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Houthis poised to ramp up Red Sea attacks following recent lull

The Houthis have not successfully attacked a vessel for over two weeks, but security analysts warn the threat assessment has not changed and vessels remain at risk

Whether naval operations have degraded Houthi capabilities or the Iran-backed militants were simply regrouping, the latest warnings suggest that a resurgence of attacks targeting vessels in the Red Sea is imminent

THE SHIPPING industry is bracing for a resurgence in Houthi attacks following a recent pause from the Iran-backed militant group, which has not directly targeted a ship in more than two weeks.

A statement posted on the Houthi’s official website on Monday and distributed via the messaging app Telegram warned that “Yemeni armed forces will escalate their operations against Zionist navigation and those associated with it in the Red and Arab Seas and the Indian Ocean.”

No incidents of direct vessel attacks have been reported since the Marshall Islands-flagged containership Hope Island (IMO: 9263320) came under fire during three separate missile launches between April 6 and April 7.

The targeting of Hope Island marked the end of another quiet period where no merchant ships were attacked for two weeks, however security analysts have warned that the threat to shipping is unchanged and warnings of a resurgence in attacks should be taken seriously.

While US and UK air strikes are assessed to have degraded the Houthi’s capabilities to carry out attacks, it remains unclear what lies behind the recent period of relative calm.

“Coalition air strikes will have had some effect, although limited, and I would argue that it isn’t a pivotal factor in the reduction of attacks,” said EOS Risk Group head of advisory Martin Kelly.

“It’s possible that the Houthi’s target pool has been reduced given that ships which fit the target profile are opting for the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope,” he continued.

Transits of cargo-carrying vessels around the Cape of Good Hope climbed to new highs last week. According to Lloyd’s List Intelligence data, 802 vessels passed through, up from 670 the week prior.

Meanwhile transits through the Bab el Mandeb strait totalled 221 last week, down 60% on normal volumes.



While the impact of the naval operations on the region together with proactive strikes targeting weapons sites within Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen are likely to have affected Houthi operations, Iran’s shifting priorities in the wake of attacks directed at Israel are also thought to be part of the picture.

The Iranian vessel Behshad (IMO: 9167289), widely assumed by intelligence services to act as an Iranian “spy” and surveillance ship,  has returned to Iran, likely decreasing the Houthi’s ability to target vessels accurately.

Behshad, originally located in the southern Red Sea, moved to the Gulf of Aden in January, but on April 16, after an 11-day gap in Automatic Identification System data, the ship appeared in the Gulf of Oman sailing for the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. The vessel stopped transmitting AIS data shortly thereafter. 

Security analysts also point out that apparently random cessation of military activity from the Houthis is far from unprecedented.

During the Houthi’s conflict with the Saudi-led coalition the militant group would often have breaks between launching attacks.

It is possible they are using the current quiet period to relocate ammunition stores and launchers to make US and allied airstrikes more difficult, suggested Martin Kelly.

Threat unchanged

Regardless of the reasons behind the current lull, security analysts have warned that the threat to shipping remains unchanged and shipowners considering returning to the Red Sea based on the recent absence of attacks should be aware that attacks are likely to resume.

“The traffic in the Red Sea is down but it does not mean that the Houthis have been inactive, it means that they have been regrouping,” said Ian Ralby, maritime and international affairs expert, and founder and chief executive of IR Consilium.

“This is something we have seen them do numerous times in the past and it is partly a tactic in and of itself to lure others into a sense of security while they are preparing for an upgrade or escalation in their attacks.”

Although transits through the Bab el Mandeb have more than halved since the security situation has deteriorated, analysis of Lloyd’s List Intelligence data shows transit volumes have stabilised over the past eight weeks.

While vessels have not been directly targeted for a couple of weeks, US Central Command forces continue to intercept and destroy missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles that are launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen over the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

In an information note the Joint Maritime Information Centre, an entity that operates under Combined Maritime Forces, reiterated the risk to the shipping industry.

It read: “Despite the reduced kinetic activity towards merchant shipping, the threat remains and kinetic activity remains constant in the area. JMIC recommends companies continue to thoroughly risk assess passages via the southern Red Sea/Gulf of Aden and fully maintain their current mitigation measures.” 

The situation in the Red Sea is volatile and the so-called “quiet period” could end at any given moment, but it’s not clear if Ansarallah’s latest call for escalation is a true warning of imminent attack or part of a generic propaganda campaign.

Ralby said: “We have noticed a downtick in both traffic through the Red Sea as well as naval presence and so the Houthis could be sensing that this is, especially with the world’s eyes focused more on Israel and Iran, a good time to resume the spectacle of attacks with the professed association to Israel and Gaza when in fact it is just an ambitious move on their own part to continue to spread their own movement.”

Director at Control Risks Cormac Mc Garry said: “The statement is not necessarily super meaningful and could be a standard statement to make up for the fact that there has been a decrease in attacks.”

The Houthis are enjoying popular support at home and a divergence away from their stance on the Red Sea would likely not be well received, he added.


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