The US has launched missiles against three radar sites in the Houthi-controlled part of Yemen. The strikes came in response to two attacks on the USS Mason, which operates in international waters off the Red Sea coast of Yemen. The Houthis are also thought to have fired rockets at an United Arab Emirates military vessel earlier this month.
The US military “targeted radar sites involved in the recent missile launches threatening USS Mason and other vessels operating in international waters in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb,” according to a statement by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook. The Bab al-Mandeb is a strait located between Yemen and the Horn of Africa. “These limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships, and our freedom of navigation in this important maritime passageway,” Cook continued.
Cook added that the “United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic, as appropriate, and will continue to maintain our freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb, and elsewhere around the world.”
Separately, the US Navy released a video, just over one minute long, of the USS Nitze launching Tomahawk cruise missiles at the radar sites. The cruise missiles were fired just hours after the USS Mason was forced to respond to an incoming missile for the second time this week. No one was injured in the failed missile attacks, but the USS Mason had to employ “defensive countermeasures.”
The Houthi rebels in Yemen have been backed by Iran. And their rise to power in the country was a blow to the US government’s counterterrorism strategy. The Obama administration relied on President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government as a key, on the ground partner in the fight against al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
But in late 2014 and early 2015, the Houthis seized large swaths of Yemen from Hadi’s government. AQAP capitalized on the instability by launching its own offensive throughout the southern part of the country. The al Qaeda branch controlled contiguous territory along the coast from April 2015 until April 2016, when an Arab-led coalition moved to dislodge the jihadis. AQAP’s fighters slipped away from strategic locations, such as the port city of Mukalla, in order to fight another day. AQAP portrayed the move as an effort to protect local residents and civilian institutions, such as mosques and markets, from the ravages of war.
Subsequently, Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza released an audio message in which he accused Saudi Arabia of attacking al Qaeda’s men at a time when they were “preoccupied” with the Houthis. Hamza portrayed the ground assault launched by the Saudi-led coalition that entered Mukalla as a boon to the Houthis, even though the Saudis are opposed to the Houthis’ expansion.
In addition to AQAP, the Islamic State took advantage of the turmoil in Yemen by establishing a small upstart branch comprised of AQAP defectors and others.
The State Department has formally accused Iran of backing the Houthis. In its Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, State said that “Iran actively supported members of the Houthi tribe in northern Yemen, including activities intended to build military capabilities, which could pose a greater threat to security and stability in Yemen and the surrounding region.” The report also cited an incident from July 2012, when Yemen’s Interior Ministry “arrested members of an alleged Iranian spy ring, headed by a former member of the IRGC” (Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps).
However, Foggy Bottom dropped the language about Iran’s sponsorship of the Houthis from the 2015 version of Country Reports on Terrorism. Asked why similar language was not included in the report for 2015, acting coordinator for counterterrorism Justin Siberell responded: “There’s a serious concern about Iran’s activities in Yemen, yes.”
In February, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper delivered the US Intelligence Community’s “Worldwide Threat Assessment” to Congress. Clapper noted that Iran “continues to back the [Houthis],” has shipped “lethal aid” to them, and referred to the “Iranian-backed [Houthi] insurgency.”