Issued by CEMO Center - Paris
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Roland Jacquard
Roland Jacquard

How the Houthis turned into Iran's arm in Yemen?

Thursday 24/January/2019 - 12:39 PM

Before they evolved into an Iranian arm in Yemen in 2009, the Houthis were mere descendants of the Mutawakkilite family which ruled the northern part of Yemen.

In 1962, the Mutawakkilites were taken down by a rebel movement that was backed by the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The same movement formed the Northern Yemen Republic later on.

The Houthis have their stronghold in the northern Yemeni province of Saada. They are followers of Zaidiyyah, a small Shiite sect. The followers of this sect arrived in the region in the 8th century. Major Shiite sects do not recognize Zaidiyyah whose members were close to Sunnis for a long time in the past. This was why they received support from Saudi Arabia in the face of the Nasserite republican rebellion in 1960.

The political and religious détente between the Houthis and the mullahs' regime in Iran is very new. The Houthis felt marginalized after the unification of Yemen in 1990. Therefore, they established the al-Haq Party which gave rise to the Houthi movement of today.

However, the party was republican, which meant that he rejected the concept of imamate leadership. It only lobbied for respecting the cultural peculiarities of the Houthis. It also lobbied for giving them autonomous rule. Houthi tribes enjoyed autonomous rule in the northern parts of Yemen before 1962.

The peaceful al-Haq Party had, however, quickly been manipulated by extremists. This was particularly true after founding a branch of the party in 1992, namely the Pious Muslim Forum which was founded by Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi.

The forum should have become a social and cultural organization of Houthi youth. Nevertheless, it quickly evolved into a group of militias after the eruption of the Yemeni civil war in 1994.

This time, however, Saudi Arabia backed the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh in the face of the Houthi rebellion. The kingdom's motivations this time were geopolitical, not religious. It wanted to preserve the unity of Yemen. Saleh faced a fierce insurgency from the local al-Qaeda branch after the attack on the American destroyer USS Cole in Aden Port in October 2000.

The central authorities in Yemen succeeded in crushing the Houthi insurgence, thanks to Saudi support. The founder of the forum was killed. His brother, Abdel al-Malak al-Houthi, was killed as well. This was the context of the rapprochement between the Houthis and Iran. Nonetheless, the Houthis did not speak openly about their relations with the Iranians.

According to a report by the UN Security Council on the arms embargo imposed on Iran since 2007, the Iranian regime started arming the Houthis since 2009. It says in April of 2009, Iranian ships ferried bags full of arms to Yemeni ships in the international waters. The bags had then been taken to a farm in Yemen for the weapons inside them to be used by the Houthis later, the report said.

It added that in February of 2011, Yemeni authorities arrested the crew of an Iranian ship that carried 900 Iranian-made antitank and anti-helicopter missiles on the road to the Houthis.

In January 2013, Yemeni authorities seized an Iranian boat in Yemen's territorial waters filled with a large quantity of explosives, arms and money. The captured weapons included surface-to-air missiles used to shoot down civilian and military aircraft, C4 military-grade explosives, 122-millimeter shells, rocket-propelled grenades and bomb-making equipment, including electronic circuits, remote triggers and other hand-held explosives.

The Houthis used this Iranian support in staging their coup in September 2014. In doing this, they exploited the turmoil brought about by the Arab Spring in their country. They captured Yemeni capital Sana'a and took President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi down. This instigated action from a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

Having captured the main cities in Yemen, the Houthis established a political branch, namely Ansarullah. They also established a supreme policies council which was headed by Saleh Ali al-Samadi before he was killed in April 2018. The council is now headed by Mahdi Hussein al-Mashat.

Despite the presence of a political façade, the Houthis continue to act as a bloodthirsty militia.

The Houthis now continue to make headlines against the background of committing what amounts to war crimes. NGOs active in Yemen accuse the militia of liquidating opponents, including the late Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Houthis hammered out an alliance with Saleh when they captured Sana'a in 2014. They, however, killed him in December 2017, when he edged closer to Saudi Arabia.

Human rights violations committed by the Houthis include the recruitment of children and persecuting journalists, including journalist Yehia al-Jibihi who was sentenced to death in April 2017. The Houthis also persecute the Jewish minority in Yemen, according to The New York Times in 2015. They also persecute the Bahais, according to Amnesty International in August 2016.

Other war crimes include enforced disappearances, taking opponents hostage, and torturing opponents. These practices were uncovered by Human Rights Watch in September 2018. The Houthis also occupy hospitals and turn them into military barracks, Amnesty International said in November 2018. They take humanitarian aid and then sell it to ordinary Yemenis, according to the World Food Program in January 2019.

Roland Jacquard is a writer, advisor and the head of the Roland Jacquard Company for International Security Consultations.