houthis ousted the Yemeni government.
The US and Gulf states have long accused Tehran of supplying the Houthis with missile and drone technology, as well as training. They control most of the country’s populous north, including the port of Hodeida, where the Galaxy Leader is being held.
At a military parade in Yemen’s capital Sana’a last year, the rebels showed off a fighter jet as well as an array of drones, missiles, vehicles, boats and anti-ship mines. Banners at the rally read: “Death to America, death to Israel.”
Muslimi said foreign and domestic forces had long underestimated the Houthis, a battle-hardened outfit from Yemen’s rugged, mountainous Saada province in the far north that has endured years of war with the Saudi-led coalition.
“This is a powerful group,” he said. “It has inherited Russian weapons from the former government, built its capacity, and eight years of war has put it at the peak of arms smuggling between Yemen and the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and Iran.
“The Houthis will go further than what even Iran would want.”
Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni analyst at the Sana’a Centre for Strategic Studies, said even if the US wanted to strike the Houthis, it could struggle to find targets to inflict significant damage.
“I think [the Houthi leaders] are already underground now. No one is going to stay in one place,” said Iryani. “I’m sure [the US] know a strike would increase the legitimacy and popularity of the Houthis, so they’d be doing them a service.”
Many Yemenis loathe the Houthis, who have been accused of myriad abuses, but the cause of the Palestinians also crosses factional divides in the country.
Iryani said that even members of Yemeni forces fighting the Houthis had supported the attacks against Israel. “Everyone [in Yemen] was cheering the Houthis as they lobbed missiles at Israel and made the stand they couldn’t make.”
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