United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Who are Yemen's Houthis?

Cameron Glenn
 
Iran is widely accused of backing the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement that has been fighting Yemen’s Sunni-majority government since 2004. The Houthis took over the Yemeni capital city Sanaa (left) in September 2014. Since then, Yemeni officials and Sunni states have ramped up allegations that Iran has provided arms, training, and financial support to the Houthis. But Iranian officials have denied the claims. The following is an overview of the Houthi movement, including its origins, religious inspiration, and alleged links to Iran.
 
 
 
Where are the Houthis from? What role have they played in Yemen’s history?
 
The Houthis are a large clan originating from Yemen’s northwestern Saada province, who practice the Zaydi form of Shiism. Zaydis make up around 35 percent of Yemen’s population.
 
A Zaydi imamate ruled Yemen for 1,000 years, before being overthrown in 1962. Since then, the Zaydis – stripped of their political power – have struggled to restore their authority and influence in Yemen. In the 1980s, the Houthi clan began a movement to revive Zaydi traditions, feeling threatened by state-funded Salafist preachers who established a base in Houthi areas. Not all Zaydis, however, align with the Houthi movement.
 
Houthi insurgents have clashed with Yemen’s government for more than a decade. Since 2011, the Houthi movement has expanded beyond its Zaydi roots and become a wider movement opposed to President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. The insurgents have also begun referring to themselves as Ansarullah, or “Party of God.”
 
How does Zaydism compare to the type of Shiism practiced in Iran?
 
Like other Shiites, Zaydis believe that only descendants of the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, have the right to lead the Muslim community as imams - divinely-appointed successors of the Prophet. Most adherents of Zaydism reside in Yemen, and Zaydis make up around eight percent of the world’s 70 million Shiites.
 
But the Zaydis are distinct from the “Twelver” form of Shiism practiced by the majority of the world’s Shiites, including most Shiites in Iran. Twelver Shiites believe thetwelfth imam, whom they consider infallible, disappeared in 874AD and will one day return to usher in an age of justice as the Mahdi, or promised one. In the Mahdi’s absence, Twelver Shiites believe clerics can substitute for his authority on certain issues. The faithful are obliged to obey the clerics’ religious rulings, a power transferred to Iran’s theocracy after the 1979 revolution.
 
Zaydis, also known as “Fivers,” believe that Zayd, the great-grandson of Ali, was the rightful fifth imam. But Twelver Shiites consider Zayd’s brother, Mohammad al Baqir, the fifth imam. The Zaydis do not recognize the later Twelver imams, and instead believe anyone related to Ali is eligible to lead the Muslim community. They also reject the Twelver doctrine that the imam is infallible.
 
Who is supporting the Houthis? How?
 
Sunni states and the Yemeni government claim that Iran has been providing financial, military, and training support to the Houthis. But the extent of Iran’s role is disputed.
 
Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of arming the Houthis to fight a proxy war. “We are worried about…the tendencies of Iran in the region, which is one of the leading elements implanting instability in the region,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal, citing Iran’s role in Yemen specifically.
 
Secretary of State John Kerry said on April 8 that the United States is “well aware of the support that Iran has been giving to Yemen.” But U.S. officials have stopped short of calling the Yemen conflict a proxy war. “It remains our assessment that Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen,” said National Security Council Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan.
 
Some Iranian officials have expressed support for the Houthis’ cause and compared the group to Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite political party and militia that has received arms, training, and funding from Tehran. “Iran supports the rightful struggles of Ansarullah in Yemen and considers this movement as part of the successful Islamic Awakening movements,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, senior advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in October 2014.
 
But Tehran has denied providing arms or training to the Houthis. On March 31, Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham (left) said “the allegations about sending weapons by the Islamic Republic of Iran to Yemen are completely fabricated and sheer lies.”
 
The Houthis also deny direct support from Iran, but Houthi spokesman Mohammad Abdul Salam said in March 2015 that “Iran’s stance has been positive and the country has supported the Yemeni people.”
 
Regardless of Iran’s role, the Houthis have local sources of support as well. Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and military units loyal to him – who fought the Houthis throughout the 2000s – have actually aligned with the Houthis and helped them rise to power, hoping to undermine Hadi and restore Saleh’s authority. The Houthis also reportedly receive funding through local supporters and sympathetic charities, as well as from illegal trade.
 
 
What are the Houthis’ political views?
 
The Houthis do not promote a coherent ideology, and their political platform is vague and contradictory. The original Houthi insurgents desired to imitate Hezbollah, to have power without actually ruling. “The Houthis have always been on the outside. They've been a militia group that's now starting to dabble in politics,” Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen, who studied and lived in the country for years, told NPR’s “Fresh Air” in April 2015. “And they don't really know how to rule.”
 
The Houthi emblem (left) only offers a broad view of the group’s views. It is made of up entirely of the following phrases, “God is great, Death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews, victory to Islam.” But the Houthis’ Hezbollah-like denunciation of the United States and Israel often seems “largely for show,” according to Les Campbell at the National Democratic Institute. Their ties to former president Saleh threaten to expose the group as “just another group sharing in the spoils of corruption.”
 
The Houthis’ Zaydi roots do not necessarily dictate their approach to politics. Their leaders have claimed they are not attempting to revive the Zaydi imamate, but rather to seek greater political inclusion. Since 2011, they have used nationalist and populist language in their messaging rather than framing themselves as a strictly Zaydi movement. And they have cultivated a range of Sunni political allies.
 
The Houthis participated in the U.N.-sponsored National Dialogue Conference from 2013 to 2014. While they did not reject the reform agenda in principle, the Houthis opposed proposals to convert Yemen into a six-region federalist state. The proposal would link Saada with Sanaa, but the Houthis want Saada to be its own autonomous region.
 
What are the roots of the Houthis’ conflict with the central government?
 
Hussein Abdreddin al Houthi, a prominent Zaydi cleric and member of parliament from 1993 to 1997, became a strong critic of President Ali Abudllah Saleh in the 1990s. He accused the government of aligning too closely with the United States and Israel. Tensions mounted further after President Saleh reportedly cut funding to Hussein al Houthi in 2000. Frustrated by the Zaydis’ poor political and economic status, he began rallying supporters for anti-government demonstrations in the early 2000s.
 
The government issued a warrant for al Houthi’s arrest, and his followers began clashing violently with security forces. Al Houthi was killed by security forces in 2004. Since then, his relatives and supporters have waged six uprisings against the government, known as the Houthi wars. President Saleh accused Iran of supporting the rebellions. The Houthis signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in 2010, but joined the Arab Spring protests against Saleh one year later.

How did the Houthis rise to power?
 
After months of protests, President Saleh ceded power to his deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansour al Hadi in November 2011. But Hadi enjoyed little popular support in Yemen, and the Houthis took advantage of the power vacuum in the north. From 2012-2013, they gained followers and allies. They consolidated their territorial control, pushing south towards Sanaa.
 
In September 2014, the Houthis took over the capital. They initially agreed to a U.N.-brokered peace deal that required them to withdraw from Sanaa following the formation of a unity government.
 
But in January, the Houthis rejected the government’s newly drafted constitution and took over the presidential palace. President Hadi and his government resigned on January 22. The next month, the Houthis announced that a five-member presidential council would replace Hadi.
 
Hadi fled south to Aden and revoked his resignation, declaring himself the legitimate president of Yemen. In response, Houthi insurgents began bombing Hadi’s Aden headquarters.
 
At Hadi’s request, Saudi Arabia – along with a coalition of nine other Sunni nations – began launching airstrikes against Houthi positions on March 26. The Houthis remained defiant. “Our fighters will not evacuate from the main cities or the government institutions,” Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al Houthi said on April 19. “Anyone who thinks we will surrender is dreaming.”
 
On April 21, Saudi officials announced the end of the campaign, known as operation “Decisive Storm,” claiming they had successfully degraded the Houthis’ military infrastructure. The Houthis also agreed to meet several U.N. demands, including releasing the Yemeni Defense Minister, whom they were holding captive. But Saudi Arabia resumed airstrikes two days later, and the first month of the campaign had neither driven the Houthis from Sanaa nor restored Hadi to power.
 
 
What is the relationship between Houthis and other Islamists in Yemen?
 
The Houthis have a tense relationship with Islah, a Sunni Islamist party with links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Islah claims the Houthis are an Iranian proxy, and blames them for sparking unrest in Yemen. The Houthis, on the other hand, have accused Islah of cooperating with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
 
After the Houthis took over Sanaa in September 2014, Islah initially took a few steps towards reconciliation. In November, top Islah and Houthi leaders met to discuss a political partnership. Islah called on the Houthis to cease attacks on Islah members and to release Islah prisoners. In December, the United Nations and Gulf Cooperation Council brokered a deal between the two groups to cease hostilities.
 
But clashes between the Houthis and Islah continued. In the first four months of 2015, the Houthis kidnapped dozens of Islah party leaders and raided their offices. By April, more than 100 Islah leaders were detained by the Houthis. Tensions increased after Islah declared support for the Saudi-led airstrikes.
 
The Houthis are also at odds with Sunni extremist groups. On March 20, an ISIS affiliate calling itself the Sanaa Province claimed responsibility for suicide bomb attacks on two Zaydi mosques that killed at least 135 people and injured more than 300 others. The group issued a statement that said “infidel Houthis should know that the soldiers of the Islamic State will not rest until they eradicate them.”
 
AQAP denied involvement in the mosque attacks, but has frequently targeted the Houthis. In April 2015, the group claimed responsibility for three suicide attacks that killed dozens of Houthis in Abyan, al Bayda’, and Lahij. AQAP has reportedly partnered with southern tribes to fight the Houthis.

Who are their leaders?
 
Abdul Malik al Houthi, brother of Hussein al Houthi, has been the group’s spiritual, military, and political leader since 2007. Little is known of his personal life, and he makes few public appearances. His brother-in-law, Youssef al Midani, is the deputy leader. Abdul Malik’s two brothers, Yahia and Abdul-Karim, are also senior leaders of the movement.
 
On April 14, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on Abdul Malik al Houthi for engaging in acts that “threaten the peace, security, or stability of Yemen.” The same month, the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo against the Houthis and blacklisted Abdul Malik al Houthi.
 
Cameron Glenn is a senior program assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace and contributing author to The Iran Primer.


Photo credits: Houthi logo by Takahara Osaka [public domain] via
Wikimedia Commons; Sanaa by Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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