With Yemen in the midst of a political reconstruction, there are signs that the Zaidi Shiite insurgent group known as the Houthis is taking advantage of the ongoing turmoil to consolidate their de facto rule of the northern province of Sa’ada while making inroads in other parts of the country. Yemen’s military is largely preoccupied with its struggle against al-Qaeda and its allies in southern Yemen, but the Houthist expansion has not gone unopposed, with Salafist tribesmen tied to the Islamist Islah Party resisting all attempts by the Houthists to spread the areas under their control. Yemen’s security forces have little influence in the northern regions and at times have even been outgunned by both factions in the conflict. With little political will in the National Reconciliation Government for yet another war against the Houthis (there have been six since 2004), the security forces have been largely relegated to the sidelines in the ongoing Houthi-Salafist conflict. Security officials suggest at least 60 people have been killed in several weeks of tribal clashes that began with a land dispute but intensified when the Houthist and Islah movements became involved to support opposing sides in the quarrel (Daily Star [Beirut], September 13).
Amran Governorate and the Route to Sana’a
From their stronghold in the mountains of Sa’ada Governorate, the Houthis have expanded their area of influence to large parts of the neighboring governorates of Amran, al-Jawf, Hajjah and al-Mahwit as well as establishing a strong presence in the Ibb Governorate (particularly the Radhma region), in the capital, Sana’a, and in the surrounding Sana’a Governorate.
The worst clashes have occurred in the Amran governorate of Yemen, lying just north of Sana’a. Houthist forces have established positions in the mountains in regions that are also claimed by tribesmen loyal to the Salafist Islah Party who accuse the Houthists of trying to seize land in the area. Security forces failed in an attempt to intervene between the two heavily-armed factions in Amran (Yemen Times, August 22; September 10). Control of Amran would give the Houthis enormous leverage in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, which would be exposed to rapid infiltration or invasion by Houthist forces based just north of the capital in Amran.
Non-Shiites living in Amran also complain that Houthist militias have tried to take control of zakat donations, alms payments that form one of the five pillars of Islam. Attempts to commandeer zakat funds earmarked for building a school led to violent clashes in the Harf Sifyan area of Amran governorate that left eight people dead (Yemen Times, August 25). According to al-Asha district security manager Muhammad al-Raei, local security forces have not intervened in the conflict because both sides possess heavier weapons than the security forces (Yemen Times, September 10). Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi formed a mediation committee in mid-August, but the new body has been able to accomplish little short of organizing ceasefires to allow both sides to recover their dead and wounded (Yemen Times, August 27).
The Situation in Sa’ada and Ibb
In the city of Sa’ada, capital of the Houthi stronghold of Sa’ada Governorate, it is reported that all real authority is now in the hands of the Houthist movement alone. According to the military commander in Sa’ada, Brigadier General Hassan Libuza, security duties are now divided between the army and the Houthists, with the latter providing security for Houthi events and the army providing security for government events, which are increasingly meaningless as the Houthists continue to consolidate their control. General Libuza maintains the army is “trying to coexist with the status quo in Sa’ada governorate” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 9).
The Houthists have complained that international jihadis are pouring into the town of Damaj (Sada’a Governorate), where they are alleged to be building fortifications (Press TV [Tehran], July 16). Damaj was the scene of a violent six-week siege by Houthists in 2011 who had failed to disarm the town’s substantial Salafist population. Though it was long known as a center for the study of moderate Islam, Damaj is now the site of bitter sectarian fighting as the Houthists attempt to establish control over the Salafist-dominated town. By late August, President Hadi had established a special commission designed to promote a ceasefire and reconciliation in Damaj, though the new body has had little influence so far (SABA [Sana’a], August 21; Yemen Times, August 22).
Security officials in the al-Asha district of Amran governorate accuse the Houthis of planting landmines in mountainous areas under their control to prevent other groups from seizing them, though one mine detonated accidentally left ten Houthis dead. This new proliferation of landmines comes just as Yemen was making progress in their eradication (Yemen Times, September 5).
Both sides in the scattered conflict accuse the other of bringing in non-resident fighters to tip the scales in Amran and Ibb governorates (Arab News, September 9). In Ibb Governorate, there are continuing clashes between the pro-Houthist al-Siraj tribe and the Salafist al-Da’an tribe that began in July when the Sirajis began to set up roadblocks controlling access to al-Radhma district. Added to the violent clashes in the region is a wave of kidnappings carried out by both factions. A government-sponsored attempt to reach a ceasefire by promising 20 rifles to the side that had suffered the most casualties collapsed when the Da’an tribe backed out after learning the rifles would go to al-Siraj, fearing the weapons would be turned on them after delivery (Yemen Times, September 5; September 10).
The National Dialogue Conference
Yemen’s coalition government issued a public apology on behalf of the former regime to all residents of Sada’a for the series of military campaigns conducted against Houthist followers in that governorate (Yemen Post, August 22). A Houthi representative at the National Dialogue Conference (a government-sponsored national reconciliation effort), Amal al-Maliki, said the apology was accepted (unlike a similar apology proffered to the separatist Southern Movement) “to enable the government to implement more steps such as compensation and national reconciliation… [However], everything is still ink on paper and nothing tangible has been achieved so far. Reconstruction hasn’t started and those affected haven’t received any compensation so far” (Yemen Times, September 3; Yemen Post, August 24). Among the NDC initiatives approved by Yemen’s cabinet are recommendations for the creation of a fund to compensate victims of the internal conflicts in Yemen’s northern and southern regions and the release of all separatists and Houthi rebels arrested after the 2011 anti-regime demonstrations (Gulf News, August 29). Non-Houthists delegates to the NDC have complained of “crimes” committed by the movement against other residents of Sa’ada, including murder, torture, illegal arrests and the displacement of over 130,000 people (al-Sahwah.net, July 11).
The most prominent Houthist delegate to the NDC is Yahya Badr al-Din al-Houthi, the brother of movement leader Abd al-Malik al-Houthi. Yahya was the target of unidentified gunmen in Sana’a in late July but survived the attempt on his life. The movement released a statement describing the failed assassination as part of an American/Israeli plot to damage the NDC and drive the country into a civil war (Press TV [Tehran], July 27). There are, however, other suspicions that the attack was the work of Yemen’s national security service, whose dissolution the Houthists have sought since 13 Zaydi Shiites were killed and over 100 wounded in a July 10 attempt to storm the local security headquarters to free a number of Shiite dissidents (AFP, July 14).
Islah Party leader Hamid al-Ahmar has denied the allegation that attacks on Houthists by his followers were retribution for the looting and destruction of Sabafon offices by Houthists in Amran and Sa’ada.  Sabafon, Yemen’s leading mobile phone network provider, counts amongst its major shareholders the Ahmar Group, a major holding entity chaired by Hamid al-Ahmar. Hamid did, however, say that he had sought the help of Hassan Zaid, the leader of Yemen’s al-Haq Party, in mediating between Islah loyalists and Houthis in order to end a campaign of “slander” against him and end attacks against his business interests in northern Yemen (Yemen Post, September 8). Al-Ahmar, one of the most powerful men in Yemen, is believed to have grown close to authorities in Qatar in recent years as the Emirate seeks to expand its influence in Yemen (al-Monitor, August 20, 2013).
Muhammad Musa al-Ameri, the leader of the Rashad Union Party, Yemen’s first Salafist political party, has denounced the Houthis’ establishment of a de facto state within a state in parts of Yemen:
The International Dimension
As the threat of U.S. military intervention in Syria grew in early September, the Houthis organized demonstrations in the capital, Sana’a and in numerous places in Sa’ada Governorate. The Houthis maintained their traditional anti-American stance and condemned any possible military intervention, saying it would only lead to further radicalization in the region (Yemen Post, September 6). These demonstrations came soon after similar protests in mid-August denouncing the deployment of American drones in Yemen to assassinate various militant leaders and their associates.
Yemeni officials say that hundreds of Houthi fighters have left for Syria to defend the Assad regime, regarding the fighting there as “a holy jihad.” The officials maintain that Iran has provided financial encouragement for the fighters, who enter Syria via Hezbollah camps in Lebanon (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 30). A Saudi source reported a Free Syrian Army ambush of Yemeni volunteers in the Dara’a district of Syria in June that allegedly killed over 60 Houthist fighters (Okaz [Jeddah], June 22).
The true extent of Iranian influence on the Houthist movement has never been satisfactorily demonstrated, but recent reports of Houthist fighters in Sa’adah wearing uniforms similar to those of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps suggest that some degree of supply or financing may exist (National Yemen, September 14). A ship intercepted by the Yemeni Coast Guard with U.S. naval assistance last January was reported to have been carrying a load of Iranian arms destined for the Houthist movement. The cargo was said to have included SAM-2 and SAM-3 surface-to-air missiles (SABA [Sana’a], February 3; Reuters, February 3).
Ali al-Emad, a Houthi representative at the NDC, has suggested that the failure of security forces to intervene in the Houthi-Salafist conflict was deliberate: “Security officials are failing to uphold their responsibilities. There are political powers out there that are trying to exhaust the Houthis by encouraging numerous conflicts so that the group has to fight on numerous fronts in various governorates” (Yemen Times, September 14). The inability of the security forces in Amran to impose security on the region is reflected in many other locations in Yemen, leading to demands from prominent businessmen that they be allowed to form their own private militias to protect themselves from abduction or assassination if the government is not able to quickly reverse the deteriorating security situation (Yemen Observer, September 5).
Ongoing clashes between the Sunni Salafists and the Zaidi Shiites have so far been as much about land as religion, but there is a risk that Yemen’s tribal combat may be absorbed into a larger sectarian conflict pitting the Shiite/Alawite axis of Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement against the Sunni/Salafist Gulf states. Saudi Arabia is alarmed by the nascent Shiite state on its southern border but efforts to demonstrate its displeasure to Sana’a have resulted only in new openings for the Kingdom’s regional rival, Qatar. Unable to project force in the north, Yemen’s central government risks irrelevancy at a time when it is most needed to coordinate national unity efforts.
Andrew McGregor is the Senior Editor of Global Terrorism Analysis and the Director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in security issues related to the Islamic world.
1. The full name of the Islah Party is al-Tajammu al-Yamani li’l-Islah (Yemeni Congregation for Reform). The political wing of the Houthist movement, Ansar Allah, was formed in 2012.