THREATS TO INFRASTRUCTUREHouthi Attacks in Red Sea Threaten Internet Infrastructure

By Nik Martin

Published 13 March 2024

The recent attack on the cargo ship Rubymar by the Iran-backed Houthis caused the crew to drop anchor, which damaged undersea internet cables, the US has said. Could the vital infrastructure now become a regular target?

A new threat has emerged from the attacks by Iran-backed Houthis on shipping in the Red Sea that have caused delays to goods arriving in Europe from Asia.

The United States said last week it believed the recent sinking of a Belize-flagged, Lebanese-operated fertilizer ship severed vital undersea cables that provide internet connectivity between the East and West.

The attack on the M/V Rubymar on February 18 “forced the crew to drop anchor and abandon ship,” a US defense official said.

Preliminary assessments indicate the anchor dragging along the seafloor is likely to have cut the undersea cables that provide internet and telecommunications service around the world,” the official added.

First Environmental Threat, Now Internet Disruption
The Rubymar has since sunk, causing an environmental disaster. A 29-kilometer (18-mile) oil slick emerged shortly after the attack, according to the US military’s Central Command. 

There are now fears that its fertilizer cargo could cause further damage, if it were to leak. 

While the Houthis were not directly responsible for the damage to the undersea cable, their attacks have increased the threat to internet connectivity in the region as they make other, similar incidents more likely.

The fiber-optic cables, 16 of which have been laid in the Red Sea, stretch along the ocean floor and allow internet data to travel at nearly the speed of light.

Media reports suggest damage to the cable was so severe that it disrupted a quarter of internet traffic between Asia and Europe.

Accidents with ship anchors account for the second most common cause of submarine cable faults,” Tim Stronge, vice president of research at the Washington-based telecoms research firm TeleGeography, wrote in a recent blog post. “On average, two cables suffer faults somewhere in the world every week.”

Repeated Attacks Increase Risk to Undersea Internet Cables
Stronge added that the Houthi attacks on shipping do, however, present “real challenges” as sunken vessels create underwater hazards to the cables and cable-laying ships.

The Houthi attacks have not just caused a spike in insurance for container ships, but also for the ships that help lay the undersea internet infrastructure. Stronge said that could make the installation of new cables in the Red Sea “prohibitive.”

The real problem in a war risk area is that you cannot just repair the cable as you would anywhere else,” Peter Sand, chief analyst at the Copenhagen-based maritime research firm Xeneta, told DW. “You cannot send a cable repair ship to the Red Sea right now,” [due to the risk of attack.]