Damaged undersea cables in the Gulf of Aden

A new risk to subsea cables

Intentional or otherwise, terrorists are now a threat to global connectivity

The Red Sea is a major artery of the global Internet. More than a dozen subsea cables pass through it connecting Europe to the Middle East, Africa, and APAC, transporting huge swathes of data traffic.

But this choke point presents a risk. For years, the industry has been looking for an alternative way to reach the Indian Ocean from the Mediterranean Sea, but mostly to avoid Egypt and the pricey cost-of-entry requirements to run cables alongside the Suez Canal.

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However, at the other end of the Red Sea, a more urgent and violent risk is now causing issues for global connectivity.

Rebel groups actively attacking ships in the Red Sea have indirectly damaged a number of cables after a listing vessel dragged its anchor.

Others have accused the groups of making direct threats against cables in the area. But how real is the threat?

Yemen, subsea cables, and the Houthis

The Red Sea spans around 2,250km (1,400 miles), running from the Suez Canal in the north to the Bab al-Mandab Strait in the south, before meeting the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.

TeleGeography estimates that more than 90 percent of all Europe-Asia capacity is carried by cables through this channel. The firm estimates for the likes of India, Kenya, and the UAE, more than 40 percent of each country’s interregional bandwidth is connected to Europe via Red Sea cables.

Also known as the Gate of Grief or the Gate of Tears, the 26km (14-mile) strait runs between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, connecting to the Gulf of Aden (and onto the Indian Ocean).

Despite only being the landing point for four cables, around 15 cables currently pass by Yemeni waters. More cables including the Blue-Raman, India-Europe-Xpress, and 2Africa systems are due online in the coming years, all inevitably passing through the strait.

The Bab al-Mandab is a natural bottleneck between the Middle East and the coast of Africa, meaning any subsea cables connecting Europe to Asia are almost certain to pass close to Yemeni waters (and, by extension, Houthi-controlled areas).

On the other side of the strait lies Eritrea, an isolationist country described as the ‘North Korea of Africa,’ with no subsea cables and little Internet freedom. Bertrand Clesca, partner at subsea consulting firm Pioneer Consulting, tells DCD most cable operators have generally laid cables in Yemeni waters as the country was historically easier to deal with than Eritrea.

“They didn’t directly threaten the subsea cables,” Milliken tells DCD. “But they alluded to the fact that they were so important in the area. Which, for an organization that has been launching maritime attacks, is obviously a concerning statement.”

Government ministries and telecoms firms backed by the UN-recognized government condemned the reported threats to the region’s cable infrastructure, while Houthi-backed agencies said the reports were untrue.

The General Corporation for Telecommunications and the Yemeni International Telecommunications Company (TeleYemen), in Aden [i.e. the UN-backed government], said it “strongly condemned” the threats of the Houthis to target international marine cables.

The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MTIT) in Sanaa [i.e. the Houthi-controlled ministry] denied there was any danger to subsea cables in the regions.

In a comment made through the Internet Society, the MTIT said reports of threats were “fabricated lies” being told to “cover the crimes committed by the Zionist entity in the Gaza Strip.”

“The approach of the Government of Yemen, through the MTIT, is to focus on building and developing the telecom and Internet services, and expanding the range of services through the licensed telecom institutions and companies,” the MTIT added in a separate statement.