Who are Yemen’s Houthis?

Dr. Angelos Kaskanis
Dr. Angelos Kaskanis

Project Manager - Tactics Institute

The Houthis, who champion Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority, are an armed Islamist militia and tribe from north Yemen’s poor, mountainous Saada region.

The Zaidi have a long and powerful history in the country. Historically, Zaidism was closely associated with the notion of the rule of the imam (al-imamah or wilayat al imam). The imamate is a Zaidi religious principle of governance, according to which the legitimacy of the ruler is granted through “divine” privilege based on ‘sacred lineage’.

Post-1962, many people from historically Shafi’ Sunni areas moved into the capital area, which is historically part of the Zaidi northern highlands. Additionally, the rise of Sunni Islamist movements and the spread of Wahhabism led to a demographic shift that could be characterized as a wave of ‘Sunnization’ at the heart of historically Zaidi areas. In the 1980s, Saudi funded Salafi institutes were funded in the north of the country with state support.

It was against this backdrop that in the 1990s that the Houthis were founded by former MP and religious scholar, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi. Railing against the influence of US imperialism and Saudi Salafism on Yemen’s rulers, al-Houthi said he wanted to protect and revive Zaidi Islam.

The invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003 “deeply radicalised” the Houthi movement and the group then started calling itself “Ansar Allah”, or supporters of God. It was a turning point largely unrecognized outside Yemen, another unanticipated consequence of George Bush’s Iraq adventures.

After fighting 6 wars against the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh between 2004 and 2010, the political and security vacuum that followed the Arab spring protests provided the Houthis with an opportunity to expand their territory outside their northern heartlands.

As they grew more powerful they pulled out of transition talks aimed at creating a new and stable Yemeni government after Saleh’s downfall. In an unexpected move, the Houthis allied with Saleh and stormed the capital in 2014, and overthrowing the new president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in 2015.

Across the border, Saudi Arabia saw Yemen as an important pawn in the proxy war against Iran. As such, they formed a coalition with other Arab states, backed by the UK and the US, and began strikes on the Houthis. At the start of the war Saudi officials forecast that it would last only a few weeks. But six years of military stalemate have followed.

The group’s political ambitions remain ambiguous and shifting. At its most basic, they are motivated by the desire to protect themselves from what they perceive to be a state that has marginalized and attacked them in the past. As they have achieved military success, their desire to exert control over national-level decision-making has grown exponentially.

The role of Iran

Iran is widely accused of backing the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement that has been fighting Yemen’s Sunni, however, the extent of the backing is unknown. Geostrategically, Yemen’s importance to Iran is vast. The Houthis represent an opportunity on two accounts— giving Iran reach into Yemen and the adjacent Red Sea and providing Iran a means to harass its rival, Saudi Arabia.

The United States as well as ally Saudi Arabia — which is leading the military coalition backing the Yemeni government against the rebels — have long accused Iran of supplying the Houthis with weapons, a charge Tehran denies.

A US official described Iran’s support for the Houthis as “lethal”, alleging that Tehran supports the Houthis in several ways including through training, providing lethal support and helping them “fine tune” their drone and missile programs.

Iran has continuously denied supporting the Houthis. A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York dismissed Lenderking’s remarks as unsubstantiated claims against Iran. “Iran has, time and again called for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Yemen,” the Iranian spokesman said. “In contrast, the U.S. has been providing the deadliest weapons to those who are using them to kill innocent men, women and children on a daily basis.”

At the end of 2021, the U.S. Navy said it seized a large cache of assault rifles and ammunition being smuggled by a fishing ship from Iran likely bound for war-ravaged Yemen. U.S. Navy patrol ships discovered the weapons aboard what the Navy described as a stateless fishing vessel in an operation that began on Monday in the northern reaches of the Arabian Sea off Oman and Pakistan. Sailors boarded the vessel and found 1,400 Kalashnikov-style rifles and 226,600 rounds of ammunition, as well five Yemeni crew members.

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