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Internet Shutdown In Yemen


Courtesy of VOA


On Nov. 10, 2023, the internet in Houthi-controlled Yemen shut down for several hours. This move came a few weeks following the intervention of the Houthi military into the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.


The Houthis are an Iranian-backed militia who seized control over a large portion of Yemen, including the capital city of Sana’a in 2014 during the onset of Yemen’s ongoing civil war. The internationally-recognized government of Yemen fled the country before eventually re-establishing itself in the south of the country. A coalition of regional countries led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States intervened to defeat the Houthis. The coalition unleashed a brutal bombing campaign which was internationally condemned for its targeting of civilian infrastructure. These brutal tactics and the public outcry over them eventually led to the US scaling back their support for the coalition. 


In 2022, the UN announced that both sides had agreed to a truce which still unofficially stands today. As of now, the Houthi-controlled territory, despite lacking international recognition, is in practice an independent country complete with a government, military and public utilities-including an internet system known as YemenNet


The Houthi government is closely aligned with Iran and is a member of the “Axis of Resistance”, an alliance of governments and armed groups which Tehran uses to project indirect power across the Middle East. Given the group’s alignment, they are enemies with Israel, Iran’s primary regional rival. 


Following the start of the latest war between Israel and Hamas in October 2023, the Houthis began direct strikes targeting Israel and Israeli infrastructure using rockets and drones supplied by Iran. Most of the missiles and drones were intercepted by US or Israeli forces before they reached their targets although Houthi forces managed to shoot down a US Air Force drone off the Yemeni coast. 


The internet shutdown was officially blamed on pre-scheduled maintenance work but human rights activists have pointed out that Houthi Yemen suffers from the highest rate of internet shutdowns in the Middle East. Many of these shutdowns, ranging from hours to more than a week, appear to be deliberately initiated as means of controlling dissent. For example, human rights activists note an internet shutdown that occurred on Sept. 25, 2023. This was on the eve of the anniversary of the revolution which founded the modern Yemeni state. This outage coincided with large peaceful demonstrations which faced mass arrests by the de facto authorities. 


Despite this, Houthi attempts to suppress dissent are not responsible for all shutdowns. Some outages have been the work of sabotage or external attack. For example, a shutdown occurred in January 2022 after the anti-Houthi coalition bombed a telecommunications building in Hodeida. 


It is not entirely clear what the reason for this current outage is. The Houthis have stuck to their claim that it was a planned outage for maintenance work but the timing of the outage is suspicious, potentially meaning it was an act to suppress political opposition to their entry into the war or perhaps an act of sabotage from the Israelis or another faction opposed to them. 


Regardless of any potential external sabotage or internal pressure, the Houthis have escalated their attacks which they claim are a response to the war. Ten days later, Houthi forces seized a cargo ship off the coast of Yemen, landing onboard using an MI-17 helicopter and taking its 25 crew members hostage. The ship was not an Israeli-flagged ship nor were any of its crew members Israeli although the ship had ties to an Israeli billionaire. 


The Houthis claim that “All ships belonging to the Israeli enemy or that deal with it will become legitimate targets,” and claimed they would continue until Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza stopped. But recently, the Houthis have expanded their attacks beyond vessels related to Israel. On December 3, Houthi forces fired missiles at three cargo ships and unsuccessfully attacked a US Navy warship using drones. 


These provocative acts may seem counterproductive to the Houthis’ objective as they antagonize the United States and risk them further intervening on behalf of Israel. However, the Houthis likely see this move as a means to bolster internal legitimacy. The Houthis have recently faced an internal legitimacy crisis due to growing poverty and their suppression of dissent and potentially believe that any retaliatory strikes by the United States would give them internal legitimacy.

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