Who are Yemen's Houthis?

The UK and US have targeted Houthi sites in Yemen with airstrikes, in response to the group's attacks on international shipping vessels in the Red Sea

The UK and US have been targeting Houthi sites in Yemen with a series of airstrikes.

The attacks are in response to the group targeting international shipping vessels in the Red Sea, which could impact global supply chains.

The aggression was amplified in the wake of Israel’s war against Hamas following the October 7 attack.

Houthis have said they are "in no mood to back down" as long as the Israel-Gaza conflict rages on.

But who is the group and what role does it play in the escalating conflict in the Middle East?

Who are Yemen's Houthis?

The Houthi movement is a group of Shia Islamists, who oppose the influence that both Israel and the US have in the Middle East.

At odds with Yemen's internationally-recognised government, the Houthis control the country's western coast, down to the Bab al Mandeb Strait, which is the southern entrance to the Red Sea.

This means it oversees one of the world's most vital shipping routes for oil and other trade. It is here where various ships have come under attack by the group.

Shipping containers have been forced to take an alternative route, pictured above, to avoid the Red Sea Credit: ITV News

When did the group come to the forefront?

Houthis seized control of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in 2014 and soon took over much of the north of the country.

After Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates attacked in 2015 in an unsuccessful attempt to rout the Houthis, the group moved increasingly close to Iran.

Iran backed the Houthis with weapons and other support as the conflict grew into a regional confrontation.

Saudi and US attempts to formally end the war in Yemen eventually failed, but they did succeed in stopping sporadic missile and drone strikes by the Houthis against their richer Gulf neighbours.

Houthis now control territory that is home to some two-thirds of Yemen’s population of 34 million. It has limited popular support in Yemen outside of their immediate base.

War and misgovernment have made Yemen one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, and the World Food Program considers the vast majority of Yemen’s people as food-insecure.

The Saudi-led, US-backed war in Yemen killed more than 150,000 people, including fighters and civilians.

Who does the group oppose and who are its allies?

Houthis are backed by Iran and are allied with other Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, supports the government that the Houthis are fighting.

In the last few weeks, the kingdom sought to distance itself from the ship attacks as it looks to maintain a delicate détente with Iran and a ceasefire it has in Yemen.

The Houthis motto has long called for destruction of Israel and the US, but it also focuses on affairs in Yemen.

Yemen has been targeted by US military action over the last four American presidencies.

The strikes on shipping since Israel launched its campaign in Gaza are some of the Houthis' first outward-facing attacks, other than those aimed at its Gulf enemies.

Is the group classed as a terrorist organisation?

The White House said in November that it was considering re-designating the Houthis as a terrorist organisation after they began targeting civilian vessels.

The administration formally delisted the Houthis as a “foreign terrorist organisation” and “specially designated global terrorists” in 2021, undoing a move by former President Donald Trump.

Though the Biden administration and its allies have tried to calm tensions in the Middle East for weeks and prevent any wider conflict, the strikes threaten to ignite further clashes.

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