Since mid-November, the Houthis, an Iran-backed Yemeni rebel group, have carried out dozens of attacks on ships traveling through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, a key shipping route that carries 12 percent of global trade.
The United States and a handful of allies, including Britain, retaliated by carrying out missile strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen early Friday local time, putting an even greater spotlight on the rebels and their long-running armed struggle.
The attack on Houthi bases came a day after the United Nations Security Council voted to condemn “in the strongest terms” at least two dozen Houthi attacks on merchant and commercial vessels, which it said hindered global trade and the freedom of the would have undermined shipping.
Here is an introduction to the Houthis, their relationship with Hamas, and the attacks in the Red Sea.
Who are the Houthis?
The Houthis, led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, are an Iran-backed group of Shiite rebels who have been fighting the Yemeni government for about two decades and now control the country's northwest and its capital, Sana.
They have built their ideology on resistance against Israel and the United States and see themselves as part of the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance” along with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Its leaders often draw parallels between the U.S.-made bombs that bombarded its forces in Yemen and the weapons sent to Israel and used in Gaza.
Models of Houthi drones are on display in Sana, Yemen, on Wednesday.Credit: Yahya Arhab/EPA, via Shutterstock
In 2014, a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened to try to restore the country's original government after the Houthis captured the capital, sparking a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Last April, talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia raised hopes of a peace deal that would potentially recognize the Houthis' right to rule northern Yemen.
Once a group of poorly organized rebels, the Houthis have bolstered their arsenal in recent years to include cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and long-range drones. Analysts attribute this expansion to support from Iran, which has deployed militias across the Middle East to expand its own influence.
Why are they attacking ships in the Red Sea?
When the war between Israel and Hamas began on October 7, the Houthis declared their support for Hamas and said they would target any ship entering or leaving Israel.
Yahya Sarea, a Houthi spokesman, has frequently said that the group attacks ships to protest the “killing, destruction and siege” in Gaza and to show solidarity with the Palestinian people.
Yahya Sarea, a Houthi spokesman, issued a statement on Wednesday. Source: Yahya Arhab/EPA, via Shutterstock
Gaza authorities say more than 23,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in Israel's bombing campaign and ground offensive, which began after Hamas carried out cross-border raids and massacred about 1,200 people.
Since November, the Houthis have launched 27 drone and missile attacks on ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden that they claim are heading to or leaving Israeli ports. The US military said a rocket hit near a merchant ship at 2 a.m. on Thursday at the latest.
Perhaps the boldest Houthi operation took place on November 19, when gunmen hijacked a ship called the Galaxy Leader and took it to a Yemeni port, holding its 25 crew members, mostly Filipinos, captive.
What impact are the attacks having on countries around the world?
Speaking to reporters in Bahrain on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken warned that continued Houthi attacks in the Red Sea could disrupt supply chains, increasing the cost of essential goods. The Houthis' attacks have affected ships in more than 40 countries, he said.
A hijacked ship, the Galaxy Leader, was spotted off the Yemeni coast in December. Source: Khaled Abdullah/Portal
The world's largest container companies, MSC and Maersk, have said they are avoiding the region, leaving shipping companies with difficult options.
Rerouting ships around Africa will add another 4,000 miles and 10 days to shipping routes and require more fuel. However, continued use of the Red Sea would increase insurance premiums. Both options would harm an already fragile global economy.
What has the US done to stop the Houthi attacks?
The Biden administration repeatedly condemned the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and created a naval task force to try to keep them under control.
The task force, called Operation Prosperity Guardian, brought together the United States, Britain and other allies and patrolled the Red Sea to maintain, as Mr. Blinken put it, “freedom of navigation” and “freedom of navigation.”
Antony J. Blinken, the US Secretary of State, on a plane en route to Bahrain on Wednesday. Photo credit: Evelyn Hockstein/Portal
Bahrain is the only country in the Middle East that has agreed to take part. Although many countries in the region rely on trade across the Red Sea, many do not want to be associated with the United States, Israel's closest ally, analysts say.
US and British warships intercepted some Houthi missiles and drones before they reached their targets. On Wednesday, American warplanes from the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower along with four other warships intercepted 18 drones, two anti-ship cruise missiles and one anti-ship cruise missile, Central Command said in a statement.
On December 31, U.S. Navy helicopters sank three Houthi boats that attacked a commercial freighter.
Ben Hubbard, Peter Eavis, Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and Keith Bradsher contributed reporting.