Yemen Briefing: Who are the Houthis, and what do they want?

The government of the Arab world's poorest country has all but collapsed, with the Shiite Houthi movement declaring that it's now in charge.

Hani Mohammed/AP
Houthi supporters at a rally to celebrate the takeover of the country in Sanaa on Saturday.

On Friday, the Shiite Houthi movement declared control over Yemen, weeks after it had seized the capital and placed the country's president under house arrest. The move raised concerns of civil war in the country and saw UN envoy Jamal Benomar rush back to Sanaa, where he announced today that he had convinced the country's various political factions to sit down and talk over the future of the country. 

There have been demonstrations against the takeover in many quarters of the country, and analysts worry that the takeover of the government by a movement stemming from the country's Shiite minority could lead to increased support for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as a protector of Sunni interests.

What led to Yemen’s current unrest?

In 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring protests that  brought down Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and sparked the bloody Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia brokered the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the middle of a popular uprising against his corrupt government.

Current President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was elected, unopposed, in 2012.

His presidency was supposed to lead to the drafting of a new national constitution that would work out power sharing among the country’s long fractious regions. However, a recent draft constitution infuriated members of the Shiite Houthi movement, which dominates the northwest, because they said its provisions for dividing the country into six federal states would lead to unfair control of national wealth in the south.

On Jan. 17, they kidnapped Mr. Hadi’s chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, and seized the presidential palace; they have since demanded a rewrite of the constitution and declared they will lead a two year "transitional period" for the country.

Hadi resigned following the Houthi takeover of the capital and is currently held by the Houthis.

Q: Who are the Houthis and what do they want?

The Houthi clan hails from Saada Province in the north, where the country’s Zaydi Shiite community, about 30 percent of Yemen’s 24 million people, are concentrated. The Houthi movement was founded in the early 1990s by Hussein al-Houthi, a respected cleric and tribal leader. Initially it was a peaceful Shiite revivalist movement, but as it evolved and pressed for more national political power and autonomy.

In Saada, open conflict with the central government became inevitable.

In 2004, Mr. Houthi was killed by government forces in Saada, sparking an open insurrection from the now fully militant movement. His youngest brother, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, is now the group’s leader.

The Houthis’ have received some support in recent years from Iran, and their slogan, “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews
and Long Live Islam,” isn’t exactly reassuring. Saudi Arabia despises and fears them as a Shiite movement on its border. But they are also staunch enemies of Al Qaeda, and have vowed to wipe out the group on their own.

Their political aspirations don’t appear to extend beyond Yemen itself, with their desires boiling down to maximum autonomy in Shiite-majority areas, and as much national influence as their strength of arms can secure.

Q: Could Yemen break up again?

Yes. Central government authority is already largely notional in much of the country. Following the Houthi takeover of the capital, leaders in multiple provinces announced they would not take orders any longer from the central government. There is still support for inde-
pendence in the south – the flag of old South Yemen has been raised in Aden, the southern port city ruled as a colony by Britain for nearly 130 years until 1967.

In the oil-producing eastern province of Marib, Houthis and Sunni tribesmen have fought and local officials have called the movement’s actions in capital city Sanaa a coup.

And though Yemen’s recent conflicts have been far more about tribal allegiances and money than sectarianism, the country risks lurching into the kind of sectarian conflict that has been so destructive in Iraq and Syria. Some analysts worry that Sunni tribesman may be pushed into the arms of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as their best hope of resisting the Houthis.

Q: What is the role of AQAP?

AQAP has been far more of a direct security threat to Western inter-ests in recent years than the so-called core Al Qaeda based in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The failed 2009 attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had hidden a bomb in his underwear, to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, was organized by the group, as was the unsuccessful 2010 attempt to blow up two cargo planes flying from Yemen to the United States.

One of the two brothers who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in early January received training from the group in Yemen in 2011, and AQAP claimed responsibility for the attack. As a result, Yemen has been of intense security interest to the Obama administration, which has carried out more than 100 attacks on alleged Al Qaeda members in the country since 2008, killing more than 800 alleged militants and dozens of civilians.

Among those killed was the American-born cleric and chief propaganda officer for the group, Anwar al-Awlaki, who died in a US drone attack in 2011.
The US is concerned that obtaining the intelligence it’s relied on to conduct its assassination campaign will now grow more difficult amid Yemen’s turmoil, though on Jan. 26 a suspected US drone attack killed three men in a car near the border between Marib and Shabwa provinces, in the heart of AQAP’s power in the country.

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