Yemeni Rebels Houthis Attack U.S. Container Ship KOI in Red Sea: Is it a Sign of Escalation?

The BBC reported on February 1, 2024, that the Yemeni rebel group Houthis supported Hamas, which is at war with Israel, and claimed to have attacked the U.S. commercial ship KOI in the Red Sea. The KOI is a Liberian-flagged container ship operated by UK-based Oceonix Services, and the company’s tanker, the Marlin Luanda, was also hit by a Houthi missile attack on January 27. 

In fact, Houthi rebels have been attacking merchant ships transiting the Red Sea since November 2023 in the name of solidarity and support for Hamas, which has been embroiled in a ground war with Israel. By January 30, 2024, Houthi rebels had carried out 30 attacks on merchant vessels, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. In response, the U.S. Central Command said earlier that 10 drones preparing to launch from Yemen posed a threat to merchant ships and U.S. warships in the region, and an airstrike destroyed all 10 of them, along with the Houthi drone ground control station. 

Houthi rebels consider all Israeli, U.S. and British ships to be legitimate targets since the Israel-Hamas war, whereas the U.S. and U.K. have been carrying out airstrikes on Houthi missile sites, saying they are to protect commerce. “We targeted a US merchant ship named KOI with several appropriate naval missiles,” Houthi rebel spokesman Yahya Saree said on Jan. 31, adding that the ship was “heading to an ‘occupied Palestinian port,’ meaning Israel.” He also said that Yemen “will not hesitate to retaliate against the UK-US escalation of tensions” and that “all US and UK vessels in the Red Sea and Arabian Sea are legitimate targets for the Yemeni military.” 

Nevertheless, amidst all the keen tension, conflict, and strife in the Middle East, Graham Allison, the author of “Destined for War – Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” (2017) and the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard University, predicts that “the current situation in the Middle East is a human tragedy, not a geopolitical issue,” and that a series of Middle East events, including the Israeli-Hamas war and the Houthi rebels’ attack on the Red Sea, are unlikely to escalate geopolitically.

By. Wonjun Lee