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NationalInterest.org: Will the Houthis Target U.S. Troops in Djibouti Next?

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Sunday, 21 January 2024

 

Despite the U.S. naval base in the country, Djibouti's support for Palestine will likely protect them from Houthi attacks.

The world is left wondering how the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen will respond to a series of devastating strikes on the group’s military assets.

On January 11, the United States and the United Kingdom launched over 100 precision-guided missiles at Houthi targets in Yemen in response to weeks of Houthi attacks on civilian and military vessels in the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The strikes targeted more than sixty sites, including military bases in Sanaa and Taiz, a naval base in Hodeidah, and military sites in Hajjah. At least five Houthi fighters were killed in the operation. Over the next week, the United States and its partners conducted four more strikes on Houthi offensive capabilities. 

While the attacks were meant to degrade the rebel group’s capabilities and act as a deterrent to future attacks, the Houthis have shown that they are still capable of conducting maritime attacks. In reality, the strikes will likely continue to embolden the Houthis and their other Iran-backed allies to ramp up their attacks against the United States, Israel, and their allies in the short term.

Shortly after the strike on the radar site, Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalam said that the U.S. attack would not deter the group from targeting Israel-linked vessels. Another Houthi official claimed during a television interview with a Hezbollah-linked outlet that the group had developed a target list that included American bases in the region. Such a list could include U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, or Syria.

And in true Houthi fashion, the threats were accompanied by a flurry of propaganda. For instance, the group released imagery showing its troops training on a Soviet-era T-80 tank, a Soviet-era Zu-23-2 autocannon, and an Iranian-made AM-50 Sayyad anti-material rifle. They also released videos of Houthi fighters practicing an October 7-style raid on a mock Israeli village, where they shot at posters of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and simulated kidnapping Jewish men dressed in ultra-Orthodox garb. 

One obvious but little-discussed target might be the U.S. naval expeditionary base Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. While the base has received little attention from Iranian proxies in the past, it is one of the most significant targets in the region and is located just a short eighty miles across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait from Yemen. The site, which acts as the primary base of operations for the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the Horn of Africa and hosts approximately 4,000 troops from the United States and allied countries, has been used for operations against the Houthis for years. The group could also target the nearby Chabelley Airport, where the military has operated Predator and Reaper drones since moving them from Lemonnier in 2013.

With the Houthis claiming that they possess a liquid propellant missile with a range as extensive as 1,200 miles, a critical U.S. base less than 100 miles away seems to be an easy target. And even more concerning, the base is not built to defend against or withstand drone or missile attacks that the Houthis would likely be planning.

But Washington appears to be aware that the Houthis could target Lemonnier in short order. During an interview with BBC, Djibouti’s prime minister Abdul-Qadir Kamil Muhammad said that the United States was allowed to deploy Patriot air defense systems to Camp Lemonnier to protect against Yemeni attack, signaling that the United States is trying to protect its sole permanent base in Africa. 

However, if anything keeps Djibouti safe from Houthi attacks, it would be the country’s voracious support for Palestine since October 7 and long before the assault. In the BBC interview, Muhammad also confirmed that Djibouti would not allow the United States to deploy missile launchers in the country or use it as a base for operations against the Houthis as it considers the group’s maritime attacks “legitimate relief for the Palestinians.” 

Moreover, Djibouti announced that it was reluctant to participate in the U.S.-led Operation Prosperity Guardian maritime coalition to combat the Houthis and was even one of the five countries that called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) in November to investigate Israeli war crimes in Palestinian territories. 

Emily Milliken is the Senior Vice President and Lead Analyst at Askari Associates, LLC. 

Image: Shutterstock.com.


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