Who are Yemen’s Houthis and what is behind their attacks in the Red Sea?

Big shipping companies have suspended their operations risking disruption to trade

A Houthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship during a hijacking operation in the Red Sea in November. Reuters
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Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels have vowed to continue attacking ships in the Red Sea – one of the world's busiest shipping routes – until the Israeli war in Gaza stops.

The attacks have led to the Pentagon forming an international mission focused on countering the strikes that are risking disruption to trade.

Here is a look at the rebels' history and what they are trying to achieve:

Who are the Houthis?

The Houthis are a militia and tribe from north Yemen's poor, mountainous Saada region.

While the Houthis originate from the minority Zaydi offshoot of Shiite Islam, they have evolved from a religious group into a militia and political force.

They seized control of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in late 2014. Following a request from the internationally recognised Yemeni government, a Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015.

The rebels now control vast areas of the north and center of the impoverished country, purging pro-government figures from the civil service and public life, establishing their own school curriculum, and indoctrinating thousands of young people at summer camps.

As well as fighting pro-government forces, they also launch regular rocket attacks at neighbouring states, which have led to loss of life and damage to vital facilities.

Saudi and Emirati air defences have shot down projectiles.

What are they doing in the Red Sea?

Shortly after the outbreak of the war in Gaza on October 7, the Houthis announced their intention to block Israeli ships from travelling across the Red Sea – although the attacks have mostly been launched against non-Israeli vessels. They said their actions were in retaliation for Israel's bombardment of Gaza and its war against Hamas, their ally.

The group has targeted vessels that enter Bab Al Mandeb – the strait between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa – travelling to and from the Suez Canal.

Houthis first threatened to attack Israeli ships in October. The following month, the group seized control of a Japanese-operated ship close to the Yemeni western port city of Hodeidah, holding its crew members as hostages.

On Monday, it attacked two vessels near Bab Al Mandeb, south of the Yemeni port of Mokha, the UK Maritime Trade Operations said.

The attacks have resulted in concern in the global shipping industry. A sharp rise in inquiries about security have been recorded by Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority, an official at the authority told The National.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced the formation of a new international mission focused on countering attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

Houthis claim responsibility for rockets fired at two ships in Red Sea

Houthis claim responsibility for rockets fired at two ships in Red Sea

How did they enter Sanaa?

The Houthis launched an offensive from Sadaa in the north to the capital and swept into the city in 2014, demanding a unity government that included them.

They then refused to participate in a new administration, shelling the presidential palace on several occasions before seizing power and ousting the recognized authority in 2015.

With large areas of the country’s north under their control, the Houthis continued their battle against the Saudi-led coalition.

Yemen is now suffering a humanitarian crisis. The Houthi rule of Sanaa and their harassment of journalists has resulted in a media blackout on reporting the deteriorating conditions in the country’s medical infrastructure and economy.

Who are their leaders?

Abdulmalik Al Houthi, brother of the Houthi movement's founder Hossein Al Houthi, was a key player in building the movement from a small group of Zaydi sect members to a force that has taken over large parts of Yemen.

Under his command, the Houthis took Sanaa in 2015 and capitalised on Iranian and Iran-backed Hezbollah military know-how.

The military commander of the Houthi movement, Abd Al Khaliq Badr Al Din Al Houthi, was born in 1984 and is known as Abu Younes. He is one of eight brothers, including founder Hossein Al Houthi and current leader Abdulmalik Al Houthi.

He was blacklisted and placed under sanction by the UN on November 7, 2014, and by the US the following year.

The Yemeni government says he played a pivotal role in the takeover of Sanaa.

– With reporting from Kamal Tabikha in Cairo

Updated: December 19, 2023, 11:12 AM