Understanding the Second Houthi Rebellion in Yemen

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 12

2004 witnessed a lengthy battle between Shabab al-Mu’minoon (Believing Youth), a Shi’a religious organization, and the Yemeni government. Believing Youth’s leader and inspirational figure, Hussein Badr ad-Deen al-Houthi, was killed in early September and his death marked the end of that conflict. The fighting, however, staged a short-lived comeback in March-May of this year.

Tensions between Believing Youth and the government renewed when Houthi’s father, who shares the name of his son, returned to Sa’ada from Sana’a in mid-March. He cited the president’s refusal to meet with him over the release of prisoners as the reason for his return. [1] In a March 9 interview, Houthi made a public appeal for the president to “make good on his promises,” chief among them the release of Houthi followers from prison. [2] Later, on March 19, Houthi claimed that after the first war, the president invited him to Sana’a promising that if he came, he would release all prisoners and cease military and legal action against all of his followers. Houthi first arrived in Sana’a in January of this year.

The fighting broke out on March 20 between Believing Youth and the Yemeni government at Souk at-Talh, 14 kilometers outside of Sa’ada. The fighting quickly escalated, spreading to Wadi Nashoor, Razamat and Al Shafa’a, all of which are rural areas surrounding the city of Sa’ada. The government brought in heavy equipment, including tanks and artillery. The fighting largely culminated from March 29 to April 3, where the dead numbered well over 100, and a major firefight occurred within the actual city of Sa’ada. [3] By April 7, Yemeni forces had the second in command surrounded. He died five days later. [4]

A week after the government announced the end of hostilities on April 14, Houthi supporters continued sniper attacks in scattered areas around Sa’ada province. The rebels managed to disperse their attacks, moving into the tribal area of Khowlan and within the capital city of Sana’a. There they conducted a series of drive-by grenade attacks and assassination attempts, the last of which was on May 13.

The end of the attacks in mid May fully coincides with the Political Security Organization’s successful penetration of Houthi supporters in Sana’a. Left without any further resources, Houthi sent a letter asking for pardon. President Salih agreed in principle on May 14. [5] Houthi has yet to surrender, though negotiations continue.

Goals

Houthi, despite his emphatic denials, seems to desire the establishment of an imamate in Yemen. He and his son are Hashimites, the family of the prophet Muhammad. While denying that the purpose of Believing Youth is to establish an imamate, al-Houthi the father clearly states his beliefs when responding to questions about democracy. According to him, there are two forms of legitimate government: an imamate ruled by Hashimites or rule by any pious Muslim. He made his views clearer when directly confronted, stating that an imamate is the most preferred form of government. Houthi takes pains to distance himself from the idea of democracy, saying “We are for justice. We do not know this democracy you speak of.” [6]

Whether Believing Youth has a coherent political program, however, remains unclear. Aside from holding the imamate as the ideal form of government, it seems to encompass a general feeling of disenfranchisement against numerous causes. Hussein al-Houthi the son distributed a great amount of literature denouncing the role of America in the world and specifically the Yemeni government’s newfound cooperation with it. Houthi the father claims in his interview with al-Wasat that the entire purpose of the first rebellion was a defense of Islam against America. When directly prompted about the government’s attitude to the Hashimite family, and by inference its Shi’a members, Houthi responds that the authorities hate the Shi’a. A multifaceted dislike of the government is perhaps the best explanation for the Houthi rebellions.

Iran

Concerns over Iran are related to Houthi the son’s 1993 meeting with the Iranian president. Houthi the father visited Iran in 2003 and is accused of fleeing to Iran during the first Houthi rebellion in 2004.

It is likely that there is some sort of a relationship between Believing Youth and Iran. It appears from Houthi’s interview that he frames the conflict in terms of Shi’a versus other. He clearly feels an affinity toward the Islamic Republic, as evidenced by his family’s numerous visits. Knowing that he sees America as an enemy of Islam, he likely identifies Iran as a Shi’a pillar of strength actively combating their mutual enemy.

He knows, however, that actively and openly acknowledging Iranian support brings with it a host of difficulties. There is a traditional Arab-Persian antagonism. The idea of using Iranian support to bring down any Arab government would not play well among any Arab populace, especially in Sunni dominated Yemen. Open support would also entangle the Iranians, who are currently in a tense diplomatic situation with the U.S. and Europe over their nuclear program.

It is likely that Iran gives limited forms of support to Believing Youth in spite of the lack of clear benefits to the country. Iran has a lengthy history of supporting conflicts motivated by ideology, most notably Hizbullah in Lebanon. The power benefits in that conflict are clearer. By weakening Israel, Iran gains credibility among all Muslims and more influence in a contentious region of the world. In Yemen, however, supporting the Houthi rebellion brings a number of diplomatic risks with only minimal return. No oil exists in the Shi’ite areas of Yemen and the region has a long history of being irrelevant to world politics. The only clear benefit to Iranian support is proving its ideological commitment to itself and other Shi’a.

Conclusion

The settlement appears to have only fractured the Houthi leadership without fully eliminating or uncovering its supporters. An ash-Sharq al-Awsat article dated May 15 notes that the security services have not fully uncovered all the cells of the Believing Youth. The security services claim the organization was formed in 1984. If true, the twenty year duration of the organization would serve to discourage its members from simply abandoning its ideas, especially with the heavy casualties that have been inflicted on it recently.

On the surface the conflict is religious, but such a broad statement ignores the complex relationships that determine social and political life in northern Yemen. It is better understood as a balance of tribal affiliation with religious leadership. While the number of fighters supporting Houthi appears significant – at least in the hundreds judging from the number of dead – these military operations could never happen without the strong support of tribal leaders in the area. Ideology does play a limited role in their support, though their primary motivation stems from the opportunity to further diminish the government’s limited influence in the region.

The current resolution merely removes a tribal means for active rebellion. The leadership and infrastructure for rebellion, the Believing Youth, has received a severe blow. What remains, however, is a strong willingness among the populace to fight whenever the opportunity presents itself. Whenever a new charismatic figure emerges, one can assuredly expect renewed conflict in the remote regions of northern Yemen.

As applicable to al-Qaeda, the continuing rebellions weaken and embarrass the government. This is the third consecutive year where the government was forced to confront Islamic conflicts (an al-Qaeda related revolt in Abyan in 2003, along with the 2004 and 2005 Houthi conflicts). All met with failure, but they amply demonstrate how easy it is to foment armed conflict against the government.

The greatest threat facing the government would be a Sunni rebellion led by an entity like al-Qaeda, pitting thousands of tribesmen against the government in the Jawf and Marib provinces, where hatred of the government is near universal. The key ingredients are money, an opportunity to fight the government and organization. A multimillion dollar organization like al-Qaeda certainly has the financing and contacts necessary to implement such a rebellion. What offers the greatest challenge is organization. A rebellion with intra-organization communications could never happen due to innumerable rivalries between the tribes. What could happen, however, is a distribution of funds and an agreed upon start date between the tribes, leaving to their own judgment what to attack and how frequently. A revolt of the style mentioned above would only be limited by financing and its ability to keep the tribes focused on the government and not each other. A revolt on such a massive scale is not likely, but it is a threat that the government must consider.

Notes:

1. “al-Houthi Ya’oud Mughadhiban wa ar-Ra’ees Yutliq Sujana’ min Atiba’a Hussein,” al-Wasat, March 16, 2005

2. “al-‘Alama Badr ad-Deen al-Houthi lil-Wasat: Hussein lam Yastallam min as-Sulta wa Ushakak bi Maqtalahi,” al-Wasat, March 9, 2005

http://www.alwasat-ye.net/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=156

3. Jarabani, Hussein, “al-Yemen: Atiba’a al-Houthi Yakhudhoon Harb Shawaria’ ma’a Quwat al-Aman fi Sa’ada,” ash-Sharq al-Awsat, April 9, 2005, Volume 9629

4. Jarabani, Hussein, “al-Yemen: Anba’ ‘an Maqtal ar-Rajal ath-Thani fi Tantheem ash-Shabab al-Mo’min wa Harab al-Houthi al-Ab,” ash-Sharq al-Awsat, April 12, 2005, Volume 9632

5. “Yemen President Pardons Rebel Chief,” Alertnet, http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L1295364.htm

6. “Al-‘Alama Badr ad-Deen al-Houthi lil-Wasat: ar-Ra’ees Khafa an Ya’khuth Hussein minhu” al-Wasat, March 19, 2005.