Who are the Houthis and why are they attacking ships in the Red Sea? The Iran-backed rebel group has attacked multiple ships in the Red Sea throughout December. The Houthis control large swaths of Yemen's territory.

After Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, fears of a wider Middle East conflict grow

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We begin with the low-level expansion of the war between Israel and Hamas. Allies of Hamas have used rockets and drones in several parts of the region in recent weeks and that includes the waters of the Red Sea. In an incident last weekend, an armed group that controls much of nearby Yemen fired on passing commercial ships. The U.S. Navy, which protects them, has fired back. Now, Yemen's Houthi rebels count themselves as allies of Hamas and enemies of Israel, but is there more to their involvement? NPR's Joe Hernandez is following the story.

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: The Houthis say they're attacking ships with links to Israel, but one expert I spoke to about this also says the Houthis feel emboldened right now to carry out these kinds of attacks. The group overthrew Yemen's government in 2014, and in the years since then has managed to withstand this outside military intervention led by Saudi Arabia, which, of course, is a rival to Iran. So the Houthis now feel like they're in a position to grow from a domestic power to a regional one. Thomas Juneau is a professor at the University of Ottawa. He studies the Middle East, and here's how he put it to me.

THOMAS JUNEAU: When the Gaza war started in early October, to me, it was a matter of time before the Houthis would become involved militarily.

HERNANDEZ: Juneau says there are a couple other reasons for these attacks from the Houthis. One is they send a message of support to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, and the other is that it helps them gain favor at home in Yemen where he says there's wide support for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel.

INSKEEP: OK. So what happened in this most recent incident?

HERNANDEZ: Well, the U.S. Central Command reported that the Houthis attacked three vessels over several hours on Sunday, apparently using both ballistic missiles and drones. The naval destroyer, the USS Carney, was on patrol in the area at the time and responded to several of the attacks, in some cases shooting down several Houthi drones. In a statement, CentCom said the attacks were, quote, "fully enabled by Iran" and that the U.S. would consider, quote, "all appropriate responses and full coordination with its international allies and partners." And a Houthi military spokesman did take credit for attacking two of the ships, according to the Associated Press.

INSKEEP: OK. You said all appropriate responses. Other than shooting down incoming projectiles, what can the United States do about this?

HERNANDEZ: Well, it's unclear. It's not the first time the Houthis have targeted ships in the Red Sea, nor is it the first time they've targeted U.S. naval vessels. In 2016, missiles were fired from coastal Yemen toward a U.S. Navy destroyer twice in four days, and the U.S. responded at that time by firing missiles of its own at three radar installations in Houthi territory. And that stopped the Houthis from targeting American ships for several years. But Thomas Juneau says it's unclear if a similar U.S. response today would have the same effect.

JUNEAU: Can the U.S. reestablish a form of mutual deterrence in the Red Sea with the Houthis? It will be much more difficult to do that today than in 2016, because the Houthis are far more powerful now than they were before, and they feel much more emboldened.

HERNANDEZ: So what he says does seem clear is that the U.S. and Iran don't want any direct escalations with each other. And I should add that other Iran-backed militant groups have carried out some attacks on U.S. forces, but they've mostly been on a smaller scale, and the U.S. has responded with limited airstrikes.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joe Hernandez, thanks so much.

HERNANDEZ: You're welcome.

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