Russia and Iran are employing their state media for propaganda that distorts the nature of Yemeni militant attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea. The two allied states’ disinformation narratives are designed to whitewash actions by the Houthi rebels while falsely portraying the United States as the party responsible for escalating hostilities in the Red Sea.
On January 17, the United States redesignated the Houthi rebels as a major terrorist group.
On January 19, the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia interviewed Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi rebels’ politburo.
Al-Bukhiti claimed that the Houthis “respect” civilian vessels’ right to innocent passage and would only attack ships that were Israeli or “in any way connected to Israel.”
He indicated that the U.S. and United Kingdom, which have retaliated against the Houthis for their strikes, would “not be able to use one of the key trade arteries in the world.”
“Concerning all other countries, including Russia and China, nothing is threatening their shipping in the region,” he said.
That is false.
The Houthis have launched dozens of attacks on merchant and commercial vessels since November 19, 2023, to show solidarity with Palestine and opposition to Israel.
Many ships attacked by the Houthis had neither links to Israel, the U.K., the U.S. nor were transiting to Israel.
In any case, commercial ships are not legitimate military targets.
Al-Bakhiti’s interview came a week after reports that the Houthis had, for the second time, “mistakenly” targeted a ship carrying Russian oil.
The January 12 attack targeted the Panama-flagged Khalissa, a Seychelles-owned ship managed out of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. The ship was carrying oil from the Russian port of Ust-Luga located near the Gulf of Finland.
The British maritime security firm Ambrey surmised that the Khalissa was mistakenly attacked due to outdated information listing the ship as “U.K.-affiliated.”
It was not the first time that the Houthis apparently misidentified a target due to incorrect or outdated information online.
Last December 18, the Houthis struck the Norwegian-owned Swan Atlantic tanker.
The ship’s owner, Inventor Chemical Tankers, said it was likely attacked because of information posted online by Marine Traffic, a vessel-tracking open-source website, incorrectly stating that an “Israel-affiliated company” managed the Swan Atlantic.
In other cases, the Houthis attacked ships that they claimed were Israel-bound.
On January 16, the Houthis attacked the Zografia, a Malta-flagged, Greek-owned bulk carrier. A Greek maritime affairs ministry source told Agence France-Presse that the ship was sailing from Vietnam to Israel.
However, Vessel Finder, a ship-tracking website, indicated the Zografia was en route to Suez, Egypt, at the time of the attack, while Greece’s Shipping and Island Policy Ministry said only that the ship was headed to the Suez Canal, according to The Associated Press.
On January 2, the Houthis tried to attack the Maltese-flagged, French-owned CMA CGM Tage container ship. The Houthis claimed that the ship was sailing to Israel.
However, CMA CGM told Reuters that the ship was headed for Egypt, not Israel.
On December 16, the Houthis attacked the Liberian-flagged MSC Palatium III, which is owned by the Swiss-based MSC Mediterranean Shipping Co.
The same day, the Houthis attacked another Liberian-flagged vessel, the Al Jasrah, which is operated by Germany-based shipper Hapag Lloyd.
MSC Palatium III listed Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as its destination, a claim supported by data from Marine Traffic, Reuters reported.
MSC says another of its ships, the Liberian-flagged Alyana, which the Houthis threatened but did not attack on December 16, was also listed as heading to Jeddah.
The Al Jasrah, crewed by Filipinos, was traveling from the Greek port of Piraeus to Singapore.
On November 19, 2023, the Houthis hijacked the Bahamas-flagged Galaxy Leader commercial ship, taking at least 17 Filipino members of its crew hostage. The Galaxy Leader is operated by Nippon Yusen, a Japanese shipping company, and owned by the U.K.-registered firm Ray Car Carriers. However, Ray Car Carriers and the Galaxy Leader are owned by Tel Aviv-based Ray Shipping.
As with the Galaxy Leader, many of the ships the Houthis have targeted have multinational crews with no links to Israel, the U.K. or Egypt. Some ships are even signaling that their crews are all Chinese to avoid attack.
On December 3, Houthi rebels launched a barrage of drone and missile strikes on commercial ships in the Red Sea, hitting three vessels.
That day, the Houthis hit the Unity Explorer, owned by U.K.-registered Unity Explorer LTD.
Reports indicate that Unity Explorer LTD’s director, David Ungar, has Israeli citizenship, although he is also a British national who resides in the United Kingdom.
The Unity Explorer is a Bahama-flagged cargo carrier and thus subject to the laws and regulations of the Bahamas.
The next ship hit was M/V Number 9 — a Panama-flagged container ship owned by Number 9 Shipping Ltd., which is managed by Newcastle-upon-Tyne, U.K.-based Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement.
While the Houthis are now including the U.K. on its list of legitimate targets, that was not the case at the time of those earlier attacks, which occurred well over a month before the U.K. and U.S. retaliated against the Houthis on January 11.
The third ship hit on December 3, the AOM Sophie II, is a Japanese-owned bulk carrier that is registered in Panama and flies the Panamanian flag. That ship was traveling from Venezuela to China.
China, which is friendly with Iran and has signaled support for the Palestinian cause, is trying to balance its political and commercial interests in the region. It has called for an end to "harassment of civilian vessels” in the Red Sea.