Who are the Houthis and why are they attacking Red Sea ships?

Houthis hijacking vehicle carrier Galaxy Leader in the Red Sea, 19 November 2023
Image caption,Houthi fighters hijacked a British-owned and Japanese-operated ship in the Red Sea on 19 November

The US and UK have carried out a number of strikes on Houthi bases in Yemen, after the group repeatedly attacked ships in the Red Sea.

The Houthis are an Iran-backed rebel group which considers Israel an enemy.

Why are the Houthis attacking Red Sea ships?

In response to the war in the Gaza Strip, the Houthis started firing drones and missiles towards Israel. Most have been intercepted.

On 19 November, the Houthis hijacked a commercial ship in the Red Sea and have since attacked more than two dozen others with drones, missiles and speed boats.

The Houthis say they are targeting ships which are Israeli-owned, flagged or operated, or which are heading to Israeli ports. However, many of the vessels which have been attacked have no connection with Israel.

US-led naval forces have thwarted many of the attacks.

Major shipping companies have stopped using the Red Sea – through which almost 15% of global seaborne trade usually passes – and are using a much longer route around southern Africa instead.

Why are the UK and US bombing Yemen?

The US and UK carried out coordinated air strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen on 11 January and on 22 January. The US has carried out further strikes.

President Joe Biden said the strikes were in “direct response” to the attacks on Red Sea ships, which “jeopardised trade, and threatened freedom of navigation”.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the action was “necessary and proportionate” to protect global shipping.

On 11 January, US Navy Seals boarded a ship off the coast of Somalia to seize Iranian-made weapons bound for the Houthis. The US military says two Navy Seals went missing and are presumed dead.

Who are the Houthis?

The Houthis are an armed political and religious group which champions Yemen’s Shia Muslim minority, the Zaidis.

They declare themselves to be part of the Iranian-led “axis of resistance” against Israel, the US and the wider West – along with armed groups such as Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.

Formally known as the Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), the group emerged in the 1990s and takes its name from the movement’s late founder, Hussein al-Houthi. The current leader is his brother, Abdul Malik al-Houthi.

In the early 2000s, the Houthis fought a series of rebellions against Yemen’s long-time authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in an attempt to win greater autonomy for the group’s homeland in the north of Yemen.

Houthi fighters in a pro-Palestine demonstration in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa
Image caption,The Houthis are part of an “axis of resistance” against Israel

During the 2011 Arab Spring, a popular uprising forced President Saleh to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

President Hadi’s government was overwhelmed with problems. The Houthis seized control of the northern province of Saada before taking the Yemini capital, Sanaa, after forming an unlikely alliance with Saleh and security forces still loyal to him.

In 2015, the rebels seized large parts of western Yemen and forced Mr Hadi to flee abroad.

Neighbouring Saudi Arabia feared the Houthis would take over Yemen and make it a satellite of its rival, Iran.

It formed a coalition of Arab countries that intervened in the war. But years of air strikes and ground fighting have not dislodged the Houthis from most of the territory they seized.

Saudi Arabia is now trying to make a peace deal with the Houthis, and a UN-brokered truce has been in effect since April 2022. https://repositoryku.com/

The war has killed more than 160,000 people, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). More than four million people have been displaced.

Who backs the Houthis?

The US says Iran enabled the Houthis to target ships, and President Biden has sent a “private message” to Tehran urging it to stop.

Iran denies involvement with the latest attacks.

Saudi Arabia and the US say Iran has smuggled weapons – including drones, and cruise and ballistic missiles – to the Houthis during Yemen’s civil war in violation of a UN arms embargo.

It says such missiles and drones have been used in attacks on Saudi Arabia, as well as its ally, the United Arab Emirates.

Drone used in an attack on display in Abu Dhabi (file photo)
Image caption,Wreckage of a drone launched from Yemen at the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, in 2022

Iran denies supplying weapons to the Houthis and says it only supports them politically.

“The Houthis could not operate at this level without Iranian arms, training and intelligence,” says Dr Elisabeth Kendall, a Middle East specialist at Cambridge University.

However, she adds: “It is unclear that Iran has direct command and control over the Houthis.”

According to the Combating Terrorism Center at the US military’s West Point military academy, the Houthis have also received training and support from Hezbollah.

How much of Yemen do the Houthis control?

The Houthis control Sanaa and the north-west of Yemen, including the Red Sea coastline.

Most of Yemen’s population lives in these areas, and the Houthis run a de facto government which collects taxes and prints money.

The internationally-recognised government of Yemen is based in the southern port of Aden.

It is overseen by the eight-member Presidential Leadership Council, to which President Hadi handed power in 2022.

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