The United States and its allies on Thursday launched air and missile strikes at Houthi rebel targets across Yemen after the Iran-backed militia staged multiple drone and missile attacks on ships traversing the Red Sea, President Joe Biden announced.
The joint assault, which involved U.S. aircraft, ships and submarines, came after the Houthis ignored weeks of warnings by Washington and its allies to stop their attacks on vessels in the commercially important waterway. The U.S. and the U.K., with support from Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and Bahrain, conducted the strikes, Biden said in a Thursday night statement.
“The response of the international community to these reckless attacks has been united and resolute,” Biden said. “These targeted strikes are a clear message that the United States and our partners will not tolerate attacks on our personnel or allow hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most critical commercial routes.
The strikes targeted radar systems, as well as storage and launch sites for drones, cruise and ballistic missiles across “a large area of Yemen,” according to a U.S. Defense Department official, who was granted anonymity to discuss the operation ahead of the announcement. The targets were chosen “to degrade the Houthi ability to continue endangering mariners in the Red Sea.” No civilians were assessed to be present at the sites, the official said.
The Biden administration has been under intensifying pressure to respond to the attacks, which have repeatedly drawn in American warships. U.S. destroyers have shot down dozens of drones and missiles that posed a threat to their sailors since November.
On Wednesday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby called on the Houthis to halt the attacks, warning that if they continued they would “bear the consequences.”
Biden in his statement emphasized the joint nature of the attacks and the international community’s condemnation of the Houthis’ assaults on international shipping. He also noted that the Houthis directly targeted American warships in a Tuesday attack, the largest to date.
“This cannot stand,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement. “The United Kingdom will always stand up for freedom of navigation and the free flow of trade.”
The U.K. Ministry of Defence said four Typhoon jets used Paveway IV guided bombs to target two Houthi facilities — “several key targets” at Abbas Airport in north-western Yemen, and a site in nearby Bani that was “used to launch reconnaissance and attack drones.” It said “early indications are that the Houthis’ ability to threaten merchant shipping has taken a blow.”
U.K. Defense Secretary Grant Shapps tweeted a video of the jets taking off, saying “this action was not only necessary, it was our duty.”
Still, the multinational strikes risked escalating a simmering Middle Eastern conflict sparked by Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel. President Joe Biden’s national security team has considered options for striking back at the Houthis in the last few weeks, but had until this point decided to hold off.
The latest Houthi attack came on Thursday morning, when the Iran-backed group fired an anti-ship ballistic missile into international shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden. This was the 27th such attack since Nov. 19, the Pentagon said.
All national security committees in Congress were notified about the U.S. and U.K. plans to strike the Houthis in Yemen, according to a congressional aide.
The Houthis, a Yemen-based movement, are among several armed groups in the region that have gone after Israeli, U.S. or other targets as Israel has retaliated against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
The Biden administration’s No. 1 objective since Oct. 7 has been to keep the Israel-Hamas fight contained and prevent a broader regional war. But Biden has been under increasing political pressure to respond to the Houthi attacks.
Iran itself signaled it could get more directly involved in the conflict at sea on Thursday, when an Iranian navy ship unlawfully seized a Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker while it was transiting the Gulf of Oman. The Iranian crew boarded and took control of the vessel, forcing it to change course toward Iranian territory, the Pentagon said. Its status is now unknown.
Thursday’s strike marks yet another attack by the U.S. on Iranian proxies since the war in Gaza broke out, and it raises questions about how much further the administration is willing to go to deter future assaults on U.S. troops and international commercial freighters.
In recent weeks, the United States had pulled together an alliance of countries to help police the affected waterways and deter the Houthis under Operation Prosperity Guardian. The U.S. and its partners have shot down over 80 drones and several Houthi ballistic and anti-ship missiles, which were aimed primarily at commercial shipping.
The U.S. and U.K. have deployed warships to the Red Sea as part of that effort, and each ship is capable of using missiles or air defense guns to knock down the drones and missiles. None of the warships has been struck, despite military officials from both countries saying some of the drones were likely aiming for the vessels.
In late December, U.S. Navy helicopters sank three Houthi boats, killing several fighters in the process. The Houthis were attempting to attack a commercial ship and had fired on the American helicopters.
Intelligence officials have closely monitored the situation in the region, collecting information about potential plans by various Iranian-backed rebel groups, including the Houthis, to directly target American forces or personnel stationed overseas, according to a senior intelligence official who, like others in this story, was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive national security operations.
Congressional Republicans have criticized the Biden administration for not taking tougher action to deter Tehran and its proxies.
On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Iran’s seizure of an oil tanker off the coast of Oman is “a further reminder that the Biden administration’s failure to impose serious costs and restore credible deterrence is emboldening Tehran.”
As the Houthis have targeted international commercial freighters, Israeli troops and Hezbollah militants have exchanged fire along Israel’s border with Lebanon. Iran-backed militias in Iraq also have launched attacks on U.S. forces, and the U.S. has responded by bombing storage sites.
The Houthi attacks in the Red Sea have sparked worries in Washington because of their impact on international trade, including severely delaying shipments and raising insurance rates, another senior official said.
Already, a number of major shipping companies have halted traffic through the Red Sea, instead directing ships to transit the Cape of Good Hope — adding weeks to the journey.
Thanks in part to Iran, the Houthis have grown in prominence and military strength as they fought a lengthy war with Saudi-led forces for control over Yemen. That war, which sparked a humanitarian catastrophe, had in recent years reached an uneasy truce.
It was not immediately clear if that truce inside Yemen would collapse in the face of the U.S. moves, but Saudi and American officials have tried to ensure that it does not.
Joe Gould, Paul McLeary, Erin Banco and Dan Bloom contributed to this report.