Background Press Call on Recent Attacks by the Houthis

January 4, 2024

Weapon Program: 

  • Military

MODERATOR: Thanks, everyone, for joining. Happy New Year. And thanks for joining the call to discuss the recent attacks in the Red Sea by the Houthis.

As a reminder, this call is on background, attributable to a senior administration official, and it is embargoed until the conclusion of the call.

For your awareness, not for your reporting, on the call today we have [senior administration official].

With that, I’ll turn it over to you to kick us off, and then we can take some questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thanks, everybody. Happy New Year.

I’m going to talk a little bit about the statement that was issued today with 13 of our very close allies and partners. But I’ll give a little bit of a background, including the events over the weekend in the Red Sea.

So, first, obviously, I think you’ve all been tracking the dangerous and unlawful reckless attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthis against commercial shipping in the Red Sea. And since November 19th, Houthi rebels from Yemen have attacked commercial vessels 23 times. They’ve been using a combination of anti-ship ballistic missiles — for the first time anti-ship ballistic missiles have been used anywhere, let alone against commercial ships — land attack cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and fast boats.

I have to say up top: The Houthis claim illegitimately that this is somehow tied to the situation in Gaza or something. But first of all, that is a completely illegitimate justification in any case, as the U.N. Security Council has also recognized in its statement on December 1.

But regardless, the attacks the Houthis are launching into the Red Sea are as indiscriminate targeting ships, most of which have had absolutely no connection whatsoever to Israel, including the incidents that just happened over the past weekend, which I will get to.

So, in response to this, we have had a significant diplomatic effort. I mentioned the U.N. Security Council, the first statement they had on December 1st. There’s also action in the U.N. Security Council as we speak, in New York. A statement on December 19th, joined by 44 countries all around the world issued by foreign ministries. And on the military side, on December 18th, of course, we formed a defensive naval coalition called Operation Prosperity Guardian with a number of countries from around the world, now with naval assets operating in coordination with us and the U.S. Navy and U.S. naval forces in the Red Sea.

So I can talk a little bit about that. But I think the significance of Operation Prosperity Guardian, which has now only been in place for really about two weeks, I think you saw the events over the weekend demonstrated the effectiveness of what is a coalition to help defend and protect shipping in the Red Sea.

So you may have been tracking this, but I can just go through these events very briefly.

On December 30th, the USS Gravely shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles in the Red Sea. These anti-ship ballistic missiles were targeting a Singapore-flagged, Denmark-operated and Denmark-owned ship, the Maersk Hangzhou. And I would just note that Singapore and Denmark both joined the statement today, which I’ll get to.

The Singapore-flagged, again, Denmark-owned/operated container ship requested assistance. And our ships, two ships, the USS Gravely and the USS Laboon, responded and, as I mentioned, shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles. Again, this is totally unprecedented, both the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles, let alone U.S. naval forces shooting them down when they’re traveling Mach 5. And, you know, this is an incredibly serious situation, and the level of professionalism of our naval forces and our sailors is truly extraordinary. So that was on December 30.

Over this past week, I’d say Jake Sullivan was with the President and briefing the President regularly, almost in real-time, as these events were unfolding.

The next day, on December 31st, the same ship, the Maersk Hangzhou, was attacked again by Yemeni forces in fast boats in what appears to be either a hijacking attempt or potentially a suicide attack — fast-boat attack against the ship and attempt to sink the ship. The launching of anti-ship ballistic missiles, of course the day before, a clear attempt, it seems, to sink the ship.

U.S. helicopters from the USS Eisenhower responded, and also the Gravely and other ships were in the area. They were fired upon by these fast boats’ return fire. U.S. force helicopters with crew-served weapons — I’m sorry, let me just go back. The small boats fired upon U.S. helicopters with crew-served weapons and small arms. U.S. naval helicopters returned fire in self-defense, sinking three of the four small boats and killing the crews. The fourth boat fled the area. And there was no damage to U.S. personnel or equipment.

Again, I just want to call out the extraordinary professionalism of our forces operating in the Red Sea.

The President convened his national security team on the morning of New Year’s Day to talk about, again, the entire situation in the Red Sea, to discuss options and discuss a way forward.

I’m not going to get far ahead of the outcomes of that meeting, but one of them was what happened today. So, the President asked for an effort to talk to allies and partners with a statement that would very clearly — very clearly send a warning to the Houthis that they will bear full consequences and responsibility for any further attacks against commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

So the statement that issued today from 13 countries around the world, including from Europe, North America, Asia, and the Middle East, and this grouping of states — Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK, and of course, United States — includes some of the world’s major shipping countries and, I think, speaks to the global impact of the Houthi actions.

I have to say this is happening in the Middle East, but we would respond to this type of threat anywhere around the world that is central to our national defense strategy and our national security strategy. And it is about international shipping — the protection of international commercial shipping lanes.

Today’s warning, as I mentioned, builds on the express consensus of countries around the globe. These ongoing attacks are a clear violation of international law, a threat to global commerce.

As for the warning — that the Houthis will bear full res- — full — will bear the consequences should their attacks in the Red Sea continue — we will let the statement speak for itself. I think it is very clear.

And I thought the ability for us to pull together these countries with such a clear and definitive statement in a fairly short amount of time, and building on the diplomatic and military work that had been done to date, we just wanted to draw attention to this, given the serious situation that we are confronting and that we were prepared to respond to, again, in order to protect global commerce and the freedom of navigation.

So with that, I will turn it over to questions. Again, I thank you for joining the call.


Question: Hi there. Who is arming the Houthis? And what can be done to stem the flow of weapons to them?

And secondly, do you have any update on who was responsible for the bombing at the funeral of Soleimani?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Steve, Iran is arming the Houthis. And we have worked with (inaudible), through interdictions and other mechanisms and means, to confront and frustrate and try to stop that trade. So, but that has been ongoing.

The Houthis also have a lot of domestic capacity in terms of producing some of their own weaponry, again, with Iranian enabling and support. So I think that is very clear and it’s very much a part of this larger picture, which we’re very cognizant of and taking into full account as we work to, again, protect this very vital, critical shipping lane in the Red Sea.

I think John, from the podium, might have spoken a little bit to what happened in Tehran today. I think it’s — you know, just based on the MO, it does look like a terrorist attack as a type of thing we’ve seen ISIS do in the past. And as far as we’re aware, that’s kind of, I think, our going assumption at the moment.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ve got time for just a couple more. Hiba Nasr, you should be able to unmute yourself.

Question: Thank you, Eduardo. Hi. I wanted to ask Steve question, so I want to follow up. What’s your message — what’s the kind of messaging are you sending to Iran? Are they responding? What they are justifying the continuation of support of weapons for the Houthis?

And my second question: Now there are reports, not confirmed yet, but there are reports of the killing of an official — Hezbollah official in south Lebanon. This comes the second day after the killing of al-Arouri in Beirut. Are we approaching a regional war here, a second front, on a large scale? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, on the first question, on the Houthis, I think I answered in response to David’s — or to Steve’s question about Iran’s very clear role in enabling the Houthis. Of course, Iran claims that they do not have a role in this, and that’s just simply, obviously, not true. These are anti-ship ballistic missiles. They’re not the types of capabilities that the Houthis are able to have on their own. It’s very clearly coming from Iran. So I think that picture is very clear.

I think Iran tries to hold — kind of pretend it has a bit of a hands-off posture when it comes to its proxies around the region, but that is not the way that we view it. I think the picture here is very clear. And again, we will work consistent with our defense doctrine when it comes to protection of international shipping, particularly in the Red Sea. It’s a very serious — a very serious situation, and it is a global problem, which is why you have seen the response, I think, from so many countries all around the world.