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U.S. Conducts Cyberattack Against Iranian Spy Ship Helping Houthis

The United States conducted a cyberattack against an Iranian spy ship operating near the Red Sea earlier this month, according to February 15 reports. The news comes near the third anniversary of the Biden administration’s removal of the Houthi rebels from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). The ship, MV Behshad, is suspected of gathering intelligence on international commercial vessels traveling through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea and transmitting it to Iran-backed Houthi terrorists in Yemen. The intelligence then likely assisted the Houthis in targeting ships traveling through the area. According to the reports, the U.S. cyberattack occurred on February 2, the same day that U.S. forces conducted airstrikes against Iran-backed Shiite terrorists in Iraq and Syria. Those airstrikes were in retaliation for the January 28 attack on U.S. troops based in Jordan, which killed three American soldiers.

The Pentagon has declined to comment on the story. Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said on February 5 that while the United States was aware that Iran has a ship in the area, he was not aware of any efforts to target it. Iran has denied accusations that the Behshad was spying for the Houthis and claimed that the ship was conducting anti-piracy activities. On February 4, Iran publicly warned the United States not to target the Behshad.

Expert Analysis

“If the Iranian vessel is passing targeting information to the Houthis that is being used to attack Americans, that Iranian vessel should be sitting on the sea floor. Congress and Pentagon reporters may want to ask whether the Iranian vessel continues to pass targeting information to the Houthis following the reported cyberattack.” — Bradley Bowman, Senior Director of FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power

“An offensive cyber operation against the MV Behshad is the absolute least the United States should do against a ship allegedly targeting the U.S. Navy or allied naval and merchant shipping. If the United States knows this ship is providing material support to the Houthis in conducting these attacks, the MV Behshad should be sunk, and we should not wait for U.S. servicemember deaths to take strong action as we did with similar Iranian proxy attacks against U.S. forces in Jordan last month.” — RADM (Ret.) Mark Montgomery, FDD Senior Fellow and Senior Director of FDD’s Center on Cyber and Technology

Administration’s Relisting of Houthis as Terrorist Group Has Loopholes

On February 16, 2021, the Biden administration revoked the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as an FTO, citing the need to deliver humanitarian aid in Houthi-occupied parts of Yemen. The Biden administration partially reversed course on January 17, 2024, designating the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) group, thereby imposing a separate set of penalties. The designation followed months of Houthi attacks on commercial shipping traveling through the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and the Gulf of Aden.

Yet the Biden administration diluted the SDGT designation’s impact by creating broad exemptions and stopping short of relisting the group as an FTO — designed to complement the SDGT designation by imposing additional penalties. The United States — sometimes unilaterally and sometimes together with the United Kingdom — has conducted airstrikes on Houthi targets to degrade the group’s capabilities. But the Houthis remain undeterred and have continued their attacks, recently launching an anti-ship ballistic missile at a UK-owned cargo ship on February 15, causing minor damage.

Iran Continues Arming Houthis

On February 15, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) reported that a U.S. Coast Guard cutter operating in the Arabian Sea on January 28 intercepted a shipment of weapons and lethal aid originating in Iran on its way to Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen. According to CENTCOM, the “boarding team discovered over 200 packages that contained medium-range ballistic missile components, explosives, unmanned underwater/surface vehicle components, military-grade communication and network equipment, anti-tank guided missile launcher assemblies and other military components.”

Source: FDD