Underwater cables in Red Sea damaged months after Houthis 'threatened' to do just that

Yemeni rebels thought to lack the ability to damage submarine cables, but here we are

Undersea data cables in the Red Sea have reportedly been damaged, months after Yemeni Houthi rebels apparently threatened to do so.

At least 15 submarine cables pass through the Bab al-Mandab Strait at the southern end of the Red Sea, a body of water just 26km wide at some points. Yemen is the Strait’s northern shore.

The first reports of damage to submarine cables off the coast of Yemen began emerged on Monday morning, with Israeli news outlet Globes claiming that four cables (EIG, AAE-1, Seacom, and TGN-EA) had experienced damage. Seacom has reportedly confirmed damage to a cable it operates on a stretch between Kenya and Egypt.

"The location of the cable break is significant due to its geopolitical sensitivity and ongoing tensions, making it a challenging environment for maintenance and repair operations," Seacom said. "The team is currently working towards restoration timelines and will communicate these plans with our clients."

Globes attributed the outages to the Iran-backed Houthis, and alleged the damage was "significant, but not critical" because several other undersea cables serve the region. Though the Houthis reportedly discussed on Telegram, at least, the location of the cables, and the government and telcos in Yemen feared the rebels would attack the lines, there is no hard confirmation the Houthis were behind any of this nor wished to be.

Seacom has already reassured customers it has re-routed traffic onto other cables.

While the world has a decent supply of cable repair ships, they are booked up well in advance so finding one ready to work is not always possible. Nor are cable repairs easy: it takes time to find and retrieve a damaged segment and reconnect it.

These repairs could be complicated by regional tensions. The Houthis have attacked civilian ships and military assets in the Red Sea since the recent invasion of Gaza by the Israel Defense Forces after terrorist attacks by Hamas.

Some shipping companies have therefore decided the risks of attacks on their assets are too high and are currently avoiding the Red Sea, a decision that extends shipping times. Peripheral vendor Logitech recently warned its supply chain would experience delays as a result of the Red Sea conflict.

Internet monitoring firm NetBlocks also said on Monday that internet access in Djibouti, the African nation on the southern shore of the Bab al-Mandab Strait, experienced a disruption on Sunday and Monday. Network engineers on a mailing list covering internet outages also said they had seen problems with cables that run through the Red Sea but reports on the list also dispute the timing of the incident, pointing out that one of the cables mentioned in coverage of the outages, EIG, has been "down for a few weeks."

Cloudflare, meanwhile, doesn't show any indication of underwater cable damage in the Red Sea on its outages and anomalies page.

A threat realized?

While it's not clear what's exactly going on with subsea internet cables in the Red Sea right now, pinning blame on the Houthis isn't entirely out of left field: The Yemeni rebels mulled interfering with the communications infrastructure in late 2023, if reports of their chatter on Telegram are correct.

Whether the group could accomplish the feat – the undersea ops required are thought to be the exclusive preserve of nations like Russia and China - is less clear.

Rear Admiral John Gower, a former Royal Navy submarine commander, told the BBC earlier this month that it would take a more sophisticated force than the Houthis, someone with submersibles capable of locating the cables to do the deed. Someone like Iran.

"I assess it's a bluff, unless it's an attack on a terminal," Gower said.

"There is nothing I've seen in the Iranian [Order of Battle] that could touch these cables, certainly not their submarines," former Royal Navy Commander Tom Sharpe told the Beeb. While diving would be a possibility, Sharpe said he concurred with Gower that the threat was likely a bluff.

Underwater infrastructure is often threatened during international conflict. Just last week the European Commission (EC) said the security of undersea cables needs to be improved. The EC said undersea cables are vulnerable and valuable, and asked European Union nations to "grant to submarine cable infrastructures the status of the highest possible national significance."

Bad timing or not, we'll update this story as we learn more. ®

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