Could the Houthis in Yemen take out South Africa's eastern internet connections?

The separatist forces in Yemen, currently blockading the Red Sea from Western shipping, have suggested taking out undersea internet cables

Robert Duigan


Robert Duigan


Feb 10, 2024

Could the Houthis in Yemen take out South Africa's eastern internet connections?

Since November last year, the world’s shipping lanes have been in turmoil over the naval blockade in the Red Sea created by the Houthi rebels of Yemen. They have vowed to target American, British and Isreali ships, and potentially other Western-allied nationalities, forcing masses of traffic to divert round the Cape of Good Hope.

This has been motivated in part by the support from Iran for the Houthis, and the common cause and geopolitical interest they have in opposing Israel, and their solidarity with Palestine, especially after the recent conflict, in which South Africa involved herself by launching a case of genocide against Israel in the International Court of Justice.

For us, this disruption has meant a potential boon for our port trade, an opportunity which we have missed due to the poor quality of our port management, which has seen international shipping giants impose stiff tariffs to discourage their clients from pushing containers through our congested terminals.

This has resulted in increased growth for Maputo and Walvisbaai, whose host nations’ membership of the SADC common trade area allows easy transport to and from the South African market.

But this is not the only potential effect this conflict could have on us.

The conflict in Yemen has taken a potentially even more disruptive turn, as the Houthis issue threats to sabotage undersea communication cables in the Red Sea. These cables, vital for global internet traffic, are seen as potential targets in the ongoing tensions between the rebels and Western powers.

Recently, a Hizbullah-affiliated Telegram channel "Al-Fatih110",  which supports Iranian aligned forces in Iraq published a satellite image of the Red Sea, the Arabian Peninsula and the Arabian Sea, and wrote:

"Did you know that internet lines connecting the east to the west pass through [the] Bab-el-Mandeb [strait]?"

They quoted the Houthis as stating that "the global internet cables which pass through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait are in our grip," and asked whether this was a "veiled message to the Western coalition."

Three of South Africa’s major international internet cable connections run through the Gulf SEACOM/Tata TGN-Eurasia, 2Africa, and Eastern Africa Submarine System (EASSy).

The remainder of our undersea internet cables connected with the West join in Cape Town, and the others are short-distance connections to Madagascar, Mauritius and Réunion, and one long-distance cable to India.

The potential for disruption to our telecoms infrastructure is significant, but will ultimately affect the South African interior more than the Cape.

Telecom firms aligned with Yemen's government in the east of the territory express concern over potential Houthi rebel plans to sabotage critical submarine cables in the Red Sea, vital for global internet and financial data transmission.

A Houthi-affiliated Telegram channel shared a map of these cables, sparking alarm among telecom authorities. Yemen Telecom highlights efforts to dissuade global alliances from engaging with the rebels, fearing knowledge transfer to a designated terrorist group.

While this wouldn’t normally be of concern, since the Houthis do not have any advanced submarine capabilities, the sea floor is relatively shallow in some places, with some sea cables running just 100m beneath the surface.

This opens up the possibility of using less sophisticated methods for planting sea mines on the cables, not necessarily requiring expensive submarine boats.

Sixteen vulnerable submarine cables traverse the Red Sea, including the strategic Asia-Africa-Europe AE-1 route, spanning 15,500 miles. Despite Houthi technological limitations, security analysts warn of potential disruptions, citing past attempts to damage undersea infrastructure.

Despite doubts over the feasibility of the Houthi threat, their resilience and ability to defy airstrikes from a Saudi-led coalition underscore their significance in the Yemeni conflict. As the standoff persists, the rebels remain a potent force, challenging regional stability and global security.

The complexity of severing cables lying hundreds of meters below the surface presents a formidable challenge, even for well-equipped navies. Speculation arises over Iran's potential involvement, given its support for the Houthis, yet experts question Tehran's capacity for such an operation.

Analysts suggest that any attempt to disrupt global communications would carry significant risks for Iran, potentially escalating tensions with the US and its allies. Instead, cyber warfare emerges as a more plausible option in Iran's arsenal.

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