HUFFINGTON POST
01/21/2015 01:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What You Need To Know About The Houthi Militia in Yemen

The crisis in Yemen rose to new heights this week, as Houthi fighters clashed with soldiers loyal to the president in the capital Sanaa and moved on the presidential palace, leading to warnings by top officials in the U.S.-backed government of an impending coup. Local media reported on Wednesday that the Houthis and Yemen's President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi had come to an agreement to end the standoff.

The Houthi gains this week came after a tense weekend. On Saturday, Houthi fighters kidnapped presidential aid Ahmed bin Mubarak after a disagreement with the president over a new constitution. As talks over the aid's release between the Houthis and the president were underway on Sunday, clashes erupted between Houthi fighters and the presidential guard in Yemeni capital, and the fighters seized control over state media. On Monday, they moved against the presidential palace as gunfire was heard throughout Sanaa.

Witnesses said on Tuesday that Houthis had seized control of the presidential palace and the barracks of the 3rd Brigade, Yemen's presidential guard. They also shelled the private residence of President Hadi and by Wednesday had posted guards outside his house, but stopped short of overthrowing him.

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Houthi Shiite Yemeni gather while guarding a street leading to the presidential palace in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 20, 2015. (Hani Mohammed/AP Photo)

RISE OF A MILITIA

Yemen's army barely resisted this September when Houthi fighters swept into the capital and in just a few days wrested control of most major government buildings, from the offices of the state radio to the central banks and the prime minister's office. While they refrained from outright grabbing power and ousting the government, they gradually tightened their grip the capital and key state institutions.

The Houthis belong to Yemen's Zaydi minority, a Shiite sect that makes up one-third of the population and controlled the north of the country until 1962. The group started as a Zaydi revivalist movement in the '90s, with its power base in the northern Saada province, on the border with Saudi Arabia. It was named after its then-leader Hussein Badr ad-Din al-Houthi, but its members refer to themselves as Ansar Allah, which means "Partisans Of God."

The group's recent battles for power are the latest effort of a longstanding campaign. Feeling marginalized by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis engaged in no fewer than six wars with the central government between 2004 and 2010. Al-Houthi was killed in the first of those clashes.

While the Houthis didn't have much of a political agenda through that turbulent decade, the group shifted its footing in 2011, after Yemenis took to the streets in the wake of the Arab Revolts and ousted Saleh, the International Crisis Group explained in a June briefing.

Led by Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the founder's younger brother, the group took advantage of the political and security vacuum created by the mass protests, strengthening its military position in the northern Saada region and neighboring Amran and widening its popular appeal significantly by supporting populist measures like fuel subsidies. According to the Economist, the group even swayed many Sunnis who appreciated both its distance from Yemen's power brokers and its political positions, which are liberal when compared to those of powerful but radical Sunni parties like the Islamist Islah party.

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Houthi Shiite Yemenis raise their fists during clashes near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 19, 2015. (Hani Mohammed/AP Photo)

AFTER THE REVOLT

In the wake of the 2011 revolution, Yemen's different political factions engaged in talks over the country's future called the National Dialogue Conference. However, as as foreign reporter Iona Craig noted on Democracy Now, the proposals coming out of the talks, in particular the decision to federalize the country and divide it into six regions, did not appeal to the Houthis, and the militia moved to expand their control over Saada. The Houthis were able to take full control of Saada early in 2014, and gradually extended their reach south until they arrived at the capital this summer.

The Houthis started staging massive protests against the Hadi government over the popular issue of fuel subsidies. The protests turned into clashes, and the Houthis moved on the capital in September.

Yemen's political factions engaged in UN-brokered peace talks shortly after and the deal that emerged greatly expanded the Houthis' role in Yemeni politics. It arranged for the formation of a new government, and gave Houthis and southern secessionists positions as advisers to the president.

In return for greater influence, the Houthis agreed to withdraw from the capital once a new administration was formed and relinquish their weapons. However, the militia leaders refused to sign the appendix to the deal stipulating these security arrangements and in fact never left.

Instead, the Houthis tightened their grip on state institutions, including the main ports, the defense ministry and a state oil company. There are reports of Houthis running illegal detention facilities and operating their own court system.

The deal reached between President Hadi and the Houthis on Wednesday will only strengthen the militia's position. According to the Associated Press, the agreement called for the Houthis to pull out of the presidential palace and the president's private home, as well as release the presidential aid the fighters had been holding since the weekend. In return, Hadi gave in to the Houthis' demand to amend the constitution and increase their representation in parliament and state institutions.

Yet, as Craig pointed out at Al Jazeera America earlier this year, Yemeni politics may have played a significant but complicated role in the Houthis' success. According to Craig, President Hadi may have initially given the Houthis leeway as they were fighting key opponents of the president and his predecessor, Saleh, during their fight for the capital last September. It now seems Hadi's gamble may have backfired.

Observers believe that Saleh, on the other hand, may come out of this week's events with a strengthened position and use the Houthi offensive and Hadi's downturn to expand his influence. Though Saleh stepped down during the mass protests of 2011, he maintains a strong hand in Yemeni politics.

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A Houthi rebel gestures from a tank at the compound of the army's First Armored Division in Sanaa, Yemen, Sept. 22, 2014. (Hani Mohammed/AP Photo)

AL QAEDA FEARS

The security vacuum left by the fighting has raised alarm in the United States and other international powers about its effects on the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an affiliate operating in Yemen. Just last week, AQAP claimed responsibility for the deadly attacks on the office of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Although the precise extent of AQAP's involvement in the Paris attack remains unclear, authorities consider the group one of the most dangerous of all the al Qaeda affiliates.

The Houthis have sworn to eradicate AQAP and have recently expanded their operations to parts of the center and south of the country where the extremist group holds sway. AQAP from its end has long fought the Shiite rebels, and called on its followers to attack the Houthis where they can. "Lie in wait for them, cause harm to them on the roads, tighten the ambushes for them, and do not let them feel safe," the Sunni group said in a statement.

While it may seem beneficial at first sight that the Houthi militiamen are fighting al Qaeda, the Houthi offensive, many argue, could cause more harm than good as it destabilized the country, widened tribal, regional and political divisions, and greatly reduced the effectiveness of the government and the president. The United States and other Western powers consider the Hadi government a key ally in their counterterrorism strategy.

Some argue it could also increase the popularity of the al Qaeda militants, who frame their fight against the Houthis as one of Sunnis against Shiites, even though the divide is much more complicated in reality. Abdulwahab Alkebsi of the Center for International Private Enterprise explained on the PBS Newshour that while the Houthis are Shiite and are believed to receive some support from Iran, their branch of Shiism is completely different than those of the Iranians and Lebanese. Alkebsi says that despite that nuance, al Qaeda is benefitting from the situation to recruit more and more supporters. "It creates such a recruitment cry for for the Sunni fanatics to join al Qaeda, those even who are not fanatics who want to protect Sunnis. And they become recruitment fodder for al Qaeda to fight."

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Yemeni men stand next to a charred vehicle outside a heavily damaged house near the presidential palace in Sanaa on Jan. 20, 2015. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images).

YEMEN'S FUTURE

For Yemeni civilians, the fighting between the Houthis, parts of the military and al Qaeda has turned a dire humanitarian situation into a disastrous one. Yemen's economy is on the brink of collapse. AQAP has stepped up its campaign of suicide bombings and urban attacks, increasing the number of civilians casualties. The violence of the past sent residents of Sanaa scrambling to find food and safety. While the Houthis initially received public approval for their stance against corruption and their relatively liberal proposals, many now disapprove of their fierce tactics.

According to Craig, what comes next largely depends on the Houthis. She points out that even with an end to the recent standoff, the Houthis still remain the dominant player. "The Houthis still have the power in their hands at the moment, and President Hadi most certainly does not," Craig said on Tuesday.

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A Houthi rebel stands guard at a checkpoint on a street leading to the state television building in Sanaa, Yemen, Sept. 21, 2014. (Hani Mohammed/AP Photo)

This post was originally published in October 2014 and was updated to include recent developments.

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