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Undersea Cables, Rebel Attacks, and the Global Impact of the Red Sea Crisis

On February 24, 2024, an incident almost led to a quarter of the world's internet and telecommunication capacity being lost. The mysterious severance of three undersea cables in the Red Sea resulted in a significant disruption to global data traffic. These cables, including the Asia-Africa-Europe 1, the Europe India Gateway, Seacom, and TGN-Gulf, are indispensable conduits, handling 17% of the world's internet traffic and over 90% of communications between Europe and Asia. Beyond this, they serve as unseen highways for global trade, with the Red Sea being a pivotal route for goods moving from Asia to Europe.

The timing of the cable damage raised eyebrows as it coincided with an escalation in attacks by Yemen's Houthi rebels in the Red Sea. Backed by Iran, these rebels had been targeting ships since November of the previous year, in retaliation against US-led airstrikes on their missile and drone launch sites. These airstrikes were carried out in response to over 30 Houthi attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, which the rebels claimed were in support of the Palestinians in Gaza.

On March 2, 2024, the Belize-flagged vessel Rubymar became the first ship to be fully destroyed in the Houthi campaign, in response to Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Despite over six weeks of U.S.-led airstrikes, the rebels continued their attacks, vowing to persist until Israel ceased its combat operations in Gaza.

The exact method used by the Houthis to target the undersea cables remains unclear, as they are not known to possess the necessary diving or salvage capabilities. However, it is possible that the cables were severed by anchors dropped from the ships disabled in the attacks.

The Houthi attacks have had a significant impact on global trade, compelling major shipping and oil companies to suspend transit through one of the world's most vital maritime trade routes. Many have chosen to avoid the Red Sea and Suez Canal due to the attacks, opting for the longer route around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope, adding approximately $1 million (€0.92 million) to costs.

In retaliation, the US and UK have conducted strikes on Houthi-held areas within Yemen. The US military has destroyed seven Houthi mobile anti-ship missiles being prepared for strikes. The operations received backing from Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, and New Zealand, with the intention being to further undermine Houthi capabilities.

Despite the international response, the Houthis show no signs of relenting, continuing to threaten global trade, naval vessels, and civilian mariners. There are concerns that the Houthi attacks could escalate Israel’s war against Hamas into a broader regional conflict. The situation is further complicated by the Houthis' alliance with Iran, and with the assistance of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanon's Hezbollah, the Houthis have amassed a formidable arsenal of missiles and drones.

In summary, the Red Sea crisis extends beyond a regional conflict, impacting global connectivity and trade. The undersea cables are vital arteries of our global society, and their protection is a matter of international security. The Red Sea crisis serves as a crucial reminder of the importance of these unseen highways in our interconnected world.