Houthi Rebels: An Emerging Threat in the Red Sea


 “The land of Sheba is once again bedeviled by blood feuds, tribal warfare and conflict. All is normal in Yemen.”

Not long ago I watched as ships navigated the waters between Djibouti and Yemen and the clouds seem to roll westward. This natural chokepoint with its sparkling blue waters has attracted global interests since the first European fleet under Afonso de Albuquerque, the Duke of Goa sailed through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

For years, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been perfecting their “swarming attack technique” sending Iranian fast boats in a dispersed formation to attack a ship using anti-ship missiles, torpedoes and suicide bomber boats. While the IRGC has perfected these tactics and techniques in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, it should surprise no one when Iranian-trained Houthi rebels in Yemen employ these same tactics in the Red Sea. Besides exporting these tactics and techniques, Iran has supplied weapons to the Houthi militias. Along with traditional small arms, Iran has provided the Houthis with anti-ship missiles surface-to- surface short range missiles, and sea mines. Iran has smuggled arms to their Houthi allies across Oman and on the seas. Even before this latest conflict, Yemen was a land filled with weapons. With the introduction of anti-ship missiles, the threat to shipping in the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait have increased. Yemen remains caught in a quagmire. The Houthis militias fighting for Zaidi Shia Muslims joined with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to fight against President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. President Hadi has been backed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, the United States, England and France. The Iranians have supported the Houthis in this conflict. With all this chaos in Yemen, terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State have taken advantage of the situation.There is a great line written by Freya Stark in “The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey in the Hadhramaut which states:

“From here the old navigator sailed southward between converging coasts. Where the sun-darkened waves grow more frequent, he entered the channel of Bab el Mandeb, which forces the sea together and shuts it into a narrow strait, the passage which the island Dioduros (Perim) divides.”

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait sits at the southern end of the Red Sea and is strategically vital to the movement of commerce globally. The Bab el- Mandeb Straits are divided into the larger Strait with a width of about 16 miles and the smaller Strait with a width of about 2 miles from the island of Perim to the mainland of Yemen. Early on in the Yemen civil war, Houthi rebels placed numerous weapons on Perim Island. In October 2015, troops loyal to Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Saudi troops retook the strategically important island.


The southern gate of the Red Sea is important for economic, political, and military reasons.  The Red Sea continues to be a principal route for trade between the East and West. It has been estimated that 4% of the global oil supply and about 10% of the Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) supply pass through the Straits. Oil has always been a prime target for terrorists. On October 6, 2002, Al-Qaeda sent two suicide bombers in a small boat to attack the French oil tanker MV Limburg in the Gulf of Aden near the port city of Al-Mukalla. Abu Khaythama and Abu al-Hareth al-Badawi aimed their fast moving suicide boat at the starboard side of the oil tanker. The French oil tanker had loaded 400,000 barrels of oil at Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia and was enroute to the Minah Al-Dabah Oil Terminal in Yemen to load another 1.5 million barrels of oil when it was attacked. The tactic of using one or multiple speed boats with explosives highlights the ease with which terrorists can target and attack shipping.


Houthi suicide boat speeding toward a Saudi frigate just before it explodes.

On January 30, 2017, several Houthi speed boats buzzed around a Saudi navy Al-Madinah class missile frigate, as it patrolled the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen.  The suicide bomber boat sped towards the stern of the frigate and detonated killing two Saudi navy sailors and injuring three others. The above picture captured aboard the Saudi frigate moments before the explosion shows the suicide bombers boat speeding towards its target. Over the years the Iranians have pioneered the harassing tactic and used it for years in the Strait of Hormuz. Today, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels are deploying not only Iranian missiles but utilizing this tactic of multiple speed boats harassing and attacking targets.


The Saudi Navy should have never allowed the small craft to close the distance and should have engaged the target. The tactic of using a small boat to deliver a suicide bomb was first used in Yemen when Al-Qaeda attacked the USS Cole.

On the morning of October 12, 2000, the USS Cole entered Aden harbor to refuel.  At 07:46 a.m. the harbor pilot, Ibrahim came aboard and began the process of guiding the warship into Aden harbor.  By 08:49 a.m.  the warship was moored starboard side to Refueling Dolphin # 7.  The harbor pilot departed the Cole by 09:40 a.m. and the crew began the process of refueling at station three at 10:31 a.m.  Hasan al-Khamiri and Ibrahim al-Thawr launched the boat packed with explosives from Al-Haswah Beach.

The two suicide bombers slowly started to make their way on the water passing fishing boats in the harbor. Two small boats had retrieved the trash from the Cole. The suicide bombers on their small boat would make like they were another trash boat approaching the Cole. The Navy ship was only going to be in port long enough to drop its trash and refuel.  According to a Petty Officer, “A few minutes before the blast on October 12, 2000, the Executive Officer made an announcement on the 1MC stating that we should be completed with fueling and expecting to get underway by 1330 and if possible we would get underway sooner.”  The two suicide bombers guided their boat to the port side, amid ship, waved, smiled, saluted and detonated their bomb.

The crew worked diligently to save their ship and shipmates.  Commander Kirk Lippold had trained his crew to be able to handle various critical incidents. In reality, that day one of America’s most technological warships should have sank twice.  But the Captain and crew would not allow that to happen.

Seventeen sailors lost their lives that day and another thirty-seven were wounded in the attack. Like their ship’s namesake, the sailors of the USS Cole displayed great courage aiding their wounded and keeping their ship afloat. The USS Cole is named for Marine Sergeant Darrell Cole, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry in the battle for Iwo Jima.

The Bab el Mandeb Strait is a strategic chokepoint where much of the regions commerce travels through the Red Sea. After the recent attack on the Saudi frigate the USS Cole was ordered back to patrol the area of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. There has been some speculation that the Iranian-trained Houthis thought they were attacking an American frigate. In the same area where the Saudi frigate was attacked, Iranian trained Houthi rebels fired missiles at the USS Mason and the USS Ponce. These US Navy ships were in international waters when fired upon by Iran’s proxy in Yemen. The USS Mason fired missiles in response. On October 13, 2016, the US Navy destroyer, the USS Nitze launched numerous Tomahawk missiles at land based radar sites in Yemen destroying them. Missile attacks in the Red Sea by the Houthis pose a significant danger to vessels navigating the Red Sea and the Straits. The United Arab Emirates unarmed ship HSV-2 Swift was struck by a Houthi fired C-802 anti-ship missile doing significant damage to the aluminum catamaran vessel. The Chinese made C-802 anti-ship missile has a range of nearly 75 miles and could strike any ships in the Red Sea approaching the Bab el-Mandeb Straits. Iran has also copied this Chinese missile and manufactured a version of their own called the “Noor.”


All shipping transiting the Red Sea southbound or those entering the Bab el-Mandeb must be aware of the dangers posed by Houthi’s missiles and speed boats.   With an increased US Navy presence to maintain the freedom of navigation through the Bab el Mandeb and provide a defensive presence for ships transiting the Strait as long as ships stay away from Yemen this threat shouldn’t pose a grave danger but more of a nuisance.

The attacks on the MV Limburg, the USS Cole, and now a Saudi frigate show how easy these types of attacks can be undertaken.  There are numerous defensive actions that can be taken to prevent these types of attacks. Each one of these attacks are quite different but do highlight  adversaries that are adapting their attacks to be successful. What is more troublesome is that Iran has provided missiles to the Houthis that pose a greater threat to shipping in the Red Sea. Whom else might Iran provide missiles to that pose a new threat in the future?

The lands of Sheba today not only have to deal with the civil war between the Yemen government and the Houthis but also with various proxies fighting other proxies in this theater. Terrorists groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are established and looking to take advantage of the chaos. With no end in sight, the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb could play a bigger role in these conflicts.


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