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What's behind the attacks on shipping vessels in the Red Sea?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The U.S. Department of Defense is sending a naval task force to the Red Sea to try to prevent attacks on cargo and tanker ships.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Houthi rebels, who control part of Yemen and get weapons and training from Iran, have launched missile and drone attacks on commercial ships passing through the Red Sea in recent weeks.

MARTÍNEZ: And for more, I'm joined by Paul McLeary, who covers national security for Politico. Paul, why are Houthi rebels waging these attacks right now?

PAUL MCLEARY: It's - I mean, this stems from the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 and the Israeli response. The Houthi rebels have been sponsored economically and militarily by Iran, so they're basically like other militant groups in Syria and in Iraq in recent weeks that have attacked U.S. bases there. They're kind of taking their marching orders from Tehran here. So they said they're going - attacking all commercial shipping coming in or out of Israel, but what they're really doing is attacking any commercial shipping in the Red Sea. There's been about 12 attacks over the past month or so on commercial shipping. And these are not ships that have been related to Israel really in any way and it's really disrupted commercial shipping in the entire region.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So the U.S.'s response is this task force, Operation Prosperity Guardian. What's that supposed to do?

MCLEARY: Yeah. It's a 10-nation task force that kind of is falling underneath an existing task force that's already in the Red Sea region led by the United States based in Bahrain that has a counterpiracy mission. That has 39 nations that either contribute ships or naval officers to the mission. This task force, the newest one, the Operation Prosperity Guardian, is 10 countries - U.K., Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain and the Seychelles. Not all of those countries are going to contribute ships. The U.S. has several ships in the Red Sea. The U.K. has one, France has one. Canadian and Norwegian officials told me late Monday that they're sending naval officers to the headquarters there, but it doesn't look like they'll be providing ships.

MARTÍNEZ: I spoke to someone yesterday who mentioned how some of the things that are being shipped in these corridors are things that people use every single day. So a disruption could be pretty major. How are the attacks affecting trade?

MCLEARY: Already, BP, the oil giant, has said that they're going to curtail their shipping in the region. Maersk has done the same. The Norwegian Shipbuilders Union and a German firm have also either said that they will try to go around the Red Sea or curtail shipping. So it's - we haven't seen the effects yet, but it'll be pretty quickly, I think, that over the next week or two or several weeks that we'll really start seeing some disruptions in supply chains and things like that moving from the Mediterranean into the Indian Ocean.

MARTÍNEZ: One more thing, Paul, really quick before we let you go. I notice that the U.S. - OK? - is addressing all this with a multinational task force instead of, say, maybe attacking Houthi-controlled sites in Yemen. Is the idea there maybe to prevent this from becoming a larger, bigger conflict?

MCLEARY: Yes. The United States have - is loath to attack inside Yemen. I mean, there's been peace talks between Saudi and the Houthis in Yemen that we don't want to see disrupted. But we just moved the Eisenhower aircraft carrier off the coast of Yemen, so attacks might be forthcoming. I mean, the U.S. is definitely positioned to act militarily.

MARTÍNEZ: Paul McLeary covers national security for Politico. Paul, thank you.

MCLEARY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOPE MONA'S "PATTERNS OF PEACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.