Close Call in the Red Sea: Missiles Fired at US Warship

Will Klanac -
Posted on: October 22, 2016

Tensions quivered this past month after several disjointed exchanges between the suspected Houthi rebels of Yemen and an American destroyer. Over the course of a week, three incidents were identified by the USS Mason, a vessel mobilized off of the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea. To probe these happenings, we require a trusty toolbox of questions to guide us: who are the Houthi, how did they rise up, and why were the Americans so far from home?

The Houthi’s grassroots foundations lay in a family of the same name and a movement known as the “Believing Youth”, first seen in the early 1990’s. They operated through summer education programs and social gatherings, with the purpose of promoting Zaydism, a sect of the Shia branch of Islam. The Zaydi imamate ruled various regions of Yemen from pre-medieval times until 1962, when this structure was dismantled in their receded territory of North Yemen. Its place in the North was filled by the Yemen Arab Republic, of which Ali Abdullah Saleh became president in 1978.

Houthi were first seen taking militant action in Yemen circa the summer of 2004. Preceding this was the start of the invasion of Iraq by the US; a response from the Houthi was prompted through form of protest evolving into physical conflict between the two. Following this, a six-year period filled with smaller clashes and two ceasefire agreements began. Overlapping the fighting was a resurgence of protest in Yemen. In the period of 2008 to 2011, discontent rose with President Saleh, who had led North Yemen and Yemen for a collective forty years to that point. This was urged on in 2011 by the protests in Tunisia of late 2010, which sparked the start of the Arab Spring series of revolutions. By the end of 2011, President Saleh had resigned; the Houthi would march over the void left by his succession in order to possess the chunk of North-Western Yemen they now inhabit.

That explains the Houthi, but what of the presence of the US? The US is currently backing a coalition of countries from the Persian Gulf area spearheaded by the Saudis. The coalition seeks to consolidate the government of Yemen following its deposition from the capital and southward areas. Movement of American naval forces into the Red Sea was driven by the destruction of a ship belonging to the United Arab Emirates – a coalition member – earlier this month. The missiles used to attack the vessel were suspected to be Chinese exported C-802 missiles.

Naturally, first military contact between the US and Houthi follows the tail of this event. US Department of Defense (USDD) Director of Press Operations Capt. Jeff Davis claimed that on October 9th, “the USS Mason detected two inbound missiles” originating from Yemeni shoreline, noting that “both missiles impacted the water before reaching the ship”. The ship was situated in the strait of Bab el-Mandeb, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Several days later, it was revealed that the ship launched two SM-2 missiles and an Evolved Seasparrow Missile to intercept the threats. With no reported injuries to U.S. personnel and no pursuit of retaliation, focus on the event dwindled.