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Who are the Houthis and why do they attack ships in the Red sea?

The rebel group has been fighting in the country since 2014 in a long-standing civil war involving US ally Saudi Arabia.

Newly recruited fighters who joined a Houthi military force intended to be sent to fight in support of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, march during a parade in Sanaa, Yemen December 2, 2023. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

The ongoing Israeli invasion of Gaza has now lasted two months. More than 15,000 Palestinians have been killed since the Hamas attack on 7 October, itself killing 1,200 Israelis. More than 90% of the Gazan population has been displaced and a full half of its homes destroyed.

The scale of the destruction in Gaza has illicited reactions across the world. Protests have dominated cities for weeks, ambassadors have been pulled out, and armed groups supporting Palestinians have attempted to give some military support.

One of these groups is the Houthi rebels from Yemen. The country has been engulfed in a decade-long civil war, ruinous for trade considering its important position on the Arabian side of the Horn of Africa. The Red Sea separates the country from Israel, meaning the rebels are in a position to target Israeli shipping.

The Houthis have been launching missiles and drones at shipping in the waters. On Sunday, US Navy destoyer, Carney, defended ships against three drones launched from Yemen.

Who are the Houthis?

The group originated in the northern part of Yemen and adhere to a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidism. The group’s name translates to “Supporters of God” in Arabic. The conflict involving the Houthis has its roots in longstanding political, economic, and sectarian grievances in the Arabian nation.

The Houthis emerged in the early 2000s and gained prominence in the aftermath of the 2011 Yemeni revolution and the subsequent political instability. In 2014, the Houthis took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and later expanded their control over other parts of the country. This led to a conflict involving various actors, including the Houthi rebels, forces loyal to the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia.

This coalition intervened in 2015 to counter the Houthi advance and restore the Hadi government. The conflict has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crises. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), two-thirds of the population’s 21.6 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. 17 million people do not have enough food to meet daily needs.