The Houthi Who, What, Why, and How

Written by Anthony Constantini

What’s happening: The United States launched a barrage of missiles at the Houthis, an Iran-backed militia that controls much of western Yemen and has been threatening Red Sea commerce.

Why it matters: The Houthis’ attacks on ships traveling through the Red Sea have a global impact — 30 percent of shipping containers go through the region. Iran backs the Houthis, so if American involvement escalates, it could trigger a wider regional conflict.

The who, what, why, and how: The background of the Houthis is complex, but some fundamentals are straightforward:

  • Who they are: The Houthis are an Islamist sect who control much of Yemen’s western coastline and have been fighting a civil war there for years.

  • What they are doing: Their location in western Yemen sets up the Houthis to easily disrupt Red Sea shipping and international commerce via rocket attacks.

  • Why they’re doing it: The increase in Houthi violence came after Hamas’ attack on Israel and Israel’s counter-punch into Gaza. Houthi leaders have said the strikes will continue until Israel ceases its Gaza-based operations.

  • How they afford it: The Islamic group is largely funded by Iran, which has proxies all over the Middle East. To wit, the Islamic Republic’s notorious Revolutionary Guard has been deployed on the ground in Yemen.

Unbowed: The Houthis continued their attacks on shipping after the U.S. strike, with one missile recently hitting a shipping container. Given Iran’s funding of the groups, it is unlikely that occasional, targeted U.S. strikes will hamper the Houthis’ ability to disrupt shipping.