June 11, 2024

IntelBrief: Houthis Strike at Domestic and Foreign Adversaries

AP Photo/Osamah Abdulrahman

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The Houthi movement (Ansarallah) in Yemen has sought to demonstrate strength against its domestic and global adversaries in the face of Western military pressure.
  • The Houthis continue to attack commercial shipping and claim strikes on Western warships in the Red Sea, but long pauses between attacks suggest the Houthi missile and drone arsenal is diminishing.
  • The May 30 U.S. and British strike caused casualties at some civilian Houthi targets, sending a message that the West will escalate its campaign if the Houthis do not end their strikes on ships.
  • New Houthi arrests of critics and staff of Western-linked organizations might be intended to acquire leverage against the United States and its allies.

The Houthi movement in Yemen is demonstrating its steadfastness in the face of U.S.-led retaliatory and preventive strikes by continuing to attack commercial shipping in the Red Sea and claiming strikes on U.S. and allied warships in the region, including U.S. aircraft carriers. In an apparent effort to gain leverage over the United States and its partners, the Houthis have recently announced death sentences and a wave of arrests of critics and Yemeni staff members working for the United Nations and pro-Western human rights and democracy organizations. The arrests and announced executions might represent a response to what reportedly is growing criticism within Yemen that the Houthis’ insistence on joining Hamas’ struggle against Israel is bringing added economic distress and human losses to the already suffering Yemeni population.

After an extended lull in its attacks on commercial shipping in April and May, the Houthis appear to be trying to resume the near-daily pace of attacks they maintained throughout much of late 2023 and early 2024. The extended pauses had led many experts to assess that, perhaps, the Houthi arsenal of missiles and armed drones was showing signs of depletion. The enhanced operations of U.S.-led maritime security coalitions off the Yemeni coast since October 7 are presumably able to prevent Iran from replenishing the Houthis’ arsenal.

To contradict assessments that their attack campaign is becoming less potent, the Houthis have also begun to claim significant strikes on U.S. and allied warships, including the U.S.S. Eisenhower aircraft carrier that has led the U.S. effort to intercept and attack the Houthis’ drone and missile arsenal. There were no indications the Eisenhower was ever hit, nor was the UK destroyer HMS Diamond struck on June 10, as the Houthis claimed. However, one day earlier, a Houthi missile assault on an Antigua- and Barbuda-flagged cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden caused a fire aboard - the latest assault on commercial shipping in the region. Two days earlier, the group claimed to have attacked two commercial ships with “a number of drones and ballistic and naval missiles,” the group’s military spokesman Yahya Saree said in a televised speech. Since November, the Houthis have launched more than 50 attacks on shipping, killed three sailors aboard private vessels, seized one ship, and sunk another, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration.

The stepped-up Houthi pace of attacks and claims in early June might also represent the group’s response to a May 30 U.S. and UK package of strikes on 13 Houthi weapons storage and other sites, including, apparently for the first time, a Houthi-linked civilian facility. In what appeared to be an escalation, U.S. combat aircraft reportedly dropped a 5,000-pound GBU-72 “bunker-buster” bomb on sites near the Houthi-controlled port city of Hodeida. According to the UK Defense Ministry, the target set included “a number of buildings identified as housing drone ground control facilities and providing storage for very long-range drones, as well as surface-to-air weapons." Another "command and control" site had been identified further south, it said in a statement.

Additionally, the U.S. and UK barrage struck a Houthi radio station facility – a civilian site used by the group to communicate its messaging to the Yemeni people. The Houthis said 16 people were killed and 42 more wounded in the attacks, including an unspecified number of civilians, but there was no independent confirmation of those numbers. The Houthi-controlled Al-Masirah TV network broadcast a video showing bloodied men wounded in the radio station strike receiving treatment at a hospital. Striking the radio station facility - which carried a likelihood of causing significant casualties - appeared to represent a U.S. and British attempt to signal the Houthis that they are willing to expand the scope of preventive and retaliatory strikes beyond military sites if the Houthis refuse to discontinue their efforts to interfere with global commercial shipping through the Red Sea.

A week later, on June 7, U.S. and British forces carried out six airstrikes on targets in Yemen, Al-Masirah TV said. The outlet reported four attacks on the airport of Hodeidah and the seaport of Salif to the north, Al-Masirah TV said. Two strikes also hit the Al-Thawra region north of the Yemeni capital Sanaa. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) appeared to corroborate the Houthi media reports by stating that U.S.-led coalition forces had targeted and destroyed a Houthi patrol boat in the Red Sea – another target that appeared to signal a U.S. and British willingness to escalate in order to achieve deterrence.

In addition to increasing the pace of their attacks on shipping, the Houthis are responding to U.S.-led escalation by ratcheting up repression and persecution of domestic critics, particularly those linked to regional adversaries and Western-based relief and human rights organizations. On June 1, a court run by the Houthis sentenced 44 people to death, including a businessman working with aid groups, on spying charges, a defense lawyer said. The 44 were among 49 people who were detained on charges they “collaborated with the enemy” - a reference to the Saudi-led coalition. Sixteen were sentenced to death in absentia, while 28 were brought before the Specialized Criminal Court in the capital Sanaa. Among those sentenced to death was Adnan al-Harazi, CEO of Prodigy Systems, a Sanaa-based company that developed systems to help humanitarian groups register and verify the distribution of aid to needy Yemenis. The death sentences against pro-Saudi elements came even though, since October 7, the Arab coalition partners have specifically declined to join any Western action against the Houthis, opting instead to continue discussions about ending the Yemen civil conflict.

Several days after the death sentences were announced, Houthi security forces conducted a series of raids to detain at least nine employees of the United Nations, three employees of the U.S.-funded pro-democracy group National Democratic Institute (NDI), which promotes civil society, rule of law, and democracy abroad; and three employees of a local human rights group. All those detained were Yemeni nationals. Some reports indicated the group might have detained as many as 11 UN personnel. UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said on June 7 the United Nations is seeking their safe and unconditional release as soon as possible and clarification from the Houthis about why the Yemeni staff were detained.

Conventional wisdom, to date, has assessed the Houthis’ popularity within Yemen has increased in support of the movement’s determined approach to support the Palestinians in Gaza and attack Western interests that are supporting Israel and its Gaza offensive. However, the expanding Houthi crackdown on dissent might corroborate reports of growing dissatisfaction within Yemen. Many Yemenis believe that the Houthis’ insistence on interfering in the Gaza crisis is further harming Yemen’s already deeply distressed economy and infrastructure. The arrests of those linked to the West might furthermore represent a Houthi attempt to cause the United States and its partners to hesitate to attack Houthi targets out of fear for the potential for the Houthis to commit abuses against Western-oriented Yemenis. Alternately, the crackdown raises the possibility that the Houthis are replicating Iran’s use of “hostage diplomacy”- the use of arrests or capture of Western or pro-Western individuals to trade them for financial or policy concessions, such as sanctions relief or a halt to U.S.-led strikes on Houthi facilities.