What was a surprising and uncharacteristic series of attacks by Houthi forces in the Red Sea in late October has now evolved into a highly coordinated naval offensive as Houthi forces continue to target Israeli-affiliated ships and territory, along with commercial vessels strategic waterway. Since the start of the conflict in Gaza in early October, Houthi forces have launched more than a dozen missile and drone barrages, hijacked a ship, and disrupted major international shipping routes by forcing companies to divert thousands of kilometers around the Cape of Good Hope – posing the question of if and when Israel and/or allied forces will retaliate.
Houthi strategy in the Red Sea region has witnessed several minor yet important shifts that affect who the group is targeting. Early November was characterized by similar types of attacks that Houthi forces launched in October, with the group claiming responsibility for missile and drone barrages targeting the Israeli port town of Eilat on November 1, 6, 9, and 14, and even downing an American MQ-9 drone in the Red Sea region on November 9. However, as the month progressed, attacks increasingly focused on interrupting international shipping in the Red Sea. On November 14, Houthi military spokesperson Yahya Sarea announced that the group would “not hesitate” to target any Israeli ships. Five days later, on November 19, Sarea updated this strategy – expanding the threat to any ships in the Red Sea flying the Israeli flag or operated or owned by Israeli companies. He also called on Red Sea countries to assist in identifying Israeli-affiliated ships, which often sail without flags. Within hours, Houthi forces hijacked the Galaxy Leader, a Japanese-operated cargo ship with links to Israeli billionaire Abraham Ungar. Houthi forces had reportedly attempted to intercept ships on three previous occasions in the two days prior, according to Houthi Naval and Coast Guard sources.
The hijacking was heavily publicized, with Houthi naval forces descending from a helicopter and surrounding the ship in a highly coordinated formation, and filming the assault for later broadcast. A number of countries and the UN Security Council condemned the attack, but no action has been yet taken to rescue the 25 crew members aboard. For their part, the Houthis have relocated the ship several times, moving it from an area near the port of Hudaydah to a location near the FSO Safer’s replacement ship – The Yemen – before relocating it to a protected inlet known as Diqnoa Bay, according to Houthi Coast Guard forces. In mockery of the international condemnation, Houthi influencers released viral videos of the group’s followers turning the ship into a spoil of war, calling the hostages “honored guests” and providing them with qat, and even offering trips to the ship’s deck for holidaying tourists.
Following the hijacking, Houthi strategy seemed to focus once again on missile and drone attacks, with US warships shooting down drones launched from Houth-held territories on November 23 and 29. Suspected Houthi missiles also targeted the USS Mason destroyer after it captured five pirates – reportedly Somalis – who attempted to hijack the Central Park commercial ship in the Gulf of Aden. Another attack followed on December 3, when suspected Houthi missiles struck three commercial ships in international waters in the southern Red Sea, with the group later claiming that at least two of the vessels were linked to Israel.
On December 9, Sarea yet again publicized the widened scope of the Houthis’ Red Sea strategy by announcing that the group would begin targeting all ships sailing to Israel, regardless of ownership. Between December 10-14, Houthi attacks reportedly targeted a French frigate, and cargo ships carrying flags from Norway, the Marshall Islands, and Hong Kong. The December 11 attack was the only one to hit its target, the Norwegian-flagged STRINDA tanker, setting fire to its hull. A US destroyer responded to the distress signal and assisted the ship, and no crew members were injured. In response to the attacks, some shipping companies denied Houthi claims they were sailing to Israel.
Tactically speaking, Houthi forces have begun to improvise naval maneuvers and incorporate geospatial technology and open-source intelligence in seeking out which vessels to target. Since at least November 12, Houthi forces have been training recruits for amphibious assault teams, with exercises including mock missile launches targeting decoy naval ships and simulated ship raids. Houthi naval brass have also met at least twice this month at the joint operations room in the port of Hudaydah to update patrol strategies. On November 27, commanders agreed that patrols would consist of three groups, with each group containing two speedboats, a communications boat, and a drone. The communications boats are equipped with an AIS international calling device, allowing the patrollers to call and address ships, while the drones reportedly collect coordinates and photos of ships and transmit them to land-based operation centers. Another meeting on December 4 stipulated that two boats would be added to naval patrol formations, which are responsible for placing sea mines should targeted ships refuse to cooperate or if the patrols are confronted by hostile warships. Houthi military leaders also confirmed that intelligence teams have been tasked with tracking ship coordinates and transmitting them to on-land “missile battalions” – an operation likely made easier by the dozens of booster devices that Houthi forces have installed on 4G towers in coastal Hudaydah, according to sources in the Houthi-affiliated Hudaydah Transportation Branch and the Houthi-run Naval Command and Control Room. The booster devices reportedly extend the range of maritime ship-tracking capabilities by approximately 20 nautical miles. A suspected Iranian intelligence vessel was also reportedly anchored in the southern and northern Red Sea on December 3 and 5, respectively.
What remains to be seen is how international powers will react. For nearly two months, Houthi aggression in the Red Sea has continued unabated: with the exception of US sanctions on certain Houthi individuals and an increased presence of British, American, and Israeli naval vessels, little offensive action has been taken to deter the group. However, an increasing number of shipping giants announcing their refusal to sail through the waterway may mean retaliatory action is imminent. The US announced a maritime coalition to confront the attacks on December 19 but seemingly faced challenges in rounding up participants, with the internationally recognized Yemeni government and most Arab partners refusing to officially join, though there may be behind-the-scenes cooperation. The limits of participation and coordination among the countries involved are not yet clear either. Such concerns may stem from Palestinian solidarity or strong warnings from Iran that such an entity in the Red Sea would create “extraordinary problems.” Omani negotiators reportedly engaged Houthi officials on December 16, but the group remains steadfast in its policy that military action will continue in the Red Sea until a ceasefire is reached in Gaza.
Houthis Strike Marib, Attempt to Assassinate Govt Army Chief of Staff
Amidst the noise of the naval offensive targeting Israeli assets and Red Sea shipping and ongoing peace talks with the Saudi negotiators, Houthi forces on November 7 discretely launched one of the largest attacks on pro-government forces in Marib in several months. Clashes centered around the Al-Kasara front northwest of Marib city and killed at least eight pro-government soldiers and an unconfirmed number of Houthi soldiers. Houthi forces also reportedly deployed from Nihm district in northeastern Sana’a governorate to fronts around Marib city, and carried out military maneuvers near the Mas front in Medghal district. Pro-government forces reportedly had information about the Houthi offensive prior to its launch, according to a pro-government army source and tribesmen fighting alongside the army.
To the east in Wadi Abidah district, pro-government army Chief of Staff Shaghir bin Aziz survived an assassination attempt that pro-government officials blamed on the Houthis. Bin Aziz was reportedly returning from a meeting with Marib Governor and Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) member Sultan al-Aradah when a car bomb targeted his convoy near the Bin Qamad petrol station on the Safer road linking Marib city and Hadramawt’s Al-Abr district. According to a local medical source, the blast injured at least two passengers in the convoy and four members of a family working on a nearby farm, but Bin Aziz walked away unscathed.
The days following the attack were relatively calm, with few major developments reported in Marib for nearly two weeks. By the end of November however, Houthis appeared again to be fortifying areas around Marib city and staging minor raids. On November 19-20, reinforcements were deployed in the Eastern Al-Balaq Mountain range and sites in the La’rif area to the west of Marib city. Houthi forces attempted to infiltrate government army camps in the area but were unsuccessful, according to pro-government military sources. On November 22, Houthi forces attacked pro-government forces in Serwah district’s Al-Zour area. The following day, nearly 200 Houthi soldiers were deployed to the Ablah front in Marib’s southern Al-Abdiyah district, according to local residents.
While Houthi delegates may be negotiating peace with Riyadh, the group still clearly has designs on the oil-rich governorate.
Houthis Target Joint Forces in Hudaydah
Coastal regions of Hudaydah southern were subject to intensified clashes this month as Joint Forces clashed with Houthi forces in southern Al-Tuhayta district, a region that sees regular exchanges of mortar fire but seldom reports high casualties. Typical frontline fighting between Houthi forces in the Al-Hajroufah area and Joint Forces soldiers stationed in the nearby coastal area of Al-Haymah occurred over a dozen times during the reporting period. Throughout the month, the longest gap in fighting took place during a mere four-day lull in hostilities between November 18 and 22. During the reporting period, both sides also engaged in back-and-forth shelling in the Al-Ghuwayriq area, to the north of Al-Haymah.
On November 10, Houthi forces advanced on Joint Forces positions in the Al-Haymah in a significant escalation, bypassing the frontlines of the 1st Zaraniq Brigade and raiding a barracks of the UAE-backed 9th Giants Brigade. During the raid, Houthi soldiers seized two military vehicles before withdrawing. The clashes left one Houthi fighter dead and three wounded, while one Joint Forces soldier was killed and nine others were wounded. Tensions spiked again exactly one month later on December 10 when a Houthi drone strike targeted a barracks of the 1st Zaraniq Brigade, killing two soldiers and wounding four others. According to a source in the government-aligned Al-Tuhayta Axis Command, PLC member Tareq Saleh visited the area and reportedly left less than one hour before the strikes. Looking forward, minor escalations like these are likely to remain commonplace.
Other Developments in Brief
On November 4: Houthi forces fired a ballistic missile that landed between the Al-Rawda and Al-Suwayda areas northwest of Marib city near a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), according to an IDP and an aid worker at the camp. No damage was reported but the explosion terrified residents.
On November 6: A man from Al-Bayda’s Al-Zahir district, Ezzedin Saleh Mohammed al-Habji, allegedly died from torture in the Houthi-run Central Security Prison in Sana’a. Al-Habji was abducted by Houthi forces in August 2022 in Al-Bayda and spent time in prisons in Al-Bayda and Dhamar before being transferred to the Sana’a Central Security Prison, which is supervised by Abu Shihab al-Murtada. On November 14, another young man, Mohammed Ahmed Wabhan, was declared dead with reported signs of torture, after three years in a Houthi prison in Sana’a.
On November 13: STC chief and PLC member Al-Zubaidi held a meeting of southern military leaders with the commander of the Nation’s Shield forces, Bashir al-Subaihi, in attendance for the first time. The meeting focused on recent political and security developments. The Nation’s Shield forces were formed earlier this year by Saudi Arabia and placed under the command of PLC chief Rashad al-Alimi.
On November 20: The Yemeni Teachers Club organized a protest in front of the Attorney General’s Office in Sana’a city to demand the release of the head of the club, Abu Zaid al-Kumaim, and several companions who have been detained and held without legal justification in Houthi prisons. The protesters also demanded the payment of their salaries. Houthi intelligence forces arrested Al-Kumaim on October 8 for organizing protests demanding the payment of teachers’ salaries. Later, on November 29, members of the Houthi Security and Intelligence Services arrested Abdelkhaleq al-Hamati, the son of the vice president of the Yemeni Teachers Club, Professor Hayat Monassar, to force his mother to stop organizing protests demanding teachers’ salaries. Monassar has been leading the Teachers Club since Al-Kumaim was arrested in early October.
December 9: Al-Qaeda claimed to have conducted a prisoner swap with “UAE mercenaries” in Shabwa; members of the Shabwa local authority reportedly traded two militants for the son of a government official and the son of a military commander who had been kidnapped several months ago. On December 13, Shabwa governor Awad bin al-Wazir al-Awlaqi suspended the governorate’s Political Security and National Security directors over their roles in the exchange deal.