The Houthis, a rebel group in Yemen, have continued attacks in the Red Sea over the past week despite warnings from the US and allies. Most recently, a Houthi drone boat exploded on January 4th near ships transiting the critical global trade route. In response, shipping giant Maersk announced on January 5th that it will divert vessels away from the Red Sea for the foreseeable future.
Recent Attacks Bring Total to Over 25 Since November
According to the Military Times, Houthi forces have now carried out over 25 attacks in the Red Sea since November 2023. The attacks have involved the use of explosive drone boats, missiles, and remote-controlled sailboats rigged with explosives. Targets are typically commercial vessels sailing near the coast of Yemen.
While no ships have been sunk or sustained major damage so far, the repeated attacks are wreaking havoc on global shipping routes. Nearly 15% of international trade passes through the Red Sea, including oil shipments from Gulf states. Ships taking this route typically save 10 days transit compared to the journey around the Cape of Good Hope.
|Jan 4, 2024
|Explosive drone boat detonated
|Unspecified commercial vessels
|Jan 2, 2024
|Missile fired, no damage caused
|French cargo vessel
|Dec 31, 2023
|Explosive drone boat destroyed by US Navy
|Unspecified commercial vessel
|Dec 30, 2023
|Explosive drone boat intercepted
|Dec 29, 2023
|Missile fired, no damage caused
|Israeli cargo ship
US and Allies Warn of Military Action, But Attacks Continue
The attacks come despite repeated warnings about consequences from the US and allies over the past week.
On January 3rd, CENTCOM said the US was “prepared to respond” to the threat posed by the Houthis in the Red Sea. Additional naval ships have been deployed, including the USS Cole guided missile destroyer.
The next day, the Pentagon said the military was “considering all options.” When asked if retaliation was imminent, a spokesman declined to comment on potential operations.
Meanwhile, Israel and Saudi Arabia have vowed a “powerful” joint response if attacks do not cease immediately.
Despite the warnings, the Houthis carried out another attack within hours on January 4th by detonating an explosive drone ship near commercial vessels. No damage was reported.
US Navy footage showing the destruction of a Houthi drone boat in the Red Sea on December 31st. Image credit: US Navy
Maersk Diverts Ships Away From Red Sea
On January 5th, shipping giant Maersk announced it would divert vessels away from the Red Sea due to the “very concerning” situation.
Maersk’s largest competitor MSC soon followed suit, saying the risk level was “not acceptable.” Analysts expect other firms to take similar action given insurance premiums for Red Sea transit will likely rise.
Diverting ships around the southern tip of Africa will add at least a week to transit times and increase fuel consumption. This may drive up costs for consumers as supply chains struggle with the blow.
Why Are Houthis Attacking Ships in Red Sea?
The Houthis have been battling the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and its allies in a bloody civil war since 2014. Here is some context behind the Red Sea maritime attacks:
Pressure tactic: Analysts say the Houthis are using the attacks in attempt to pressure the Saudi-led military coalition battling them in Yemen to lift an air and sea blockade. However, the coalition has shown no signs of backing down.
Secure revenue: By disrupting shipping, the Houthis likely aim to secure revenues from “taxing” vessels entering Yemeni ports under their control. For example, ships sailing to Hodeida port must pay the Houthis $40,000 per voyage or risk attack.
Retaliation: Attacks began ramping up after the coalition launched a concerted offensive in 2022 aiming to cut off Houthi supply lines. The maritime attacks are likely retaliation meant to hurt coalition economies.
Enabling patron Iran: Iran backs the Houthis with funding and weapons, though it denies direct military involvement. Experts say Iran seeks to use the Houthis to project power and indirectly attack rivals Saudi Arabia and Israel.
What Comes Next?
With the situation escalating rapidly, stakeholders have difficult decisions ahead on how to respond:
United States – The White House is reportedly weighing military options like strikes on Houthi coastal launch sites for the drone boats. However, experts warn this risks entangling the US directly in Yemen’s war and may only worsen Houthi attacks. Diplomatic efforts have stalled.
Saudi-led coalition – Saudi Arabia and allies like the UAE could launch additional airstrikes or a ground offensive aiming to push Houthis back from the Red Sea coastline. But after 8 years of stalemated conflict, questions remain if this would achieve the desired result.
Shipping firms – Ocean carriers must decide whether the risk of continuing Red Sea operations outweighs the costs of longer alternate routes. Some military escorts may be arranged, but insurance and security expenses will likely rise regardless.
Iran – If the US or allies retaliate against the Houthis, Iran may respond aggressively given its ties to the rebel group. This risks sparking a dangerous regional confrontation. At minimum, Iran will likely continue its proxy support.
With up to 15% of international trade now facing disruption, the Red Sea attacks demonstrate how seemingly localized conflicts can rapildy spiral into global crises. The path ahead remains filled with uncertainty for all parties involved.
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