Iran-backed Houthis prepare for long Red Sea battle with US

Students recruited into the ranks of Yemen's Huthi rebel group hold up automatic rifles as they shout slogans in support of the Palestlinians and against the U.S., Britain and Israel during a rally at a university campus in Sanaa on Feb. 21, 2024, amid continuing battles between Israel and Hamas movement in Gaza. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Houthi militants and their Iranian backers are preparing for a lengthy confrontation with the U.S. and allies around the Red Sea regardless of how the Israel-Hamas war plays out.

The Yemen-based group is shoring up military and defense capabilities to continue attacking ships around the vital waterway, according to several people with knowledge of the situation, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters. Steps include fortifying mountain hideouts for more secure and effective missile launches and testing unmanned vessels above and below water, they said.


Saudi Arabia, which borders Yemen and has fought the Houthis for most of the past decade, is specifically concerned the group may attempt to sabotage major internet cables running along the seabed, according to an adviser to the Saudi leadership, who didn’t want to be named. There are no suggestions yet of a plan of that nature or that the Houthis have the means to carry one out.

The Houthis started attacking Red Sea shipping in November, ostensibly as a means of pressuring Israel to end its war in Gaza against Hamas, which is also backed by Iran. At first, they said only vessels with ties to Israel would be targeted, though it wasn’t long before ships with only tenuous connections to the Jewish state were also hit. The assaults have helped push oil prices up more than 8% this year, with Brent nearing $85 a barrel, and upended trade through the southern Red Sea. The waterway normally handles about 30% of global container traffic and sees more then $1 trillion worth of goods pass through each year.

The U.S. and U.K. have responded since mid-January with airstrikes against the Houthis’ military assets — including missile launchers, air-defense systems and radars. The Pentagon says the group’s capabilities have weakened as a result. A U.S.-led maritime operation to patrol and secure the Red Sea started in December and was bolstered this week by a Greek-led European Union mission.



In a speech last week, Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi suggested humiliating the U.S. and driving its military forces out of the Middle East is a key motive. That’s also one of Tehran’s main long-term objectives.

“We are witnessing strategic failure when it comes to American influence and control in the region,” he said. The Houthis are people who “don’t submit to America.”

To this end the Houthis have over the past few weeks buttressed their positions in three mountainous areas, said the people, who shared this information with Bloomberg based on intelligence gathered mainly from individuals on the ground.

They’ve dug more trenches and tunnels in the mountains of the Hajjah governorate northwest of Sanaa, located at the Saudi border and overlooking the Red Sea, as well as around peaks inland, they said.

These remote and rugged locations are being used to hide stockpiles of missiles, while mountainous heights of over 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) allow for the targeting of ships further out to sea — including in the Gulf of Aden and even the Arabian Sea, according to four people informed about the Houthis’ latest moves.

Yemen’s Alimi believes the only way to restore security to the Red Sea is for the West to get tougher with Iran and support anti-Houthi factions.

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