Round Seven? The Houthi Rebellion in Northern Yemen

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 33

Military vehicles in the northwestern Yemeni province of Sa'da

Houthi rebels operating in northern Yemen accepted the six conditions that were set by the government of Yemen for a cessation of hostilities on February 12. [1] In response to their acceptance of the six conditions, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared a ceasefire and ordered an end to the heavy aerial bombardment of Houthi positions by the Yemeni Air Force. In return, the Houthis released 178 civilian and military prisoners including a still-disputed number of Saudi soldiers (, July 10). Though not formally one of the six conditions, an exchange of prisoners was part of the ceasefire and formed part of an expanded agreement between the government of Yemen and the Houthis. However, the Yemeni government has not yet released any of the estimated 1,000 Houthi prisoners. Yemen’s Supreme Security Committee has repeatedly cited the Houthis’ failure to comply with all of the six conditions as one the reasons for the delay (Saba News Agency, July 31).

Since the ceasefire was announced, sporadic fighting between Houthi forces and government troops and aligned tribes has occurred throughout the governorate of Sadah and in the northern part of the governorate of Amran. The most intense fighting has been along the Sana’a to Sadah road near Harf Sufyan in the governorate of Amran and in the Majz district of the governorate of Sadah. On July 26, Houthi forces overran a Yemeni Army outpost at al-Zaala in the Harf Sufyan district of Amran governorate and captured 200 soldiers (Yemen Post, July 27; Xinhua, July 31).  On August 1, a spokesman for Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi announced that the movement was releasing the soldiers as a sign of good will before the upcoming Ramadan festival (The National, August 1; Sadah Online, August 3). The spokesman also called on the Yemeni government to fulfill its commitment and release the Houthi prisoners.  

Renewed Fighting

The July 26 attack on the army outpost is evidence of a significant escalation of hostilities between the government and Houthi forces. More importantly, it demonstrates that the Houthis’ ability to organize and launch operations has not been significantly diminished. The army outpost at al-Zaala that was overrun lies on the strategically vital Sana’a to Sadah road, a mere 130 km north of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a.  The outpost was staffed by a combination of elite Republican Guard troops and a contingent of the Military Police. Both forces are considerably better trained and equipped than the conscripts and tribal levies that make up the bulk of the Yemeni Army. The fact that the Houthis were able to launch an effective operation against elite troops well outside their home governorate of Sadah must serve as a “shot across the bow” for the Saleh regime.

The area around al-Zaala in the Harf Sufyan district of Amran governorate has seen the most significant fighting over the last two months. Much of the fighting has taken place between the Houthis and the Bin Aziz tribe, which is largely aligned with the Yemeni government. The tribe is headed by Shaykh Sagheer bin Aziz who is also a member of Parliament and a member of the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC). Fighting between the Bin Aziz tribe and the Houthis broke out in mid-July, when Houthi fighters, under the command of Abdu Haidar, besieged Shaykh Sagheer’s family compound. The battle led to an estimated 40 casualties, with Abdu Haidar and Shaykh Sagheer’s nephew among the dead.

Apart from the fact that the Bin Aziz fought alongside government troops in the most recent campaign against the Houthis, the Bin Aziz have also been instrumental in cutting the road from Sana’a to Sadah which passes through part of their tribal lands. In an attempt to put pressure on the Houthis, the Saleh government has imposed a periodic blockade of traffic to Sadah, including a blockade on food. A number of smugglers’ routes to the Houthi stronghold in the Marran Mountains also pass through the district of Harf Sufyan. These routes are essential for moving men and materiel. Contacts within Yemen have suggested that the Bin Aziz may have been attempting to secure some of these routes with the help of elite Yemeni troops in addition to blockading the main road. The sporadic fighting came to a head when the Houthis launched their largely successful offensive on the army outpost at al-Zaala. The Houthis’ release of the captured soldiers was likely tied to an agreement by the government to reopen the Sana’a – Sadah road. Before the offensive on the post at al-Zaala, the government was careful to point out that the latest round of fighting did not involve government troops but was instead limited to tribal elements. The government’s expanded use of tribal levies in the last campaign against the Houthis has further blurred the line between government troops and tribal fighters.

Shifting Loyalties

The extensive use of tribal levies in the 2009-2010 campaign against the Houthis has upset the fragile tapestry of tribal alliances in northern Yemen. The numerous tribes and clans that were encouraged to fight against the Houthis are now demanding payment for their services. While much of this payment will be in the traditional form of weapons, ammunition and cash, favors such as jobs in ministries and local government will also be expected. In the past, President Saleh and his close advisers have been able to balance the payments in accordance with the prestige and perceived power of the various tribes, clans and sub-clans. With the expense of a multi-front insurgency and declining oil exports, the Saleh regime is increasingly unable to dole out the gifts and favors that it has long used to control the tribes. Over the month of June in the al-Ashah district of Amran, tribesmen launched attacks on military convoys and confiscated military hardware because they have not yet been paid for their service in the last campaign against the Houthis (Yemen Post, June 24). [2]

Houthi leaders have seized on the December 17, 2009 American missile strike on suspected al-Qaeda camps in Arhab and Abyan that killed 14 women and 21 children and the May 24 U.S. missile attack in Ma’rib that killed Deputy Governor Jabir al-Shabwani as ammunition in their criticism of the regime (al-Quds al-Arabi, June 27; Yemen Observer, June 1, Telegraph, June 7, 2009; see also Terrorism Monitor, July 16).  In a wide ranging interview with a writer from the Houthi bimonthly publication Truth, Houthi leader Abdul Malik argued that the recent attack in Ma’rib and the December cruise missile strike are further proof of his long held view that President Saleh is an American puppet (Sadah Online, August 4). The view that the Saleh regime is manipulated by American and ‘Zionist’ interests is one of the important themes that runs through the Houthi narrative and is one of the minor justifications they give for the rebellion. While it is unlikely that tribes already allied with the Saleh regime would switch sides due to the UAV and cruise missile attacks, the attacks have added to the legitimacy of parts of the Houthi narrative. It is important to note that the powerful northern tribes whose support is crucial for the continuance of the Saleh regime are predominately Zaidi. While the tribes are certainly not as stridently “Zaidi” as the Houthis, there are some extant sympathies. [3]

National Reconciliation?

On July 17, the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) opposition coalition signed a framework that is intended to lead to the creation of a national unity government (Yemen Observer, July 19). The more immediate goal is to create a 100 member committee that would engage in a national dialogue tasked with debating proposed governmental reforms and constitutional amendments. President Saleh has, via advisers, indicated that the Houthis would be allowed to participate in this national dialogue. The JMP has sent a committee to Sadah to discuss the framework with Houthi representatives. In his interview with Truth, Abdul Malik indicated that the Houthis would consider joining in this national dialogue (Sadah Online, August 4). However, in the aftermath of the attack on GPC MP Sagheer Bin Aziz, a 60-member bloc of GPC MP’s has threatened to boycott the dialogue if it includes the Houthis.

Preparations for another War
Despite tentative steps towards reconciliation, there are signs that the Saleh regime and the Houthis are preparing for another war. Contacts within Yemen have stated that a number of new Yemeni Army training facilities and arms depots have been created in the governorate of al-Jawf southeast of Sadah. The Houthis, in violation of the conditions of the ceasefire, have not surrendered any of their weapons. On the contrary, there is ample evidence that the Houthis are adding to their stockpiles. The recent attack on the army outpost at al-Zaala likely resulted in a considerable haul of weapons. The price of ammunition, though also affected by the growing insurgency in the south, continues to increase. In particular the price of 7.62 x 51mm ammunition for the Houthis’ much favored G3 rifle has increased five-fold in the last two months. Additionally the cost of basic foodstuffs such as flour and rice has soared even when priced in U.S. dollars and Saudi Riyals. [4]. This increase in the price of foodstuffs extends to the neighboring governorate of Hajjah, where the Houthi rebels have traditionally engaged in procurement activities. Contacts in the area suggest that this is evidence that both concerned locals and Houthi rebels are stockpiling food.


Despite the formal ceasefire and tentative steps toward establishing some kind of national dialogue regarding reconciliation, it is probable that another war between the Houthis and Yemeni government forces will break out. It is unlikely the Houthis will fully comply with the six conditions set by the government in February. Renewed peace efforts by the government of Qatar are underway and it has been reported that officials within the Qatari government are in direct contact with Houthi representatives (Yemen Observer, August 3). The Houthis have stated that they welcome Qatari efforts (Sadah Online, July 20). However, the framework of the 2007/08 Doha Agreement is not particularly realistic. The agreement stipulates that the Houthis give up all their medium size weapons and that the Houthi leadership should travel to Qatar where they must remain until the government gives them permission to return.

The expanding insurgency in southern Yemen and the country’s continuing economic decline are both putting pressure on the already severely strained Saleh regime. It is likely that the Houthis will take advantage of this weakness and persist in their sporadic but often well-coordinated attacks on government troops and government allied tribes. In order to maintain the legitimacy of his regime, President Saleh will be forced to respond.  


1. Feb. 12 GoY/ Houthi six point agreement: 1. Adhere to ceasefire, open the roads, remove land mines, descend from mountainous heights, and end digging of trenches near military points and along roads; 2.Withdraw from districts and not  interfere with the business of local government officials; 3. Return captured Saudi and Yemeni weapons, ammunition, and equipment; 4. Release all Yemeni and Saudi military and civilian detainees; 5. Adhere to law and constitution; 6. Cease all aggressive activities within and against Saudi territory.
2. Author’s interviews with a resident of Amran, February and April 2010.
3. Zaidism has traditionally held that while any learned and physically fit man can assume the Imamate, the aspirant imam must be a descendent of the Prophet, a sayyid. This emphasis on descent and the long assumed privilege of the sayyid class was one of the defining issues during the 1962-70 Republican vs. Royalist civil war and remains a contentious issue with many members of the ghabail or tribal class. The GoY often claims that the Houthis, a sayyid family, want to bring back the Imamate. The Houthis have disputed this claim and in some political speeches available on cassette tape, prominent Houthis and Houthi followers have disputed the traditional belief that an imam must be a sayyid. Recent generations of Houthis have been careful to intermarry with prominent families of the ghabail.
4. In late July/ early August the Yemeni Riyal suffered another round of rapid depreciation against the U.S. dollar despite intervention efforts on the part of the Yemeni Central Bank.