scroll to top arrow or icon

Iran-backed Houthi rebels drum up trouble in the Red Sea

​Houthi fighters fire anti-tank grenades during a military maneuver near Sanaa, Yemen, in late October.

Houthi fighters fire anti-tank grenades during a military maneuver near Sanaa, Yemen, in late October.

Houthi Media Center/Handout via REUTERS

Houthi rebels appear to have opened a new front in the Israel-Hamas war, targeting maritime traffic in the Red Sea. On Sunday, they hijacked the Galaxy Leader, a Bahamas-flagged cargo ship bound for India, and took 25 hostages of varying nationalities, including Bulgarian, Filipino, Mexican, and Ukrainian. The hijackers then redirected the vessel to a port in Yemen and stated that “all ships belonging to the Israeli enemy or that deal with it will become legitimate targets.”

The Galaxy Leader is registered to a British company partly owned by Ray Car Carriers, a firm founded by Abraham Ungar, reportedly one of Israel’s wealthiest men. The ship was leased to a Japanese company, and no Israelis were on board at the time of the hijacking. Another vessel linked with Ungar was hit by an explosion in 2021 in the Gulf of Oman, which Israeli media attributed to Iran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office condemned the seizure of the ship as an "Iranian act of terror" while the Israeli military called it a "very grave incident of global consequence." The concern is that this attack will expand the Israel-Hamas war to a regional conflict that impacts not just Israel, but Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that form part of a Saudi-led coalition that has been battling the Houthis in support of the elected government of Yemen since 2015.

Prior to this incident, the Houthis were already conducting terrorist operations in the Red Sea. In December 2022, a Saudi-led coalition claimed the Houthis were using mines and explosive boats to disrupt maritime traffic, and in January 2023 the Houthis hijacked a UAE-flagged vessel off the coast of Yemen.

While fighting in Yemen subsided in 2023, the Israel-Hamas war provided a flashpoint for new engagement by the Iranian-backed Houthis, who announced their entry into the conflict a few weeks ago via a slickly produced music video. Since then, they have launched six aerial attacks against Israel and shot down a US drone over the Red Sea. Last week, American forces downed a drone emanating from Yemen that the US says was targeting the SS Thomas Hudner, a naval destroyer sailing in the area.

So now, it seems, the Houthis are taking that show on their road — and onto the water.


Subscribe to GZERO's daily newsletter