US and UK carry out airstrikes against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen

Jan 11, 2024, 5:20 PM | Updated: 5:20 pm

The US military has launched strikes against multiple Houthi targets in Houthi-controlled areas of ...

The US military has launched strikes against multiple Houthi targets in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, a US official told CNN. (Tom Brenner/Bloomberg/Getty Images/File)

(Tom Brenner/Bloomberg/Getty Images/File)

(CNN) — The US and UK militaries launched strikes against multiple Houthi targets in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen on Thursday, a US official and UK official told CNN.

The strikes were from fighter jets and Tomahawk missiles. More than a dozen Houthi targets were hit by missiles fired from air, surface, and sub platforms and were chosen for their ability to degrade the Houthis’ continued attacks on vessels in the Red Sea, a second US official told CNN.

They included radar systems, drone storage and launch sites, ballistic missile storage and launch sites, and cruise missile storage and launch sites.

The strikes mark a significant response after the Biden administration and its allies warned that the Iran-backed militant group would bear the consequences of repeated drone and missile attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea.

The strikes are a sign of the growing international alarm over the threat to one of the world’s most critical waterways. For weeks, the US had sought to avoid direct strikes on Yemen because of the risk of escalation in a region already simmering with tension, but the ongoing Houthi attacks on international shipping compelled the coalition to act.

Senior administration officials briefed congressional leadership earlier Thursday on the US plans, according to a congressional source.

The strikes come as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin remains hospitalized following complications from a surgery for prostate cancer.

Though the US has carried out strikes against Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, this marks the first known strike against the Houthis in Yemen. They come at a time of huge tension in the Middle East as the US looks to ensure the war in Gaza does not spill out into the wider region. The Biden administration had been wary of striking the Houthis, worrying it could upset a delicate cease-fire between the militant group and Saudi Arabia that was achieved after years of war.

But the White House had made clear the repeated Houthi attacks on international shipping lanes in the southern Red Sea were intolerable. The attacks have forced some of the world’s largest shipping companies to avoid the waterway, instead adding thousands of miles to international shipping routes by sailing around the continent of Africa.

Hours before the strike on Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said Iran “has a role to play” in getting the Houthis to stop their “reckless, dangerous, and illegal activity.” If they did not, he said, “there will be consequences.”

In a speech Thursday, Houthi leader Abdul Malek Al-Houthi said that any US attack on Yemen ” will not go unanswered,” cryptically warning that the response will be “much more” than attacking US ships in the sea.


US warned of ‘consequences’


On Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned while traveling in the region that “if it doesn’t stop, there will have to be consequences. And unfortunately, it hasn’t stopped.”

Blinken also said he doesn’t believe the war in Gaza is escalating into a regional conflict, even as he warned of “a lot of danger points.” While in the region, Blinken visited Bahrain, home to the US Naval Forces Central Command and the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

An important aspect of Blinken’s trip to the Middle East was to tell regional leaders that if US takes military action against the Houthis, it should be seen as defensive, not escalatory, according to a senior State Department official.

The Houthis — an Iran-backed Shia political and military organization that has been fighting a civil war in Yemen against a coalition backed by Saudi Arabia — have been launching drones and missiles at commercial shipping vessels in the Red Sea for weeks, many of which have been intercepted and shot down by US Navy ships in the area.

The rebel group has said that it is acting in support of Hamas’ fight against Israel in Gaza, following Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7.

On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council passed a US- and Japan-led resolution condemning “in the strongest terms the at least two dozen Houthi attacks on merchant and commercial vessels since November 19, 2023” and demanding “that the Houthis immediately cease all such attacks.” Eleven countries voted in favor of the resolution. Four abstained, including China and Russia. A Western diplomat told CNN that the US accommodated some of China’s requests on the language of the resolution.

US strikes in Yemen are not unprecedented; according to the Council on Foreign Relations, the US has conducted nearly 400 airstrikes in Yemen since 2002. But White House and Pentagon officials have said since Hamas’ invasion that they do not want to see the conflict in Gaza expand into the region. John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, said last week that the US is “not looking for a conflict with the Houthis.”

Among the US’ concerns about taking direct action inside Yemen is the risk of upsetting a carefully brokered truce in the war in Yemen between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, which a US official previously told CNN the Biden administration considers one of its most significant foreign policy achievements.

The US and its allies issued a warning to the Houthis on January 3, saying in a joint statement that the Houthis “will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.”


Houthi attacks continued


Nevertheless, the attacks have continued.

Just hours after the joint statement was released, the Houthis launched an unmanned surface drone against commercial shipping lanes — the first time they used that type of weapon since the beginning of their attacks. And on Tuesday, in one of the largest Houthi attacks to date, three US Navy destroyers, Navy F/A-18s from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, and a UK destroyer, the HMS Diamond, shot down 21 missiles and drones. There were no ships damaged by the attack, and no injuries reported.

Houthi militants have also attempted to physically board commercial vessels, including one recent instance when US helicopters sank three small Houthi boats that were attacking the Maersk Hangzhou on December 30, killing the crews.

There have been at least 27 Houthi attacks since November 19. As the US and its allies have been navigating the Houthis’ ongoing attacks, there have also been at least 131 attacks on US and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria since October 17, leading to several strikes on facilities linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other proxy forces. Just last week, the US targeted a member of Iranian proxy group Harakat al-Nujaba who an official said has “US blood on his hands” in Iraq.

The Houthis’ attacks began shortly after the start of the war in Gaza, saying they would target ships tied to Israel. Norman Roule, the former national intelligence manager for Iran at the CIA, previously told CNN that Houthi commanders boasting “to their tribal followers that they conducted attacks against Israel and the United States enhances their stature within the movement.”

But many of the commercial vessels have had no connection to Israel. Vice Adm. Bradley Cooper, the commander of US Navy Central Command, said last week that the US assesses 55 nations have “direct connections” to the ships that have come under fire.

This story is breaking and will be updated.

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US and UK carry out airstrikes against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen