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SANA'A, YEMEN - 14 JANUARY: Houthi followers lift rifles and shout slogans against the United States and United Kingdom during a tribal gathering on the outskirts of Sana'a, Yemen. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

Yemen’s Houthi Militants Continue to Disrupt Commercial Shipping

Yemeni-based Houthi militants continue to harass shipping in the Red Sea area in spite of U.S.- and UK-backed attacks on Houthi infrastructure late last week.

On 15 January, the militants fired a missile at the Gibraltar Eagle, a commercial ship owned by an American company that flies a Marshall Islands flag. The Gibraltar Eagle, which was reportedly carrying steel products, sustained damage from the attack, but it was still seaworthy and no injuries were reported. The ship turned from its course toward the Red Sea and the Suez Canal and left the area.

The Houthis apparently also tried to attack the USS Laboon, a U.S. Navy destroyer. U.S. Central Command said an anti-ship ballistic missile intended for the USS Laboon “failed in flight and impacted on land in Yemen.”

In another incident, the British Navy said guards on a commercial ship near Eritrea—across the Red Sea from Yemen—fired warning shots at a small craft approaching the ship.

Yemen is located south of Saudi Arabia and occupies an area important to global shipping commerce. About 30 percent of the world’s global container traffic passes through the Suez Canal. All of that traffic must pass through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a narrow strip of water that connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Yemen borders the strait to the east east and Djibouti and Eritrea to the west.   

Houthi militants control territory beginning just north of the strait. Since November, the militants have been trying to disrupt global commercial shipping, they say, in solidarity with the Palestinians who are under attack from Israel in Gaza. Houthis are a Shiite minority in Yemen and have strong ties to Iran.

“We consider all American and British ships and warships participating in the aggression against our country as hostile targets,” a Houthi military spokesman said in a statement. It said the group would continue attacks “until the aggression stops and the siege on Gaza is lifted.”

The United States and United Kingdom attacked dozens of Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen beginning on 12 January. The operation was designed to degrade the militants’ capability to disrupt shipping.

The Associated Press reported U.S. President Joe Biden’s announcement of the attack: “’These strikes are in direct response to unprecedented Houthi attacks against international maritime vessels in the Red Sea—including the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles for the first time in history,’ Biden said in a statement. He noted the attacks endangered U.S. personnel and civilian mariners and jeopardized trade, and he added, ‘I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary.’”

Also on 12 January, a Navy SEALs unit was dispatched to intercept an arms shipment from Iran to the Houthis in the Arabian Sea. The SEALs seized cruise and ballistic missile components. However, rough seas swept away one member of the team as they were boarding, and a second team member attempted a rescue. Both are still missing.

The U.S. Navy sunk the ship that was carrying the weapons and detained the crew.