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Red Sea: Houthis threaten to sabotage Westerners' underwater communications cables

In Yemen, the Houthis appear to have found their target to retaliate against Western airstrikes: submarine cables.

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Red Sea: Houthis threaten to sabotage Westerners' underwater communications cables

In Yemen, the Houthis appear to have found their target to retaliate against Western airstrikes: submarine cables. The legitimate Yemeni government, recognized by the UN, as well as the country's telecommunications companies, fear that the rebels will sabotage the network of submarine cables located under the Red Sea and linking Asia to Europe, essential how the Internet works for Westerners. The Houthis pose a serious threat to “one of the most important digital infrastructures in the world”, declared Moammar al-Eryani, the Minister of Information of the Yemeni government, as reported by the British newspaper The Guardian.

The warning comes after a channel on the Houthi-linked messaging app Telegram posted a map of submarine cables in the Red Sea, along with a message: "There are maps of international cables connecting all regions of the world by sea. Yemen appears to be in a strategic position, as internet lines that connect entire continents – not just countries – pass nearby.”

Red Sea fiber optic pipes carry nearly 17% of global Internet traffic. The General Telecommunications Company of Yemen said in a statement that around 16 cables cross the Red Sea towards Egypt and one of the most strategic connects Southeast Asia to Europe.

“I call it a bluff,” said former Royal Navy submarine commander John Gower, according to the BBC. To cut a cable, you must deploy a submersible into the open ocean from a mothership, then use a pair of giant scissors on the ocean floor. But for the Houthis, it is more complicated, because they “do not have the submersibles necessary to reach the cables,” security analysts from the Gulf Security Forum said in a report, according to The Guardian. However, in some places the cables are no thicker than a garden hose and lie on the seabed only a hundred meters deep, which does not necessarily require the use of high-tech submarines, they continue in the report.

John Gower told the BBC that "it would take an ally with a submersible and the ability to locate [the cables]." Iran is, however, a country known to be allied with the Houthis. “There is nothing that I have seen in the Iranian orbat (order of battle) that could touch these cables, certainly not their submarines,” former Royal Navy commander Tom Sharpe said. daily. “Diving is an option, but it's deep and busy, so I think it would be pushing things,” he continues to the British newspaper.

If Iran cuts these crucial communications cables, it would further risk a large-scale escalation, likely leading to retaliatory strikes in the country. “Iran would be nervous about extending its campaign of global disruption [to shipping],” the former UK ambassador to Yemen, Edmund Fitton-Brown, told the BBC. If such a decision is risky, alternatives remain possible: “The Iranians could resort to cybernetic options rather than infrastructure sabotage,” Fitton-Brown added to the daily.

Contrary to what many may think, it is not satellites that transmit data, but rather fiber optic pipes. These infrastructures allow the passage of nearly 99% of global Internet traffic, compared to only 1% via satellites. Belonging mainly to telecommunications operators, there are around four hundred and fifty in the world which mainly focus on three axes: the transatlantic axis linking Europe to the United States, the Europe-Asia axis and the transpacific axis, which connects Asia to the United States.

This is not the first time that an armed group in the world has threatened to sabotage strategic submarine cables. Allowing the transmission of a considerable number of data of all kinds, whether financial, industrial or administrative, countries are heavily dependent on these pipes. The latter represent strategic vectors and become an ideal target during conflicts between powers. Since 2014, the Russian threat to Western submarine cables has been increasingly felt. Russian ships have been spotted numerous times on submarine cable routes in the North Atlantic.

France is connected by more than fifty cables, the most powerful of which are called “megacables”. “It is enough to break two or three of these megacables for France to find itself in an extremely difficult situation,” said Jean-Luc Vuillemin, director of Orange's international networks, on France Info in March 2022. Although the French Navy is responsible for monitoring these cables, it is very difficult to protect them all, since they total more than a million kilometers. Sometimes positioned several thousand meters in the seabed, you must also have the necessary equipment to access such depth levels. “I therefore made the decision to provide our armies with means capable of reaching 6,000 meters. 6,000 meters, this allows us to cover 97% of the seabed and effectively protect our interests,” announced the Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, on February 14, 2022.

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