Who are the Houthi rebels attacking commercial ships in the Middle East?

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Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels have increasingly become a threat to commercial global shipping and the region in which they operate as they continue to launch attacks in the Red Sea. 

The Houthis have escalated their attacks against vessels in or near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and have stated their support of Hamas, which is currently engaged in a war with Israel. 

The group has somewhat inserted itself into the war by firing drones and missiles at Israel, resulting in fears that the fighting could escalate into a regional conflict.  

The attacks have prompted shipping and oil companies to suspend transit through the maritime route where the Houthis initiated attacks on commercial ships. 


The Houthis seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in 2014, launching a years-long, bloody war. The conflict soon became a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, which backed the Yemeni government in exile, and Iran, which backed the rebels. 

The war caused a major humanitarian crisis that resulted in widespread hunger and misery in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. The war has killed more than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians, and created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, killing tens of thousands more.

A ceasefire that technically ended a year ago has largely been honored. The Houthis currently control most of Yemen. 

The group traces its history to a religious revival movement for the Zaydi sect of Shi’ite Islam in the late 1990s. The sect had once ruled Yemen for centuries but was marginalized under the Sunni regime that came to power after a 1962 civil war.

As friction with the government grew, a series of guerrilla wars with the national army were fought, as well as a brief border conflict with Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia, according to Reuters. 

Following a year of relative calm in Yemen, the Houthis have launched a number of missiles and drones. On Oct. 31, they attacked Israel, saying at the time that there would be more ‘to help the Palestinians to victory.’

The Houthis have sporadically targeted ships in the region over time, but the attacks have increased since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas and spiked after an explosion on Oct. 17 at a hospital in Gaza killed and injured many. Houthi leaders have insisted Israel is their target.

Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of training, arming and funding the Houthis, which Tehran denies.  


The Houthis have sporadically targeted a number of ships in the Red Sea region. The attacks have increased with regularity since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas. 

After the weekend attacks, Houthi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree said the group wants to ‘prevent Israeli ships from navigating the Red Sea (and Gulf of Aden) until the Israeli aggression against our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip stops.’

On Monday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced Operation Prosperity Guardian, a new international mission working to counter attacks by the Houthis on commercial vessels in the Red Sea. 

‘This is an international challenge that demands collective action,’ Austin said. ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian is bringing together multiple countries to include the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain, to jointly address security challenges in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, with the goal of ensuring freedom of navigation for all countries and bolstering regional security and prosperity.’

On Sunday, the Unity Explorer, the Number 9 and the Sophie II, all bulk carriers, were struck in a flurry of attacks. 

Throughout that day, the USS Carney, a Navy destroyer, shot down three drones headed toward the ship and also went to the aid of the commercial vessels. On Wednesday, the USS Mason shot down a drone heading in its direction.

In a statement, U.S. Central Command said, ‘We cannot assess at this time whether the Carney was a target’ of the drones.


The Biden administration has talked persistently about the need to avoid escalating the Israel-Hamas war into a broader regional conflict. So far, strikes on the Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria have not broadened the conflict, said Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary.

So it’s not clear if targeted strikes against Houthi weapons depots or similar sites — which also have Iranian support — would cross a line and trigger a wider war.

‘We will continue to consult with international allies and partners on an appropriate way to protect commercial shipping going through that region, and at the same time ensuring we do what we need to do to protect our forces,’ said Ryder.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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