Picture credit: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Stop the boats!

We must confront the threat that Houthi rebels pose to international shipping

The Prime Minister has nailed his colours to his mast and decided we should “stop the boats”. The slogan is everywhere. What Mr Sunak means is the vessels crossing the Channel laden with bedraggled folk seeking succour on the shores of Albion. I attended a conference recently to see how this was to be done. As the perpetrators are highly organised transnational criminals, the response must be a multi-national one. Delegates were given some historical context. Ours is not a unique era. Since pre-recorded history, mankind has been inclined to see the grass as always greener on the other side of the fence. Hollow out a log to cross a river, invade an island, a coastline, Troy, the Euphrates, the Tigris, the Nile. Anywhere, for trade, for adventure, for sanctuary. Leap the Channel by longship to escape overcrowding, poor crops, for plunder, to claim a crown.  

However, we were reminded — for the conference was hosted by several coastal nations studying security and crime — that most of Europe’s maritime problems with criminality and smuggling, be it booze, tobacco, narcotics, fake branded goods, or people, involve rivers, not the open sea. An old friend from the Gendarmerie Maritime observed that the great rivers of the world are not only frontiers, but also highways; earlier versions of today’s motorways, as logistically familiar to the Romans as to our own times. Those long gaggles of barges which still shuffle along the Rhine or Danube are a happenstance of trade we Brits tend to overlook, as our canals and rivers have long been consigned to pleasure-boating.

Based in Messina, the gendarme’s opposite number from the Servizio navale of the Italian Carabinieri, wearing the most resplendent braid-laden uniform of anyone at our gathering, then fixed me with his gimlet eye. “Of course, you know that you Eeenglish invented modern people smuggling?” By this he went on to explain that many of the tricks of shifting people covertly through the Mediterranean, along the Dalmatian coast, by patrol boat about the Baltic, trawler braving the North Sea, MTB across the Channel, caïque over the Aegean, among the Ionian islands, and along the Adriatic, were devised by Britain’s Special Operation’s Executive (SOE) during the Second World War. 

My Belgian and French friends observed that such smuggling had honourable roots. From 1789 and post-1917, many nations had aided middle class and aristocratic refugees to flee Revolutionary France and Russia. Subsequently, their descendants helped Jewish families quit the Third Reich. Others aided the British to move vast numbers of manpower by small boat in 1940 from Dunkirk, which emboldened fishermen to repeat the manoeuvre on a smaller scale to confound their German foes. Female Greek, Turkish and Croatian officers chipped in with their knowledge of various rat-lines established during World War Two to support partisans with personnel and weapons, and extract downed airmen, spies and important scientists. Post-war, as a Spanish policeman I knew from my days in Gibraltar observed, the same systems exported Nazi war criminals, and imported drugs and guns. 

The modus operandi created in those heady days of derring-do were continued for spies during the Cold War, often by the same families, using the same craft. This applied as much to jaunts and japes up and down the Danube, Rhine, Meuse and Elbe waterways as it did to the open seas. Our Danish representative observed that “boat people” were a distraction. Their numbers were vastly overshadowed by far greater numbers of religious refugees and assorted shady characters, then and now, who used stolen genuine, or expertly forged papers; another legacy from the even more distant times that preceded World War Two. The man from Interpol revealed that today’s Italian and Albanian crime families have such advanced facilities for reproducing many of the world’s passports, ID cards, work permits and driving licences, that they will pass muster even at most European electronic frontier posts and airport controls. Our Albanian colonel shifted uncomfortably.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain, espionage went out of business and, casting about for new business, these latter-day privateers and licenced black marketeers started smuggling industrial quantities of things and people, to replace the nocturnal movement of atomic secrets by night over water. A dinghy full of people in mid-Ocean is merely the tip of a giant iceberg of organisation and logistics that started on 22 July 1940 by direct order of Winston Churchill, but has continued in various legal, semi-legal and illegal forms ever since. 

However, these cross-Channel boats are not the craft about which we should be most concerned. Since 7 October 2023, the Houthis, a pro-Iranian band of gangsters in control of much of Yemen, have been using their boats to cause havoc along their Red Sea coastline. The attacks began at the start of the Israel-Gaza war when the Houthis declared their support for Hamas and announced they would target any ship travelling towards Israel. Yemen has been suffocated by civil war for much of the twentieth century, which in 1967 forced the British to quit its principal port, Aden. Now Adan, with a population of 1 million and Yemen’s temporary capital, it is the gateway to the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, making it the principal maritime hub connecting Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. These Houthi boats, which are imposing a global strategic effect, are the ones that need to be halted.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, a local monarch had taken power in North Yemen, as both a secular and spiritual leader. This lasted until a republican coup in 1962. After several revolts, a republican general named Ali Abdullah Saleh emerged as the country’s ruler, united north and south Yemen in 1990, and was generally aligned with Riyadh and Washington. It was the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 that radicalised the Houthi movement, as it did many other Arabs. A pivotal moment, they adopted the slogan “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, victory for Islam,” in its wake. It was a turning point largely unrecognised outside Yemen, but supported by Hezbollah in Lebanon, who became role models and mentors for the Houthis, with wealthy and devout Iran as a secondary source of support, especially since the Houthis and Iranians share a common enemy in Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis emerged as a resistance movement to Saleh, led by Hussein al Houthi, after whom they were named. When the Arab Spring came to Yemen in 2011, the Houthi movement formed a part of the wide national uprising against Saleh, who was replaced by his vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. In 2014, the Houthis allied themselves with Saleh against Hadi, in an extraordinary reversal of alliances. Most of the army remained loyal to Saleh, while Hadi grew unpopular, being seen as a Saudi stooge. By 2015, the capital Sanaa had fallen to the rebel alliance who then marched on Adan.

With the Houthis, backed by Iran, threatening to upset the region strategically, from March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition with UAE, Bahraini, US and British support, initiated Operation Decisive Storm to destroy them. Despite the death of al Houthi, in 2019 the Houthis hit Saudi oil installations with Iranian-supplied cruise missiles and drones. By the start of 2022, the UN estimated that Houthi intransigence and religious fervour had caused an estimated 377,000 deaths and displaced four million people — a humanitarian disaster zone, with millions of citizens at risk of starvation and disease. Saleh has since been murdered by his Houthi colleagues, and though Riyadh portrays them as Iranian puppets, many Yemenis see the Houthis as patriots fighting a Saudi-American-Israeli conspiracy.

In many ways, this is potentially a far more dangerous powder keg than Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon. When alive, Saleh called ruling Yemen akin to dancing on the heads of snakes; it is no different today, with the impact of many competing actors. The current Houthi attacks by boat and missile on passing tankers and freighters are of a different order to the attacks by Somali pirates of a decade ago. In 2011, those pirates carried out 212 attacks in the same area, which cost the world economy US$18 billion a year. The Somalis received an estimated US$400 million in ransom payments between 2005 and 2012. Their activities were brought to a halt by anti-piracy operations by warships from each of the P5 members of the UN Security Council and others; contract armed guards on civilian vessels; and a comprehensive legal toolbox to enable prosecution and imprisonment. Consequently, the number of pirate attacks fell to ten in 2012, with only two ships assaulted since.

Today, Moscow backs Tehran, and indirectly supports the Houthis. The more rabid Kremlin TV channels are urging that “the Houthis be armed with Russian anti-ship missiles to strike HMS Diamond,” the British destroyer which destroyed a Houthi drone by Sea Viper missile on 16 December. This was the first time a British warship had hit an aerial target in anger since Gloucester shot down a Silkworm anti-ship missile during the first Gulf War of 1991. Other nations, who should know better, are reluctant to join a US-UK-led anti-Houthi naval campaign for fear of being perceived to support Israel. One sixth of global trade passes through the region, which connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and provides the shortest sea link between Asia and Europe. 

When the 400-metre-long, 200,000-ton container ship MV Ever Given ran aground for six days in the Suez Canal during March 2021, it delayed the passage of 450 other vessels carrying 17 million tons of oil and shipping containers. Lloyd’s List estimated the value of the goods delayed each hour at US$400 million, and US$9 billion per day. Additionally, Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority lost $15 million per day in transit fees. The Houthis and Iran have realised their fleet of puny boats has the leverage to cause similar global havoc. The Ever Given grounding delayed the shipping of a wide range of goods from crude oil and semiconductors to livestock (with 130,000 sheep bound for Romania), creating a domino effect of shortages in Europe for several months along the supply chain. 

Shipping rates rose, as did the cost of sea containers and airfreight. In addition to congestion at Felixstowe, Antwerp and Rotterdam, some ship owners rerouted their maritime traffic around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope, which added two weeks to journey times. This created shortages of fuel oil, which in turn elevated global prices for about 2 months. In attacking access to the Red Sea and Suez Canal with a few boats and missiles, the Houthis and Iranians are weaponizing one of the world’s major maritime chokepoints, in direct contravention of the 1888 Constantinople Convention. The fact that the Iranian frigate Alborz and other vessels arrived off the Yemeni coast on 31 December is an additional matter for concern.

Stopping the Houthi boats and missiles requires the presence of a substantial naval force, for which the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet has taken the lead. Deployed for Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG), is the USS Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group, including the destroyers Laboon, Mason and Gravely, cruiser Philippine Sea, submarine Florida, and 16 other vessels. Warships from the UK, Canada, France, Bahrain, Norway and Spain are also under command. In addition to the French destroyer Languedoc and HMS Diamond, the frigate HMS Lancaster (one of only ten the RN can deploy these days) and four smaller British ships are in the area, but successive defence cuts have hollowed out the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary (whose RFA Cardigan Bay is in support). With dire personnel shortages, this is the most we can give. 

A peripheral area stretching RN resources is the Commonwealth nation of Guyana in South America. To distract his population from economic chaos at home, President Maduro of Venezuela has claimed the oil and mineral-rich Essequibo region of Guyana. HMS Trent was despatched to join naval exercises with Guyana but the Venezuelans are claiming this “an act of hostile provocation”, though her presence is more diplomatic than of military significance. Back in the Gulf, in October the destroyer USS destroyer Carney intercepted Israel-bound cruise missiles and drones, fired from Yemen. In response to 23 illegal Houthi attacks indiscriminately targeting world trade since 19 November, the Eisenhower CSG has shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired towards a container ship and sunk three Houthi boats. However, in a repeat of the Ever Given crisis, major shipping firms including the Mediterranean Shipping Company, Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd and oil company BP announced they were diverting vessels away from the Red Sea, and around Africa if necessary. On 31 December, the UK, US and France announced they were preparing airstrikes against Houthi missile and maritime bases. 

Far off though it may seem, make no mistake. This is a crisis that may directly affect all of us in the United Kingdom. Caused by Houthi and Iranian boats, all that stands between months of shortages of many kinds, not least a hike in petrol prices, is the Royal Navy. Alas, defence secretary Grant Shapps knows it is underfunded and has too few ships and personnel to patrol the Gulf for long. Thus, we must not let ourselves lose sight of what is happening beyond the antics in the English Channel.

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