The Houthis have been in a decade-long civil war and say their attacks are in opposition to Israel’s war on Gaza.
Following weeks of Houthi-led attacks on vessels in the Red Sea, the United States and United Kingdom have launched military strikes in Yemen in response, which the Houthis have described as “barbaric”.
The Houthis are an Iran-aligned group based in Yemen and have said their attacks are a response to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, and the international community’s failure to put an end to it.
The Houthis have primarily targeted Israel-linked ships and in December, the US formed a multilateral coalition to safeguard commercial traffic from attacks. The force now has more than 20 countries, according to the Pentagon.
But who are the Yemeni fighters at the heart of this escalation?
The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah (supporters of God), are an armed group that control most parts of Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa, and some of the western and northern areas close to Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis emerged in the 1990s but rose to prominence in 2014, when the group rebelled against Yemen’s government, causing it to step down and sparking a crippling humanitarian crisis.
The group then spent years, with Iran’s backing, fighting a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia. The two warring sides have also repeatedly tried to hold peace talks.
However, analysts say the Shia group should not be seen as an Iranian proxy. It has its own base, its own interests – and its own ambitions.
Yemen’s civil war has plunged the country into what the United Nations called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, in March 2023.
An estimated 21.6 million people or two-thirds of Yemen’s population are “in dire need of humanitarian assistance and protection services”, according to the UN.
Fighting between Houthis and the military coalition, however, largely subsided last year. In 2023, the Yemeni rebels and government forces also exchanged about 800 prisoners over three days.
The Houthis have been engaging in Omani-mediated talks with Saudi officials to negotiate a permanent ceasefire. Saudi Arabia also restored relations with Iran in 2023, raising hopes for the Yemen peace process.
The Houthis say their attacks on commercial and military ships with potential Israeli links are primarily aimed at pressuring Tel Aviv to end its war on Gaza. On November 18, the group took over a cargo ship called the Galaxy Leader, which they have since turned into a tourist attraction for Yemenis.
Who are the Houthis?
“We have emphasised to everyone that [the Houthi] operations are to support the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip, and that we cannot stand idly by in the face of the aggression and siege,” Houthi chief negotiator and spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalam told media in December.
The Houthis have also said they will continue to attack Israel-linked ships even after the strikes on Yemen by the US and UK on Thursday.
But analysts also say that attacks help the Houthis in other ways. Domestically in Yemen, the group has seen a sharp uptick in recruitment, riding on popular support for the people of Gaza. The attacks, and the response from major powers like the US, also force other countries and governments to negotiate with them, giving them de facto legitimacy at a time when they are not officially recognised internationally as Yemen’s government.
The Red Sea and Suez Canal account for 30 percent of the world’s container ship traffic and since the onset of attacks, several shipping companies have said they will divert ships across Africa instead.
Analysts say that the Houthis attacks on Red Sea ships could threaten peace within Yemen, particularly as ceasefire talks after a decade-long war appear to be gathering momentum.
The UN announced in late December that serious progress was made in negotiations, but experts warned that Houthi activity in the Red Sea could derail a final deal. They explained that attacks could trigger a US military response that could in turn “unravel the fragile ceasefire conditions”.
Some analysts also fear that the Houthis could be tempted to use their bolstered numbers – because of increased recruitment – to expand their ambitions. In recent weeks the Houthis have deployed 50,000 troops around Marib, the internationally recognised Yemeni government’s last stronghold.
But other analysts point out that the Houthis might also seek closer relations with Saudi Arabia, a factor that could hold them back from any actions that escalate tensions within Yemen.