Underwater web cables sabotaged, suspicions about Iran helping the Houthis

The Houthi rebels had announced it months ago, as we had already reported above Panorama, but now it seems that they acted, probably not alone. At least 15 submarine cables for the distribution of web signals crossing the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, at the southern end of the Red Sea, were reportedly damaged between last Sunday and Monday. The body of water in question is only 26 km wide in some places, the seabed is relatively shallow and Yemen overlooks the northern shore of the strait.

The first reports emerged yesterday morning, with Israeli newspaper Globes reporting that four cables (called EIG, AAE-1, Seacom and TGN-EA) had suffered damage. The Seacom company that operates them has reportedly confirmed damage to a cable operating on a stretch between Kenya and Egypt. “The location of the cable break is significant due to its geopolitical sensitivity and ongoing tensions, making it a challenging environment for maintenance and repair operations,” the company spokesperson said, specifying: “The team is currently working on recovery timelines and will communicate these plans to our customers.”

Internet monitoring firm NetBlocks said Monday, Feb. 26, that internet access near Djibouti, the African nation on the southern shore of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, suffered an outage on Sunday and Monday. Members of a mailing list covering Internet outages also said they had encountered problems with cables spanning the Red Sea, but reports on the list also dispute the timing of the incident, pointing out that one of the cables mentioned in the coverage of the interruptions, the EIG, however, has been inactive for a few weeks already.

However, the question to ask is another, namely whether the Houthis really have the means to carry out such complex operations. According to British Rear Admiral John Gower, former Royal Navy submarine commander, the Yemeni rebels must be helped by an accomplice who at least has submarines or units trained to operate underwater. It is no coincidence that at the beginning of February the senior English officer declared to the BBC broadcaster that to locate the cables precisely would require the complicity of a military force, such as the Iranian one for example. But he also said that, according to him and other soldiers, the Houthi threat to the cable ducts was a bluff. However, for now Globes said the damage would be “significant, but not critical”, because many other undersea cables serve the same region providing connections. Seacom, however, has already reassured customers that it has diverted traffic to other routes.

Now it will be necessary to prepare a restoration action, but although the ships equipped for the repair of these cables are present in the area in a good number, they are booked well in advance, so finding one ready for the operation quickly will not be possible. it is always possible. Nor are these repairs short, as it takes time to find and recover a damaged segment and reconnect it. Furthermore, operations could be complicated by existing tensions in the area, as the Houthis continue to attack ships transiting the Red Sea and therefore those who intervene will have to be protected by military forces.

For Italy, what is happening must sound like an alarm bell, since the seabed of the Mediterranean is crossed by hundreds of telecommunications cables and underwater infrastructures are often threatened during conflicts and international tensions. Just last week the European Commission stated that the security of submarine cables must be improved, stating that these infrastructures are vulnerable and precious, therefore asking the nations belonging to the Union to consider their status as structures of the highest possible importance”. The fragility of underwater networks is particularly evident: every position of the pipelines is publicly known for navigation safety reasons, i.e. their presence is reported without restrictions to prevent ships from placing anchors in correspondence with the cables, hooking them and therefore causing damage. But the same information is evidently used by those who want to sabotage them.