Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis have bounced back after successive American and British airstrikes targeted the militant group’s offensive capabilities. Despite Western joint operations that sought to degrade the Houthis’ ability to threaten maritime traffic in the Red Sea, they have continued to strike merchant ships off the coast of Yemen in recent weeks. If the fighting continues, however, the group may adjust its strategy to address a new—and perhaps more critical—target: the lattice of undersea telecommunications cables that line the Bab el-Mandeb strait.
Rising Tide of Conflict
On December 24th, 2023, a Telegram channel linked to the Houthis published a map showing the networks of submarine communications cables in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf. The image was accompanied by an ominous message: “There are maps of international cables connecting all regions of the world through the sea. It seems that Yemen is in a strategic location, as internet lines that connect entire continents — not only countries—pass near it.”
Though the statement did not specify a target, the threat coincides with perhaps the Houthis’ most aggressive military campaign against vessels in the Red Sea. Since mid-October 2023, the group has launched more than 100 drones and missiles at vessels transiting through the Bab el-Mandeb, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. The attacks have been so disruptive that at least one major shipping company, Maersk, announced that it would suspend shipping through the Red Sea and Suez Canal “until further notice.” Diverted ships must instead sail around Africa, significantly raising transit times and shipping costs; these costs will almost certainly be passed on to consumers, hiking prices worldwide for a variety of commodities. Although high-level U.S. officials stressed that they had not yet observed price increases due to the blockage, the crisis ultimately prompted the United States to create a new international maritime task force focused on stopping the group’s attacks.
Despite this show of force, it does not appear that the Houthis have any intention of stopping their attacks. In early December, the group threatened to attack any ships transiting through the Red Sea to Israel, regardless of their nationality. In the weeks since, they have attacked neutral vessels, promising to continue as long as Israeli forces remain active in Gaza.
As the Gaza war has threatens to escalate across the Middle East, the communications cables running underneath the Red Sea have come under increased scrutiny from the Houthis and their allies. On Telegram, both Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran-backed militias in Iraq released their own statements that suggested they would consider cutting the cables—a step that would mark a new evolution in the regional conflict.
Cutting the Cord
Many people—both in the Middle East and across the world more generally—take for granted the modern comforts provided by undersea cables. In the twenty-first century, these cables serve as some of the world’s most critical digital infrastructure—servicing more than 95 percent of international data flows and communications—including an estimated $10 trillion in financial transactions every day. Even partial damage to the undersea cables could eliminate internet access across vast areas, causing major economic disruptions for entire countries.
Even more concerning for the Gulf Cooperation Council states, the United States, and Washington’s allies, damaging these cables could cut off military or government communications. The cables are the only hardware with enough bandwidth to accommodate the terabytes of military sensor data that inform ongoing operations. In the years to come, as technologies like artificial intelligence develop, the amount of data required to sustain advanced military operations will only increase.
Yemen sits at a critical juncture for these cables. Much as the Bab el-Mandeb acts like a chokepoint for maritime traffic above the waves, the region is one of only three cable chokepoints in the world, making threats to this infrastructure of particular concern to great powers like China and the United States, who are already competing for control over the cable network.
An Easy Target?
So far, the cables have been kept safe more so by the Houthis’ relative technological underdevelopment than for a lack of motivation. Up to now, the militant group has primarily fought a land war against the internationally-recognized government of Yemen and its Saudi and Emirati allies; consequently, they have never developed a highly-trained navy or marine contingent, and while the Houthis have maintained the capability to harass surface shipping through missiles and fast attack craft, they lack the submersibles necessary to reach the cables.
With sufficient time and opportunity, however, the Houthis might be able to adapt some of their maritime tactics to target the vital communication infrastructure. In fact, the shallow waters of the Gulf—which only reach a depth of 100 meters—reduce the need for high-tech submarines to get the job done. In 2013, three divers were arrested in Egypt for attempting to cut an undersea cable near the port of Alexandria that provides much of the internet capacity between Europe and Egypt—highlighting the possibility that militants without special equipment or training could carry out a similar mission. The Houthis, who have undergone combat diver training, could employ a similar method of attack, and have an arsenal of naval mines with which to damage the cables.
In short, while the Houthis have long presented a threat to international maritime traffic, the group’s recent series of increasingly brazen attacks underscores its intention to play a larger role in the region moving forward. A network of vital underwater communication cables could be the perfect soft target for their next attack and this possibility should concern all nations that depend on this critical infrastructure, both near and far.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.