Calibrated Escalation: The Yemen-based Houthis’ Threats Against Israel and Red Sea Shipping

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 24

Houthi militants. (Source: Middle East Eye)

Since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the Houthis have launched volleys of cruise missiles and armed drones toward Israel (Middle East Monitor, December 7). Thus far, however, none of the missiles or drones have evaded Israeli and/or other countries’ regional air defenses. The Yemen-based group, which calls itself Ansar Allah (Supporters of God), has also targeted multiple ships transiting the Red Sea with drones and missiles (Al Jazeera, December 3). On December 12, a missile launched from Houthi-held territory struck a Norwegian tanker, and on November 19, the Houthis hijacked the Galaxy Leader, a vehicle carrier partly owned by Israeli billionaire Rami Ungar (Al Jazeera, November 19, December 12).

The Houthis are a Zaidi Shia group, control most of northwest Yemen, and are allied with Iran. Since seizing the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in September 2014, the Houthis have systematically developed and refined their political and military capabilities. They began fighting the Yemeni government in 2004 and have evolved from a highly capable guerrilla group to a near-state level organization, and are now capable of projecting power within the region.

While the drones and missiles launched by the Houthis have failed to strike targets in Israel, the Houthis pose a growing threat to Red Sea shipping and vital energy infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Adept at asymmetric warfare, the Houthis understand the importance of leverage. Their ability to strike targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE has, more than anything else, brought the Saudis to the negotiating table.

Now, the Houthis are using the same strategy to stave off retaliatory attacks by the US and Israel and to assert themselves as a regional power. If Israel and the US launch air strikes against the Houthis, the Houthis, in turn, can escalate with asymmetric attacks against Red Sea shipping and regional energy infrastructure. The Houthis also control the Yemen, a tanker moored near the port of Hodeidah, which holds over a million barrels of oil (Anadolu Agency, July 25). Many hardliners within the organization regard the tanker and its cargo of oil as further leverage over the international community. If cornered, the more radical members of the Houthi organization could act to ensure an oil spill that would snarl shipping traffic in the Red Sea and cause massive environmental damage. The Houthis’ leveraging of asymmetric threats and calibrated escalation are, at least for now, paying off.

Asymmetric Threats

The attacks on Red Sea shipping and, in particular, the high-profile hijacking of the Galaxy Leader are yielding domestic and international dividends for the Houthis. Domestic support for the Houthis has increased, with even some enemies of the Houthis, such as members of the Islamist political party Islah, now meeting with them in Sana’a (X/@M_N_Albukhaiti, November 23). More critically, support for the Houthis from Yemen’s well-armed northern tribes has been strengthened. Internationally and regionally, the attacks have raised the profile of the Houthis as “defenders of the people of Gaza” and as members of the “Axis of Resistance.”

The attacks and accompanying propaganda also provide the Houthis with needed cover for ongoing mobilization. For much of the past two years, the Houthis have struggled to recruit and conscript enough fighters. In the wake of the attacks, this is no longer a problem. Young men from across Yemen—including men from south Yemen, a region which largely opposes the Houthis—are joining the Houthis to fight Israel. Although there is little chance that Houthi fighters will be engaging Israeli troops, the Houthis’ well-crafted propaganda about the attacks on Israel and “Israeli ships” has stoked national pride among many Yemenis. The Houthis have turned the Galaxy Leader, which is anchored off the Yemeni coast, into a popular tourist attraction and place to chew khat (Ynet News, December 6).

Missiles, Drones, and Geopolitics

In addition to bolstering flagging domestic support, the Houthis’ missile and drone launches serve as potent reminders to the Saudis, Emiratis, and to the Houthis’ domestic enemies of their capabilities. While the Houthis have failed to hit targets in Israel, they have hit sites in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the past with some accuracy (Jerusalem Post, January 24, 2022). Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are working to upgrade, expand, and network their air defenses, but in the case of a mass launch of drones and missiles from Yemen, many targets would be struck. Neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia can afford to have high-profile sites or vanity projects struck by the Houthis’ drones or missiles. More importantly, the world cannot afford for vital energy infrastructure to be targeted.

The Houthis are also capable of striking vulnerable tankers and cargo ships transiting the Red Sea and possess anti-ship missiles, mines, and maritime and airborne armed drones. So far, the Houthis have been clear that they are only seeking to target Israel-linked shipping. Apart from the hijacking of the Galaxy Leader, the Houthis’ attempts to target other ships have failed due to the efforts of US Naval assets in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (Middle East Eye, December 3). The Houthis appear to be engaging in a calibrated escalation. They possess the ability to target vulnerable ships with anti-ship missiles and they can deploy maritime mines and armed drones. However, they have yet to use these weapons at scale.

Saudi Arabia remains engaged in unilateral talks with the Houthis and has acted as a brake on retaliatory strikes by Israel and the US. Having fought and largely lost a war with the Houthis, Saudi Arabia knows that talks combined with promises of aid and/or investment as well as pressure on the Houthis from Iran, China, Oman, and likely Russia are more viable than a return to war. While Iran supports the Houthis and approves of some of their actions, Iran is also keenly interested in deepening its relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has promised to invest in Iran (Asharq al-Awsat, August 20). Saudi Arabia is hopeful that its efforts can moderate and contain the Houthis even though the Saudis are simultaneously prepping their military for a new war with the group.


The Houthis are an intractable problem for the region and for the international community and are a formidable military and political organization that understands power and looks down on weakness. The current US response will be regarded as “toothless” by the Houthis. However, even the unlikely scenario of the US and Israel conducting sustained strikes on the group would do little to seriously degrade their ability to carry out attacks on targets in the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia. Such strikes would do even less to erode the Houthis’ grip on power in Yemen. In fact, airstrikes will likely have the opposite effect and instead help the Houthis consolidate support over the short term.

There are no good answers for managing the threat posed by the Houthis. Saudi efforts may bear fruit—at least for the Saudis themselves, who want border security above all. However, the Houthis’ military capabilities will only increase in the years to come. The Houthis view their current strategy of calibrated escalation as successful and free of short-term consequences. As a result, Houthi attacks will almost certainly continue. The longer they continue, the greater the threat that a miscalculation by the Houthis will force the US or Israel to intervene and set off an escalatory loop that may have grave consequences for the region and the global economy more widely.