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Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis have been continuously attacking ships off the coast of Yemen since the beginning of Israel’s war with Hamas, claiming they will continue “as long as Israeli forces remain active in Gaza.” However, a new threat emerges with the group’s threats of attacking the lattice of undersea telecommunications cables that line the Bab el-Mandeb canal.
On December 24th, 2023, a Telegram channel linked to the Houthis posted a map showing the networks of submarine communications cables in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf. The post read: “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.”
Despite not presenting an immediate threat, this statement accompanies the group’s most aggressive military campaign against vessels in the Red Sea – Since October 2023, the group has launched more than 100 drones and missiles at vessels, attacks so disruptive that several shipping companies announced they would suspend shipping through the Red Sea and Suez Canal “until further notice.”
According to “Gulf International Forum,” both the Houthis and their allies have been scrutinizing the communications cables running underneath the Red Sea. Both Hezbollah and Iran-backed militias in Iraq released their own statements on Telegram suggesting they would consider cutting the cables.
But how important are those cables exactly? These undersea cables serve as some of the world’s most critical digital infrastructure of the 21st century, servicing more than 95 percent of international data flows and communications – even partial damage to these cables could eliminate internet access across great areas, causing major economic and communication disruptions for entire countries.
Until now, the reason the cables were safe was a lack of technology by the Houthis, more than a lack of motivation. Because the militant group has so far primarily fought a land war against its government, they have never developed a highly trained navy or marine contingent. They lack the submersibles necessary to reach the cables.
However, with enough time and opportunity they might be able to adapt some of their maritime tactics to target the vital communication infrastructure. It would actually not be that difficult since the shallow waters of the Gulf (only reaching a depth of 100 meters) reduce the need for high-tech submarines.
Back in 2013 three divers were arrested in Egypt for attempting to cut an undersea cable near the port of Alexandria, highlighting the possibility that militants without special equipment or training could carry out a similar mission. The Houthis have definitely undergone combat diver training, and so could execute a similar attack.