U.S. Condemns Houthis' "Piracy" and "Terrorism" in the Red Sea

An F/A-18 fighter launches from the deck of USS Dwight D. Eisenhower en route to a Houthi target, Feb. 2024 (USN)
An F/A-18 fighter launches from the deck of USS Dwight D. Eisenhower en route to a Houthi target, Jan. 2024 (USN)

Published Feb 21, 2024 10:48 PM by The Maritime Executive


On Wednesday, the Biden administration condemned Yemen's Houthi rebels in strong terms for continuing to attack merchant shipping in the Red Sea. Houthi missiles and suicide drones have made the strategic waterway unattractive for most of the best-known names in shipping, and virtually all east-west container ship traffic has rerouted around the Cape of Good Hope. 

"The Houthis are behaving like a terrorist organization – attacking civilians, civilian shipping, and innocent mariners," said the State Department in a statement. "They continue to detain the crew of the Galaxy Leader, consisting of 25 people from five different countries. This is piracy." 

The U.S. Navy has pounded Houthi positions in Yemen multiple times in an attempt to suppress the threat, but the Houthis' operational tempo has only increased. On Sunday, the group hit and seriously damaged a bulker full of fertilizer, forcing the crew to abandon ship. The vessel remains afloat and anchored in the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb. 

Though the majority of the disrupted traffic is headed for Europe or North America, the State Department zeroed in on the attacks' effect on humanitarian cargoes for the region. Yemen, which is heavily dependent on donated food and medical supplies, has been affected itself: earlier this week, Houthi missiles nearly hit the bulker Sea Champion, which was under way for the ports of Aden and Hodeidah with a cargo of corn. (Hodeidah is under Houthi control.) 

"The Houthis' actions . . . are preventing the delivery of food and essential items on which the Yemeni people rely," said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller. 

The Houthis' viewpoint differs. The group began its attacks after the start of the Israeli operation in Gaza last fall, and it says that the anti-shipping operations are aimed at Israel and two allies, the U.S. and the UK. In a statement Wednesday, the group reiterated its claim that ships without links to these nations can navigate the waterway in safety. (The Houthis did not address the question of the targeting of the Sea Champion, which was delivering grain to the militant group's own populace.)

Regardless of the group's assurances, major shipowners and their insurers have concluded that the Red Sea is now a high risk zone for any and all shipping, with a possible exception for Russian- and Chinese-owned vessels. Both nations have called for granting the Houthis' political objective - an end to the Israeli military operation in Gaza.