When the United States announced it was leading an international maritime task force to confront attacks on ships in the Red Sea, it did not take long for the group behind the attacks, the Houthi militia in Yemen, to dismiss the effort as a lost cause.
Within hours, a top Houthi official was making the rounds on Arabic television channels, describing the militia’s campaign of hijackings and missile and drone launches at commercial ships as a righteous battle to force Israel to end its siege on Gaza.
Western militaries had already spent weeks attempting to deter the Houthis, so the task force announced this week was “nothing new,” scoffed Mohammed Abdusalam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator. And if the United States directly attacked Yemen, he warned, it could turn the war in Gaza into an international conflagration.
“The Yemeni position is clear,” Abdullah Ben Amer, a high-ranking Houthi official in a department that is part of the group’s defense ministry, told The New York Times. The Houthi escalation in the Red Sea will stop, he said, when “the Israeli war on the people of Gaza stops.”
Those words echoed the stance that the Iran-backed militia has repeated since the war in Gaza began two months ago with the Hamas-led attacks that killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel, officials say, and the Israeli response: bombardments in Gaza that have killed around 20,000 Palestinians, officials in the enclave say.
The war has sparked fury across the Middle East at Israel and the United States, its main ally, catapulting the Houthis — a once-scrappy tribal group that controls northern Yemen — into an unlikely global spotlight. While many Arab governments have addressed the war through aid and diplomacy, the Houthis embarked on a fiery military assault, increasing their popularity around the region.
They launched drones and missiles at southern Israel and pledged to block all ships traveling to Israeli ports from passing through the Bab al-Mandab strait near Yemen, a key choke point for global trade. Most of their attacks have been thwarted, but last month, they hijacked a commercial vessel, and this month, they struck a Norwegian ship with a missile, starting a fire. Their attacks have pressed the world’s largest shipping companies to reroute vessels, disrupting global trade and increasing oil prices.
“The problem with the Houthis is it’s very hard to deter them,” said Yoel Guzansky, a former Israeli official and a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
The militia’s capabilities and apparent fearlessness have been honed by years of civil war. In 2014, the Houthis — who espouse a religious ideology inspired by a sect of Shiite Islam — took over the Yemeni capital, Sana. A Saudi-led coalition launched a military intervention in an attempt to rout them, but ultimately failed, leaving the Houthis in power in northern Yemen. There, they have created an impoverished proto-state that they rule with an iron fist.
Even Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who spearheaded the yearslong military campaign against the Houthis and once said that “no country would accept to have a militia on its border” — is uninterested in confronting them today as he turns his focus to economic development.
“All this reinforces their perception that they are on the right path and that God is on their side,” said Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Before the war in Gaza, the Houthis were close to signing an American- and Saudi-backed deal that could have entrenched their position and paved the way for a broader peace process. But the Houthis were also facing public discontent, as Yemenis grappled with a lack of basic services and civil servants went for years without salaries, contributing to widespread hunger.
The war in Gaza was a “dream come true” for the group, said Farea Al-Muslimi,a research fellow at the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a research group based in London.
For decades, the Houthis had anchored their ideology on hostility toward the United States and Israel, and support for the Palestinian cause. “Death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews” is part of the group’s slogan.
They have also become an important arm of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance,” which includes armed groups across the Middle East. Analysts close to the Iranian government have said the Houthis’ base in Yemen makes them ideally positioned to escalate regional conflict.
Now, the Houthis have a chance to live out their narrative, Mr. Al-Muslimi said, adding, “They can actually go into a war with Israel.”
The Houthis have described their attacks as an attempt to secure the free flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, where more than two million Palestinians are struggling to obtain food and water.
“What is happening in Bab al-Mandab is nothing but an echo or a result of what is happening in Gaza,” said Mr. Ben Amer, the Houthi official.
Eylon Levy, an Israeli government spokesman, called the Houthi attacks an “important wake-up call.” He also said, “The threat will be addressed.”
Yet, the group’s motivations and history complicate attempts to deter them, Yemeni analysts say, a lesson the Saudi-led coalition learned during eight years of war. The kingdom and the United Arab Emirates faced international condemnation for their bombing campaign in Yemen, much of it carried out with American assistance, and for a blockade that helped push the country into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
The threat of a broader regional war looms over efforts to address the maritime attacks. U.S. military planners have prepared preliminary Houthi targets in Yemen should senior Biden administration officials order retaliatory strikes, two U.S. officials said, although military officials say the White House has shown no appetite for responding militarily to the Houthis and risking a wider escalation.
The task force appeared to be carefully calibrated to avoid that. But as the war in Gaza sparks grief and anger among Arab citizens and puts pressure on Arab leaders, the United States has struggled to rally some allies.
Only one Arab nation joined the task force: the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, where citizens announced plans to protest their government’s participation. Oman, which mediates talks with the Houthis, will not push the group to stop its attacks until there is a cease-fire in Gaza, according to a person briefed by Omani officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
And Saudi Arabia appears to be uninterested in any form of escalation.
“We are committed to ending the war in Yemen, and we are committed to a permanent cease-fire that opens the door for a political process,” the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, said in a television interview this month.
“Everybody is looking for a way to de-escalate tensions,” Tim Lenderking, the U.S. special envoy for Yemen, said in an interview. He recently returned from a trip to the Gulf, where he met with partners to discuss how to safeguard maritime security while keeping the de facto Saudi-Houthi cease-fire on track.
Even before the war in Gaza, however, there were signs that the Yemen peace deal that Saudi Arabia and the United States were pursuing faced obstacles, including tensions between Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Much of Yemen’s south is controlled by an Emirati-backed separatist group that has openly criticized the peace process.
“The deal by itself is deeply flawed,” Ms. al-Dawsari said. “It is meant for Riyadh to extricate themselves from Yemen even if that means handing over Yemen to the Houthis on a silver plate.”
Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment.
In parts of the Gulf, some political commentators have begun to argue that it was the American policy toward the war in Yemen that helped the Houthis thrive, pointing out that as Yemen’s humanitarian crisis deepened and children starved to death, American officials pressed the Saudi-led coalition to scale back its operations.
It was only after the ship attacks that “certain countries changed their tune” about the Houthis, said Mohamed Bin al-Wazir al-Awlaki, who comes from a prominent family in Shabwa, an oil-rich region of Yemen that the Houthis attempted to take over.
A maritime coalition to deter the Houthis is ultimately “a call for a return to war,” Mr. al-Awlaki said in a recent post on the social media platform X. He complained that the decision appeared to have been driven by commercial motives rather than humanitarian or political concerns.
“It’s clear that even if the region caught fire, there’s nothing more important than international shipping routes,” he said.
One Yemeni government official said he did not expect to see a peace deal for his country in the next month or two. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media, he said international mediators would take their end-of-year vacation soon, putting peace efforts on hold.
Saeed Al-Batati contributed reporting from Al Mukalla, Yemen; Eric Schmitt from Manama, Bahrain; and Ahmed Al Omran from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.