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Who Are the Houthi Rebels? Red Sea Attacks Result in U.S. and U.K. Strikes on Yemen

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The U.S. and U.K. launched strikes attacking multiple Houthi rebel targets in Yemen on Thursday, Jan. 11, marking a significant escalation in the broader conflict of the Middle East. In October, shortly after the start of the Israel-Hamas war, the Houthis began launching missile attacks at cargo ships passing through the Red Sea, headed towards Israeli ports.

Here’s what you need to know about Yemen’s Houthi rebels and their place in the current conflict.

Who are Yemen’s Houthi rebels?

The Houthi rebels are one of two main factions controlling territory amidst Yemen’s ongoing civil war. Currently, they control the Western coast of the country, including its capital city, Sana’a. 

The Houthis initially began as a cultural revivalist movement in the 1990s for the Zaydi sect of Islam which, as of 2022, was practiced by approximately 35% of the Yemeni population. According to Stacey Philbrick Yadav, the chair of international relations at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and author of Yemen in the Shadow of Transition, many Zaydi muslims were becoming increasingly frustrated with the growing prominence of Saudi-Arabian Salafi Islam in the country, which they felt repressed their Zaydi cultural and religious heritage.

Additionally, the Houthis resented what they perceived to be widespread corruption and mismanagement in the Yemeni government throughout the 2000s. This led the Houthis to launch several insurgencies against the Yemeni government between 2004 and 2010.

In 2011, during the Arab Spring, the grievances of the Yemeni population reached a boiling point, and mass protests erupted calling for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been ruling the country for over thirty years. After Saleh resigned, Saudi Arabia backed Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi as the new leader of the country. The Houthis resented this choice, and launched a military campaign against the new government, which led to a civil war that is still ongoing.

Their conflict with the Saudi-backed government has led the Houthis to become more closely allied with Iran, from which they receive some support. Nevertheless, some experts say it’s not entirely accurate to call the Houthi rebels a direct proxy.

“They do have a relationship with and support from Iran, but are not a straightforward proxy of Iranian interests. They have their own locally defined interests and so I think that their actions in the past two months have reflected that,” Philbrick Yadav told TIME in December.

Read More: How Congress Is Reacting to Biden’s Military Attack on the Houthis in Yemen

Why are the Houthis attacking ships in the Red Sea?

In the Arab world, the Palestinian cause is extremely popular and often a signifier of progressive values. By attacking Israeli ships, the Houthis may expand their support base across Yemen and the Arab world. Additionally, it is believed the group is hoping to sabotage the Saudi normalization with Israel, which had been in the works.

Why are the U.S and U.K. striking Yemen?

Over 80% of all internationally traded goods are transported via cargo ships, since air travel is a much less cost effective way to transport large items or huge amounts of goods. Ships must travel through the Red Sea in order to access the Suez Canal, which is the only waterway that allows for direct passage between Europe and Asia.

Otherwise, the ships traveling between Europe and Asia must journey around the African continent, which can add over 30 days in travel time. Due to the attacks by Houthi rebels, insurance prices on ships have risen dramatically and many shipping companies have chosen to take the longer routes, as a safety precaution. This is expected to increase the prices of many consumer goods, from clothing to coffee.

“These strikes are in direct response to unprecedented Houthi attacks against international maritime vessels in the Red Sea—including the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles for the first time in history,” President Biden said in a statement. “I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce as necessary.”

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