Extremist Organization

Houthis

The Houthi movement first gained global prominence when it toppled the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The religious extremism and sectarian bent of the Houthis constitutes both a regional problem and a threat to Yemen as a state.

Read time: 8 min.
07.10.2022

Overview

The Houthi movement is a heavily-armed extremist organization based in Yemen. It is a well-organized force that controls 13 of the country’s 21 governorates, where roughly 70% of the population resides. 

The Houthis – or Ansar Allah (Partisans of God) as they refer to themselves – are predominantly Zaidi Shiites. But the group is careful not to overtly espouse the Zaidi cause and, in fact, has many Sunnis amongst its ranks. But Sunnis continue to face discrimination in Houthi-ruled areas, and all key political and military posts in the Houthi structure are held by Zaidis. 

The Houthis claim to be fighting Western imperialism. They promote both pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism and exhibit a strong dislike of the United States and Israel, and some regional states, especially Saudi Arabia. 

The Houthis came to global prominence by taking an active part in the uprising in Yemen in 2011. They did this while at the same time tightening their grip on their stronghold of Saada. In 2014, with the help of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was toppled in the uprising, they captured the capital Sana’a, removing from power the internationally recognized government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia.

In March of 2015, a Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen to restore Hadi’s government to power. In December 2017, soon after Saleh declared that he no longer wanted to work with the movement and made overtures to the Coalition, the Houthis assassinated him. The conflict has today become a bloody stalemate. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the war, which has resulted in what the United Nations has called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”. 

Houthi actions inside Yemen have come in for sharp global criticism. The movement has been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Its random shelling, rocket attacks and planting of explosive devices has led to the deaths of thousands of civilians. The group has also engaged in kidnappings of political opponents and activists, disappearances, torture and televised public execution of prisoners. Its activities have resulted in the displacement of thousands of ordinary Yemenis. 

Meanwhile, last December, the Coalition announced that since the start of the war in 2015, the Houthis had launched 430 ballistic missiles and 851 armed drones at Saudi Arabia, leaving 59 people dead in the kingdom. In January 2022, Houthi drones and missiles struck the UAE, leaving three civilians dead. 

Besides, according to the official Yemeni news agency SABA, the group has vandalized or fully destroyed almost 300 mosques across the country. 

The Houthis have been branded a terrorist organization by countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia. Their designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States was only rescinded in February 2021 as the Biden Administration was concerned that continuing with that branding could impede efforts to improve the extreme humanitarian crisis in Yemen. 

Despite the current dominance of the Houthis, Yemen has a variety of stakeholders. These include tribes, political parties and other armed, non-state actors. The Houthis often accuse their adversaries and political opponents of being linked to Daesh. They have also launched attacks against ISIS, Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islah party (the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). By doing this, the movement hopes to set itself up as the obvious partner for the international community in its fight against Salafi jihadism. However, most of the targets of the Houthis are mainstream Yemeni groups that oppose their takeover of the country, such as government forces and factions like the Southern Transitional Council. 

The movement first emerged in the early 1990s, as a reaction to the marginalization of Zaidis, and perceived Wahhabi influence in the country. The northern province of Saada is considered the Houthi heartland. They differ in key ways from the Twelver Shiites in Iran and other countries, and account for about 30% of Yemen’s Sunni-majority population. 

The roots of the Houthis lie in the Shabab Al Mumineen (the Believing Youth), a summer camp of sorts that was launched in the early 1990s. The aim of the program was to reintroduce northern youth to the Zaidi beliefs of their forefathers through the use of video cassette recordings. 

It is to be noted that there existed in Yemen a Zaidi imamate that ruled for almost a millennium. The imamate came to an end after the North Yemen Civil War that began in 1962. The strongest foreign backer of the Republicans trying to topple the imamate was Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt, while the other side was supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan. 

The Houthis take their name from Hussein Al Houthi. He was a fierce opponent of President Saleh, whom he saw as being corrupt and too close to Saudi Arabia and the United States. His followers referred to his political and religious worldview as the ‘Quranic march’. 

The situation between the two sides came to a head when Hussein rejected the Yemeni government’s overt support for America’s ‘war on terror’ that was launched after the attacks of 9/11. He was killed in 2004 alongside several associates while resisting arrest by Yemeni troops loyal to Saleh. But his killing only fueled what would become six years of fighting between the Houthis and the Saleh regime. This bout of warfare came to be known as the ‘Saada Wars’. 

Structure

Abdul Malek Al Houthi is at the heart of the Houthi political and military structure, and is the undisputed overall leader. The pro-Houthi media often refers to him as ‘Qaid Al Thawra’ (leader of the revolution). The power and influence of any Houthi leader is determined not by their title or role but their proximity to Abdul Malek. 

Broadly put, Abdul Malek sits over two main structures of power: One is made up of loyalists from the early days of the organization, when it was fighting the ‘Saada Wars’. The second power structure comprises social networks built by the Houthi patriarch Badruddin Al Houthi in the early 1990s. 

The Houthis have taken full control of the remnants of the Yemeni state, and loyalists have been appointed in both civilian and military bodies. This has led to the transfer of state powers to a secretive network of Houthi supervisors.

The Houthi war machine is made up of regular Yemeni army units, special combat groups commanded by high-ranking Houthi leaders, and fighters loyal to pro-Houthi tribal sheikhs and other notables who are capable of garnering local support. As a result, these leaders enjoy a certain degree of operational autonomy, and function as a network of local armed groups in support of the Houthi movement’s broader war. 

Militarily, the Supreme Revolutionary Committee is the most important armed faction of the organization. 

Leadership 

As noted, Hussein Al Houthi is considered the founding leader of the Houthi movement. After his death at the hands of the Yemeni army in 2004, leadership of the organization passed on to his father, Badruddin Al Houthi, a Zaidi religious scholar who was also a Member of Parliament between 1993 and 1997, representing the pro-imamate, Islamist Al Haq party. Badruddin died of natural causes in 2010 at the age of 86, but even while he was alive, active leadership of the movement had passed on to another one of his sons, Abdul Malek Al Houthi, brother of Hussein Al Houthi. 

Abdul Malek took charge of the organization in 2006; he was about 26 or 27 at that time. Since then, and especially since the start of the Coalition operations in 2015, he has commanded both its military operations and its political initiatives. Under Abdul Malek’s command, the group’s organizational capacity has increased rapidly, as did its fighting prowess.  

He also has a reputation for secrecy and is reported to be moving from safehouse to safehouse regularly. He rarely gives media interviews and most of the knowledge about Abdul Malek is gleaned from secondary sources. However, there is little doubt that he remains the supreme commander. 

Yahia Al Houthi, another brother of Abdul Malek, is also one of the political leaders of the movement. He was forced to leave Yemen in 2007 and ended up living in Germany. In 2010, the Yemeni government sentenced him in absentia to 15 years in jail for supporting his brother’s rebellion against Saleh. But he never served any time in jail. 

Abdul Khaliq Al Houthi, also a brother of Abdul Malek, was a senior commander in the group. He was reportedly killed in a Coalition airstrike in Hodeidah in 2018. 

Yusuf Al Madani, brother-in-law of Abdul Malek, is a senior military commander in the movement and is seen as its deputy leader. Al Madani rose through the ranks from the early days of the movement, during the time of the aforesaid Shabab Al Mumineen. Al Madani became actively involved in the training of Houthi militants. 

Mohammed Ali Al Houthi, a cousin of Abdul Malek, is another high-ranking member of the organization. He was part of the Houthi governing regime after they took over Sana’a and was a member of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee created in 2015. He is also a member of the Supreme Political Council, the SRC’s successor governing body.

Mohammed Al Bukhaiti is a senior political officer and spokesman for the Houthis. He has often given interviews to the international media, defending Houthi actions. He has described the organization as a “national movement that strongly subscribes to the principles of Arab nationalism and pan-Islamism”. 

‘Brigadier General’ Yahya Sarea is the military spokesman of the Houthis, and perhaps the best-known face of the organization. He has addressed several press conferences and made numerous news announcements, often appearing to claim high-profile attacks against government and Coalition targets. 

Capabilities

The Houthis increasingly resembles an army. Their arsenal includes not only weapons supplied by foreign backers but also armaments they seized from government forces when they overran the north. Estimates of the personnel currently in their ranks range from 180,000 to 220,000. 

The Houthis possess a range of light and heavy arms, and sophisticated weapons such as naval mines, anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), explosives-laden UAVs, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. 

They have in their arsenal weapons such as the Qasef family of armed drones; 122-millimeter Katyusha rockets; Misagh-2 MANPADS; RDX high explosives; and Borkan-2H mobile, short-range ballistic missiles, which they have used to strike Riyadh and other cities in Saudi Arabia. 

According to a UN panel of experts, the Borkan-2H is “a derived lighter version” of the Qiam-1 missile. The longest-range ballistic missile the Houthis have is the Borkan-3, which has a range of 1,200km. This is also based on a version of the Qiam, which itself is derived from the Scud, made famous by Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. 

On the ground, the Houthis have gained significant military experience as a result of years of fighting against the Saleh regime, and also government forces backed by the Arab Coalition. They have carried out numerous raids across the border against Saudi forces, and have lobbed hundreds of missiles and kamikaze drones into the kingdom.

A key part of the training for the Houthis comes from specialists from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. The specialists regularly visit Yemen and are often embedded in Houthi command centers. Houthis are also seen as being close to many sectarian groups in Iraq. 

Local allies of the Houthis in Yemen are sometimes referred to as the ‘mutahawwithin’ – meaning ‘Houthised’ people. The term has derogatory connotations and refers to people who joined the ranks at a later stage and for non-ideological reasons. As such, the mutahawwithin are viewed with some level of suspicion by hardcore Houthis and tensions have often arisen between the two groups, especially in central Yemen.

Most of the core members of the group come from Zaidi background but the organization also has affiliations with various other groups that don’t necessarily believe in core Zaidi principles.

Outlook

The religious extremism and sectarian bent of the Houthis constitutes both a regional problem and also a threat to Yemen as a state. The Houthis champion an Islamist extremist doctrine that they continue to use to appropriate state institutions in Yemen. They use slogans of pan-Islamism, pan-Arabism and anti-Zionism to further their own cause of taking total control over all of the country. Yemen under Houthi rule will continue to become more militarized and their proto state will pose a challenge to the existing security architecture in the region and threaten stability and trade. 

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