Starting in October 2023, the Houthis initiated attacks on ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, which they claim are affiliated with Israel. According to information from United States Central Command (CENTCOM), since October 17, 2023, Houthi militants, backed by Iran, have made over 27 attempts to attack and harass ships in international shipping lanes. These incidents involve the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and cruise missiles in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
These actions led to the rerouting of shipping traffic away from the Red Sea, posing a threat to trade and freedom of navigation in the region.
The U.S. Department of State has officially designated Ansarallah, commonly known as the Houthis, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group, with the designation taking effect 30 days from January 17, 2024.
The Houthis have engaged in unprecedented attacks against international maritime vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, targeting both commercial and military ships. These actions have jeopardized the safety of mariners, disrupted commerce, and infringed upon navigational rights and freedoms. The designation of Ansarallah as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group aims to hold the group accountable for its terrorist activities. The United States will reconsider this designation if the Houthis cease their attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
In the 30 days before the terrorist designation takes effect, the U.S. government will engage in extensive outreach to critical stakeholders, aid providers, and partners essential for supporting humanitarian efforts and importing vital goods in Yemen. The Department of the Treasury will issue licenses permitting specific transactions related to food, medicine, fuel, personal remittances, telecommunications, mail, and port and airport operations crucial for the well-being of the Yemeni population.
Who are the Houthis?
In 2014, the Houthis, a Yemeni armed group, took control of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, initiating a complex conflict. They conflict with Yemen’s internationally recognized government, supported by a Saudi-led coalition since 2015. The Houthis control significant parts of northern Yemen and most of its population. The Houthis are one of several armed groups that receive military, financial, or other support from Iran.
Despite facing sanctions and embargoes from the United Kingdom, the United States, and the U.N. Security Council, the Houthis are not officially designated as a proscribed terrorist organization in the UK.
Following the attack on Israel by Hamas in October 2023, the Houthis have expressed military support for Hamas by launching missile and drone attacks against Israel. In November, the Houthis announced they would target shipping associated with Israel in the Red Sea in response to Israeli military operations in Gaza.
What is the Impact on Shipping in the Region?
The latest update of the Kiel Trade Indicator for December 2023 shows the consequences of the attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea. The volume of containers transported there plummeted by more than half and is currently almost 70 percent below the volume that would usually be expected. As a result, freight costs and transportation time in goods traffic between East Asia and Europe have risen. In some cases, imports and exports from Germany and the EU are significantly lower than in the previous month of November 2023 (price and seasonally adjusted).
“The detour of ships due to the attacks in the Red Sea around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa means that the time it takes to transport goods between Asian production centers and European consumers is significantly extended by up to 20 days,” says Julian Hinz, Director of the Trade Policy Research Center and new head of the Kiel Trade Indicator.
In December, the Red Sea experienced a sharp decline in container shipments, with the current volume plummeting to around 200,000 containers per day, down from approximately 500,000 in November. This represents a 66 percent decrease from the expected volume calculated based on freight data from 2017 to 2019.
“Accordingly, despite a noticeable increase in transportation costs, no noticeable consequences for consumer prices in Europe are to be expected, especially as the proportion of freight costs in the value of goods for high-priced items, such as consumer electronics, is only in the per mille range,” says Hinz.
International Response to Houthi Aerial Attacks
In December 2023, the United States launched Operation Prosperity Guardian, an international maritime coalition to safeguard freedom of navigation. Over 20 countries have joined this effort, with Bahrain being the sole Middle Eastern participant. Additionally, the UK has deployed three ships to the region, and the EU is planning a distinct maritime mission starting in February 2023.
In December 2023, a joint statement by 44 states, including NATO and European Union members, denounced Houthi interference with freedom of navigation. Additionally, on January 3, 2024, a statement by 13 countries, including the UK, United States, Bahrain, Germany, and Japan, expressed determination to hold accountable those responsible for unlawful seizures and attacks in the Red Sea.
On January 10, 2024, the UN Security Council passed resolution 2722 (2024), condemning the Houthi attacks, urging their cessation, asserting the right to freedom of navigation, and underscoring the existing arms embargo against the Houthis.
Military Response to the Houthi Attacks
CENTCOM is responsible for U.S. military activities in the region, including the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
The geographical scope of the region encompasses the convergence of three continents and globally significant commercial sea lanes, flight corridors, pipelines, and overland routes. The Area of Responsibility (AOR) includes 21 nations from Northeast Africa across the Middle East to Central and South Asia. These nations exhibit diverse forms of governance across the political spectrum, including emerging democracies, hereditary monarchies, autocracies, and Islamist theocratic regimes.
Since the escalation of tensions in the region, the U.S. and its allies have fended off numerous aerial attacks, conducted offensive operations, or responded to shipping-related incidents. Some examples in the CENTCOM AOR include:
On October 8, 2023, The USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea to deter any actor attempting to escalate or expand the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group arrived in the Middle East and CENTCOM’s AOR in early November 2023.
October 18, 2023– In the past 24 hours, the U.S. military successfully thwarted three drone attacks near U.S. and Coalition forces in Iraq. In western Iraq, U.S. forces took action against two drones, destroying one and causing damage to the second, resulting in minor injuries to Coalition forces. Additionally, in northern Iraq, U.S. forces engaged and destroyed another drone, resulting in no injuries or damage.
November 26-27, 2023-On November 26, the USS MASON (DDG 87) and allied ships from the coalition counter-piracy task force (TF 151), along with associated aircraft, responded to a distress call from the M/V CENTRAL PARK, a commercial vessel, reporting an attack by an unknown entity. Upon arrival, coalition elements demanded the release of the vessel. Subsequently, five armed individuals disembarked the ship and attempted to flee via their small boat. The USS MASON pursued the attackers, leading to their eventual surrender. The crew of the M/V CENTRAL PARK is currently safe.
At approximately 01:41 on November 27 (Sanaa time), at least one ballistic missile was fired from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen toward the general location of the USS MASON (DDG 87) and M/V CENTRAL PARK.
November 29, 2023– At approximately 11:00 (Sanaa time), while in the South Red Sea, the Arleigh-Burke Class Guided Missile Destroyer USS Carney (DDG 64) intercepted and destroyed an Iranian-produced KAS-04 unmanned aerial vehicle launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.
December 3, 2023– At approximately 12:00 p.m., while in international waters, the USS CARNEY successfully engaged and shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launched from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen. The drone was headed toward CARNEY, although its specific target is not clear. At this time, we cannot assess whether the Carney was the intended target of the UAV. There was no damage to the U.S. vessel or injuries to personnel.
In a separate attack around 12:35 p.m., UNITY EXPLORER reported being struck by a missile fired from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen. CARNEY responded to the distress call. While assisting with the damage assessment, CARNEY detected another inbound UAV, successfully destroying the drone with no damage or injuries to the CARNEY or UNITY EXPLORER. UNITY EXPLORER reports minor damage from the missile strike.
December 25, 2023– In response to numerous attacks against coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, U.S. military forces carried out airstrikes against multiple facilities utilized by Kataib Hezbollah and affiliated groups in Iraq at 8:45 p.m. (EST) on December 25.
Earlier on the same day, terrorists associated with the Iranian-sponsored Kataib Hezbollah and affiliated groups launched an attack on coalition forces in Erbil, Iraq, resulting in several injuries.”
January 11, 2024– The UK and US launched strikes against Houthi targets. Following this, the US carried out four additional strikes, focusing on a Houthi radar site and three missile sets prepared for launch. Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, and Bahrain provided non-operational support for the initial action. It’s important to note that these actions are distinct from Operation Prosperity Guardian.
January 14, 2024-Around 4:45 p.m. (Sanaa time), an anti-ship cruise missile was launched from Iranian-backed Houthi militant areas in Yemen toward USS LABOON (DDG 58), positioned in the Southern Red Sea. U.S. fighter aircraft intercepted and shot down the missile near the coast of Hudaydah. Fortunately, no injuries or damage were reported.
January 20, 2024– As part of continuous initiatives to safeguard freedom of navigation and prevent attacks on maritime vessels, on January 20, at approximately 4 a.m. (Sanaa time), U.S. Central Command forces executed airstrikes against a Houthi anti-ship missile intended for launch into the Gulf of Aden. U.S. forces identified the missile as a threat to merchant vessels and U.S. Navy ships in the region, and, in self-defense, successfully targeted and destroyed the missile. This intervention aims to enhance the safety and security of international waters for U.S. Navy and merchant vessels.
With no end in sight to the regional hostilities and the threat to shipping and freedom of navigation, forces in the region will need to continue to be on alert for airborne and maritime threats meant to disrupt commercial and military activities.
Post Image- The Dwight D. Eisenhower Aircraft Carrier (CVN 69) arrives in the Middle East (Image Credit: U.S. Central Command)