Who is attacking ships in the Red Sea and why?


Attacks on commercial ships near the Middle Eastern country of Yemen have forced huge freight companies to change or pause their movements on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.

Who is launching these attacks, what is their end goal and what are the potential repercussions?

Here’s a primer.

What’s been happening?

In recent weeks, a Yemeni rebel group, the Houthis, have been targeting vessels on the southern Red Sea and in a narrow corridor between Yemen and Africa called the Bab al-Mandab Strait. 

The group has fired multiple projectiles from Houthi-controlled territory at ships. The U.S. and France say they have also shot down multiple drones launched from Houthi territory. And in one extreme case, a helicopter landed on the deck of a cargo ship that was commandeered.

Though no one has been killed and no ships have been sunk, the attacks have led some of the world’s biggest shipping companies to adjust their routes.

Who are the Houthis?

One side of a Yemeni civil war that has been going on for almost a decade. 

The Houthi movement began in the 1990s, when the Houthi family in far-north Yemen set up a religious revival movement for the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, which had once ruled Yemen but whose northern heartland had become impoverished and marginalized.

The ongoing war in Yemen began in 2014 when the Houthis rose up against the Sunni government and took control of the country’s capital, Sana’a.

By early 2015, Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf states and with U.S. support, was launching airstrikes against the Houthis, who are backed by Iran.

The proxy war has been devastating for the already poor Arab country, with a death toll that was approaching 400,000 at the end of 2021. The United Nations has called it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 20 million people in need of aid. 

This 2018 photo shows a Yemeni child looking out at buildings that were damaged in an airstrike in the city of Taez. (Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images)

Violence has slowed considerably since a UN-brokered ceasefire in April 2022. It expired six months later, but violence has not returned to pre-truce levels since then.

The Houthis, which make up about 35 per cent of the population, control the portion of the country that abuts the waters where the attacks are happening.

Why are the Houthis attacking commercial ships?

The Houthis say they are launching the attacks to hurt Israel, which has been at war with Hamas since the Palestinian militant group attacked the country on Oct. 7.

The Houthis say they are attacking vessels with links to Israel and have warned against sailing toward there. However, some of the attacks have had tenuous or no apparent connection to the Israel-Hamas conflict, including ships flagged to Norway and Liberia.

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War think-tank says the Houthis are part of Iran’s so-called Axis of Resistance, which is “exploiting the Israel-Hamas war to demonstrate their capability to control a key maritime route and chokepoint in the Middle East.”

WATCH | Iran’s Axis of Resistance and its role in the Israel-Hamas war: 

Iran’s Axis of Resistance and its role in the Israel-Hamas war

Sitting on the edges of the Israel-Hamas war is what’s been called the Axis of Resistance, a loose coalition of Iran-backed entities, including Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis in Yemen. CBC chief correspondent Adrienne Arsenault breaks down the conditions that could cause the group to engage in a wider war and the firepower behind it.

The Houthis have pledged to continue their attacks until Israel stops its assault, but said on Dec. 16 that real steps to ease the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip would contribute to “reducing the escalation.” They also said that they were in Oman-mediated talks about its sea “operations.”

That was the first indication that the militia group may be willing to de-escalate. 

What are the economic repercussions?

The Suez Canal shipping route is one of the world’s most important routes for global seaborne commodity shipments, particularly crude oil and fuel from the Gulf bound for the Mediterranean, as well as commodities bound for Asia, including Russian oil.

About 10 per cent of the world’s trade passes through the Red Sea annually.

The global oil market had been shrugging off the attacks, but both oil and European natural gas prices rose Dec. 18, partly over market nerves about the Houthis.

In the past few days, most of the world’s largest container shipping companies have paused or rerouted movements through the Red Sea. Europe-bound ships that don’t use the Suez Canal must take the much longer route around Africa.

A man in camouflage gear on a boat looks out at the water.
A Yemeni coast guard member loyal to the internationally-recognized government rides in a patrol boat in the Red Sea off of the government-held town of Mokha in the western Taiz province, close to the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait, on Dec. 12. (Khaled Ziad/AFP/Getty Images)

“The impact will be longer transit times, more fuel spent, more ships required, potential disruption and delays, at least in the first arrivals in Europe,” said Simon Heaney, senior manager of container research for Drewry, a maritime research consultancy.

That brings up the cost of shipping. 

“I don’t think it’s going to go to the heights that it reached during the pandemic,” Heaney said.

Insurance has gone up. Shippers are applying a so-called war-risk charge of $50 to $100 US per container to customers bringing over everything from grain to oil to things you buy off Amazon. But that’s a low enough fee that it should not drive up prices for consumers, said David Osler, insurance editor for Lloyd’s List Intelligence, which provides analysis for the global maritime industry.

Experts say the Houthis don’t have the ships to cordon off the strait, and companies will do everything they can to keep trade flowing.

What’s the political fallout?

The U.S. has said it is seeking an expanded coalition to protect ships in the Red Sea and to send a signal to the Houthis, who have also fired drones and missiles at Israel since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October. (There were no Canadian ships operating in the Red Sea region, the Department of National Defence said late last week.)

Saudi Arabia, seeking to contain spillover from the Hamas-Israel war, has asked the U.S. to show restraint in responding to attacks in the Red Sea. 

The biggest threat, however, may be to Yemenis.

The tentative ceasefire between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition fighting on behalf of Yemen’s exiled government has been holding for months despite the long war. That’s raised concerns that any wider conflict in the sea — or a potential reprisal strike from Western forces — could reignite those tensions.

“Attacks on commercial shipping are undoubtedly an escalatory step for the Houthis, one that risks inflaming tensions in the region and beyond,” researcher Alexandra Stark wrote in a commentary from the Rand Corporation think-tank in Santa Monica, Calif., last week. 

“Attacks on commercial vessels will also almost certainly raise the cost of food in Yemen, much of which is imported, worsening the humanitarian situation there.”

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