Yemen’s Huthi Movement in the Wake of the Arab Spring

Aug 23, 2012

Since February 2011, the Huthi movement has played an important though largely overlooked role in Yemen’s political transition. The group has responded to the “Arab Spring” and in particular to the slow, negotiated toppling of Ali Abdullah Salih in Yemen. Since protests began in Yemen, the Huthi positions have aligned with those of the “revolutionary youth,” calling for the downfall of the regime and justice for its victims.[1] As the central government’s focus turned toward the capital, state authority in Sa`da Province crumbled, allowing the Huthis to consolidate control over the administration of a province they had been contesting for over a decade. At the same time, the group has attempted to seize administrative control in areas where it only had a foothold, with mixed results.

This article provides a brief background of the Huthi movement, and then looks at the activities of the Huthis since the start of the Arab Spring in early 2011 on three different levels: local, national and regional. It highlights significant developments in the Huthi stronghold of Sa`da Province and its environs during the past year. In addition, it looks at the Huthi stance toward Yemen’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-backed transitional process as well as how regional developments may begin to play a stronger role in driving the conflict. The future of the movement will depend on the complex interaction of political dynamics at all three levels.

Brief Background of the Huthi Movement
The Huthis (who officially refer to themselves as “Ansar Allah”) are named after their former leader, Husayn al-Huthi, who was killed by Yemeni government forces in 2004 after refusing to turn himself in for questioning.[2] Basing himself in the mountainous west of Sa`da Province in Yemen’s northwest corner, Husayn al-Huthi combined Zaydi revivalism with sharp political criticism of both local and international actors, crafting a historically rooted discourse of justice and empowerment that resonated throughout the region.[3] Zaydism is a branch of Shi`a Islam that arose around the figure of Zayd ibn Ali,[4] who was killed in battle in 740 AD in an attempted uprising against the ruling Umayyad dynasty. Departing from what would become the dominant Shi`a narrative (as followed in contemporary Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and parts of the Arabian Peninsula), Zayd’s followers held that the rightful imam must fulfill certain conditions, including descent from the Prophet Muhammad through his grandsons Hassan and Husayn, possession of superior skills both as a warrior and a scholar, and a willingness to rise up against injustice and oppression.

Husayn al-Huthi was able to create a strong network of devoted followers in Yemen’s north, where Zaydism remained strong despite the overthrow of Yemen’s Zaydi Imamate in 1962, in part due to the political liberalization that accompanied the unification of Yemen in 1990 as well as the crisis within Zaydism precipitated by the growth of Salafist influence in the region. Al-Huthi’s growing influence in the late 1990s was accompanied by increasingly contentious behavior on the part of his followers, which in turn prompted the government, acting partly in response to shifting international dynamics, to overreact.[5] The manhunt that eventually killed al-Huthi unleashed a spiral of violence beginning in 2004 that became known as the six “Sa`da Wars.” The group transformed from a grassroots Zaydi revivalist network under Husayn al-Huthi’s leadership to a strong insurgent fighting force under the leadership of Husayn’s younger half-brother, Abdul Malik.[6] By the sixth war in 2009, an aura of invincibility surrounded Huthi fighters as they pushed the fighting beyond Yemen’s borders. In November 2009, the Saudi Arabian military intervened to support the Yemeni government in its fight with the Huthis.[7] Three months later, the Huthis accepted a Qatari-negotiated cease-fire that teetered along during the following year.[8]

In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Huthis have managed to seize control of parts of Sa`da Province. The Huthis’ increasingly authoritarian conduct, however, may have dented their discourse of justice and resistance. As they go from being victim to aggressor, the Huthis may find their “self-defense” justifications ringing hollow to many in Yemen. This may not matter: the Huthis have seized power in Sa`da Province and appear to be extending their influence outward, specifically in the provinces of al-Jawf to the east of Sa`da and Hajjah to its southwest. Political power, however, is particularly opaque and regularly contested in Yemen’s tribal areas. The country itself is a patchwork of influence over which the central government exerts varying degrees of authority and through a variety of methods. This context needs to be taken into account when speaking of Huthi “control” over certain areas. In Sa`da Province, the Huthis are believed to have replaced the government as the main power-brokers in several parts of the province, most importantly the provincial capital.[9]  The important question is not whether they will play a role in Yemen’s future, but rather what that role will be.

Local Level
In January 2011, heavy fighting broke out on the outskirts of Sa`da city between the Huthis and the al-Abdin tribe, whose leader, Othman Mujalli, was a vocal Huthi critic.[10] He was also a parliamentary representative from Sa`da Province for the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) party. A few weeks after the clashes started, the student protest movement that began in the capital Sana`a spread to other parts of the country, including Sa`da. Meanwhile, the Huthis began laying siege to Mujalli and his followers. As protests grew, Sa`da’s provincial government came under increasing pressure. On March 18, government snipers fired on a mass protest in the Yemeni capital Sana`a (the “Karama Massacre”) prompting national outrage and a flood of defections from the regime. Protests flared throughout the country, and over the following days Sa`da’s provincial governor fled to the capital Sana`a in the face of popular outrage at the regime.[11] Bereft of government support, Othman Mujalli and his followers were chased out of town and the Huthis seized or destroyed most of his properties. Not long after this a group of Sa`da notables, with Huthi backing, appointed Faris Mana`a as the region’s unofficial governor, a post he continues to hold.[12]

The neighboring province of al-Jawf proved less amenable to Huthi control. When protests broke out in February 2011, Huthi influence in the province—as compared to that of Islah, the main opposition party—was limited.[13] After failed government efforts to contain the protests (promising more resources, replacing the governor, firing on protesters), locals overran provincial government installations, including the base of the Yemeni Army’s 115th Division.[14] Control of the province fell to members of the al-Islah Party, Yemen’s main opposition party which draws its support largely from the Hashid tribal confederation and various Sunni organizations (most prominent among them, groups affiliated with noted cleric Abdul Majid al-Zindani). Although the Huthis and Islah both opposed the Salih administration, this shared objective did not extend to the local level in al-Jawf, where Sunni tribesmen have historically resisted Huthi influence.[15] Fighting between Huthi and Islah adherents for control of government installations, particularly military and security facilities, broke out immediately and continued for several months until they negotiated a truce. In August 2011, the groups agreed to appoint a new provincial governor affiliated with Islah.[16] It is unclear, though, whether a balance has been reached in the province, particularly given al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) increased targeting of Huthis in the area.[17]

Most recently, Huthi focus has turned to the impoverished province of Hajjah, southwest of Sa`da.[18] In Hajjah, the Huthis initially used “soft power” methods to enter the area and establish alliances in the province’s northern districts. Their use of “hard power” began in the spring of 2011, when Yusuf al-Madani, a key Huthi field commander who is married to one of Husayn al-Huthi’s daughters, moved into a family property in the Abu Dawar area. This settlement is along the border of Kushar and Mustabah districts and overlooks the market town of Ahim, famous in Yemen for its weapons and all other types of goods from and for Saudi Arabian markets. According to local accounts, al-Madani and as many as 200 armed followers began aggressively proselytizing and setting up checkpoints in the area. The Huthis claim that al-Madani and his followers were harassed from the moment they arrived and that their use of violence was in “self-defense.” The Hajoor tribe of Kushar district, likely with support from Sunni sympathizers, has been engaged in fierce battles with the Huthis for months. The violence in Hajjah has become severe, with nearly 50,000 residents displaced from the three most heavily affected districts (Washhah, Kushar and Mustabah).[19] The Huthis have been held responsible for the outbreak and the escalation, and are accused of laying landmines in several parts of Kushar district.[20] Control of this province is at present highly fragmented and uncertain, as neither side is willing to yield even though violence has increased.

With the government largely absent from the area, a common refrain has been that the Huthis aim to reach Hajjah’s small Red Sea port of Midi. Their critics accuse the Huthis of expansionist designs, specifically the creation of a “Zaydi State” or “Huthi Imamate” in Yemen’s northern provinces (Sa`da, Hajjah, ‘Amran, al-Jawf and Marib), which the Huthis themselves deny.[21] Assuming that the Huthis are acting with expansionist purposes, the limits and goals of this behavior might also be more modest. National politics provide some insight.

National Level
Although the exact start date of Yemen’s Arab Spring is disputed, mass nationwide protests began in February 2012 and eventually toppled longtime president Ali Abdullah Salih. The Huthis, unlike the opposition al-Islah Party, were quick to publicly support the protest movement and openly call for the downfall of the regime.[22] Large anti-regime protests sprouted early in areas of Huthi influence, and the group’s youth delegation set up a presence in the tent city of Sana`a’s Sahat al-Tagheer (“Change Square”), under the banner of Shabab al-Sumud (The Steadfast Movement). In a testament to the importance of the group’s political stance, the Huthi protesters were, for the most part, young, educated sympathizers from urban areas like Taiz and Sana`a who found in the Huthi ideology “one among many new outlets to express disenchantment with the regime’s repressive apparatus.”[23]

The Huthi movement has taken positions that largely mirror those of the revolutionary youth. When the GCC unveiled its plan to transition from the rule of Ali Abdullah Salih, both the Huthis and the youth rejected its legitimacy. Furthermore, they refused to recognize the agreement that Salih finally signed on November 23, 2011. The Huthis, along with revolutionary youth groups and the Southern Movement (Hiraak), boycotted the one-man elections for Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi. The Huthis’ rejection of the GCC initiative has opened them up to direct criticism from the main political opposition front (the Islah-dominated Joint Meeting Parties, JMP). As the transitional process begins creating its own legitimacy, the Huthis are accused of acting opportunistically and lacking a constructive vision.[24] Regardless of the purity of their motives, the Huthis’ alignment with both the revolutionary youth and the Southern Movement creates a strong informal opposition bloc that helps legitimize Huthi reluctance to fully endorse the transitional process.

In fact, despite their public rejection of the transitional process, the Huthis appear to have some interest in playing politics. Several prominent Zaydi figures, including defectors from the main Zaydi political party (Hizb al-Haqq), recently formed a political party (Hizb al-Umma) which, despite denials of formal links by Huthi leaders in Sa`da, looks like a Huthi party.[25] Whatever form the Huthis’ entry into politics takes, it will be cautious and laden with preconditions.

The GCC agreement calls for a national dialogue that includes all political forces and actors, explicitly mentioning the Huthis. They have been ambivalent about participating, although this is a change given their initial rejection of the agreement itself.[26] While it is unclear whether they will participate and what their expectations are, at the national level the Huthis appear to be showing a willingness to take part in the transitional process.[27] Whether and how their gains on the ground translate into a stake in national politics remains a major question looming over Yemen’s transition.

Regional Level
The GCC, and Saudi Arabia in particular, has played an important role in Yemen’s transition away from Ali Abdullah Salih. The Huthis could be of concern to Saudi Arabia for reasons that include fears of Iranian influence, enmity from Huthi cross-border raids and Saudi Arabia’s military response in 2009, and general concern with having a religiously motivated non-state actor in control of areas across the border from a province that has not fit comfortably in the Saudi Kingdom.[28] Yet it is likely that instability, rather than Huthi control over Sa`da Province, is Saudi Arabia’s principal security concern in this area.[29]

The Huthis accuse Saudi Arabia of meddling, although these attacks are often to justify actions driven by events on the ground. In early May 2012, for instance, Abdul Malik al-Huthi explained the fortification of positions in Hajjah as a defensive measure to confront a looming attack by Saudi Arabian mercenaries.[30] Huthi ire is not limited to Saudi Arabia, and the group has been consistent in keeping its slogan (which includes “Death to America, Death to Israel”) relevant by constantly referring to U.S. and Israeli plots in Yemen.[31]

The Huthis themselves suffer from accusations from Saudi Arabian and Yemeni opposition media of ideological and material support from Iran. These charges are ongoing since at least the early 2000s. The charge of ideological links to the Iranian Shi`a is sensitive, as it undermines a basic tenet of the Huthis’ ideological project, namely the idea that they represent an indigenous form of Islam.[32] The Zaydi revival of the 1990s, which paved the way for the rise of the Huthis, was largely a reaction to the influx of Wahhabism into Yemen’s Zaydi heartland. Because arguments of tradition and indigeneity were central to Husayn al-Huthi’s critique of Wahhabism, the charge that the roots of Huthi doctrine are deeper in Tehran than in Sa`da is an attempt to undermine the very foundation of this critique.

The growing sectarian discourse, in particular between Salafists and Huthis, has created the potential for regional or international events to play a greater role in shaping the conflict. Sectarian tensions based on domestic factors have already escalated. In late 2011 and early 2012, the Huthi blockade of a Salafist religious school (Dar al-Hadith) located near Sa`da city, part of the group’s steps to consolidate control over the province, threatened to explode into sectarian war. Similar spikes in violence have occurred against the backdrop of an ongoing “soft war” for influence in the region, pitting the militant egalitarian puritanism of Salafism against Husayn al-Huthi’s message of nationalism, political justice and divine rights.[33] More recently, the AQAP-aligned Ansar al-Shari`a appears to be taking their sectarian fight to areas of Huthi control, threatening to engulf those provinces in sectarian conflict.[34]

Conclusion
The Huthis appear to be in a position of relative strength and are unlikely to give up their gains easily. They may find themselves in a situation of stability in an increasingly chaotic Yemen. Developments in northern Yemen will continue to be mostly driven by events on the ground, with shifts in the national political landscape exercising an important pull. It is likely that sectarianism will continue and perhaps increase, with the consequence that broader regional phenomena are likely to exert even greater influence on this part of Yemen.

The Huthis continue fighting to establish control over areas they see as in their natural sphere of influence. At the same time, they continue to send mixed signals about their willingness to participate in national politics. Whether a nationally negotiated solution can halt the continued fighting depends on how well the local dynamics of Yemen’s north can be mapped onto the national political negotiations in a way that satisfies both the Huthis and the other parties (primarily Islah). Assuming the Huthis have no secessionist aspirations, what do they consider their sphere of influence? Do they hope to seize control of Marib Province and its oil facilities as part of the future “Huthi Imamate”? Or are they simply taking precautions against renewed attacks by a new Saudi-sponsored, Sunni-dominated Yemeni state? Clear answers to these questions will be crucial in determining the role of the Huthi movement in post-Salih Yemen.

Lucas Winter is a Middle East Analyst for the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Mr. Winter holds an M.A. in International Relations from Johns Hopkins SAIS and an M.P.S. in Arabic from the University of Maryland.

[1] The fact that the positions align does not imply shared motivations or coordination.

[2] For details on this incident, see Iris Glosemeyer, “Local Conflict, Global Spin: An Uprising in the Yemeni Highlands,” Middle East Report 232 (2004).

[3] For a useful exposition of Husayn al-Huthi’s thought, see Abdullah Lux, “Yemen’s Last Zaydi Imam: The Shabab al-Mu’min, the Malazim, and Hizb Allah in the Thought of Husayn Badr al-Din al-Huthi,” Contemporary Arab Affairs 2:3 (2009).

[4] Zayd was the grandson of Husayn ibn Ali, himself the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima.

[5] Ayman Hamidi, “Inscriptions of Violence in Northern Yemen: Haunting Histories, Unstable Moral Spaces,” Middle Eastern Studies 45:2 (2009).

[6] The group was initially known as the “Shabab al-Mumin” (Believing Youth).

[7] Kristen Chick, “Yemen’s Houthi Rebels Get Iran Assurance, Ask Saudis to Stop Strikes,” Christian Science Monitor, November 11, 2009.

[8] Good overviews of the conflict include: “Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb,” International Crisis Group, 2009; Lucas Winter, “Conflict in Yemen: Simple People, Complicated Circumstances,” Middle East Policy 18 (2011). A recent analysis of the conflict weaving politics and sectarianism is Sami Dorlian, “The Sa’da War in Yemen: Between Politics and Sectarianism,” Muslim World 101:2 (2011). The most comprehensive account is the excellent Barak A. Salmoni, Bryce Loidolt and Madeleine Wells, Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Huthi Phenomenon (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010).

[9] The opacity of political power has increased since the forced resignation of Ali Abdullah Salih. Sa`da Province is nominally controlled by governor Faris Mana`a. Reports, however, indicate that Huthi commander Abu Ali al-Hakim is the provincial capital’s ultimate power-broker. This, of course, does not mean that Huthi power is uncontested. See: “What is Happening in Sa`da’s ‘Houthi Kingdom’?” al-Masdar, November 30, 2011.

[10] “Violent Clashes Between Tribes and Houthi Fighters in Sa`da,” al-Masdar, January 17, 2011.

[11] “Houthi Group Appoints Arms Dealer as Governor of Sa’ada Province,” Yemen Post, March 27, 2011.

[12] Mana`a, who is from the region, is a notorious arms dealer who fell out of favor with the regime after being accused of helping arm the Huthis. He appears to be a respected consensus figure and has thus far been able to help stabilize Sa`da Province. He has been involved in mediation efforts between the Huthis and other groups.

[13] On Huthi presence in al-Jawf and its impact on al-Qa`ida, see Gabriel Koehler-Derrick ed., A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2011), pp. 59-62.

[14] “115th Infantry Division in al-Jawf without a Commander, Revolutionary Youth Guard Government Installations,” al-Masdar, March 21, 2011.

[15] Part of this was due to aggressive Huthi proselytism, which like other aspects of Huthi doctrine and practice may be viewed as a response to the incursion of Wahhabism and Salafism into Yemen’s northwest provinces. The best account of the origins of this dynamic can be found in Shelagh Weir, “A Clash of Fundamentalisms: Wahhabism in Yemen,” Middle East Report 204 (1997). Among other elements, Huthi proselytism revolves around disseminating the thoughts of Husayn al-Huthi as well as the regular chanting of the Huthi slogan (“Allahu Akbar! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse the Jews! Victory for Islam!”).

[16] “Sunni-Shiites War in Al-Jawf,” Yemen Times, October 3, 2011.

[17] The most notable AQAP attack was in November 2010. On November 24, a suicide bombing in al-Jawf killed Husayn al-Huthi’s elderly father Badr al-Din al-Huthi. An attack on the funeral procession in Sa`da Province two days later took the lives of several more. Other attacks against the Huthis claimed by AQAP include a suicide attack against a meeting of Huthi leaders in al-Jawf Province on August 15, 2011, and a bomb at another gathering of Huthis in al-Jawf’s capital on May 25, 2012.

[18] The description given here of events in Hajjah Province is based on a comprehensive account written by a member of the Yemeni media and human rights delegation that visited the area, and which was simultaneously published in two of Yemen’s main opposition publications (al-Ahale and Marib Press). See “Hajjah’s Deathmill…Where the Houthis’ Route to Midi Begins,” al-Ahale, March 21, 2012. By most, if not all, neutral accounts, the Huthis are seen as the aggressor in Hajjah.

[19] An illustrated map and factsheet are available at www.reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/New_idps_accessHajjah_2703122.pdf.

[20] On the landmines, see for instance: “Yemen: Rising Landmine Death Toll in Hajjah Governorate,” IRIN, April 18, 2012.

[21] A report by a Yemeni think-tank (Abaad Studies and Research Center), for instance, sees the aim of Huthi militarism as the creation of a state-within-a-state composed of the five provinces mentioned above plus parts of three other ones. See “Houthis Look to Establish Shiite State along Saudi Border,” Yemen Times, February 11, 2011. For a summary of the Abaad Center report, see “Abaad Report: Houthi Military Movements Driven by Emotion and Based on a Misreading of Changing Conditions,” al-Masdar, February 21, 2011.

[22] See Laurent Bonnefoy, “Yemen’s Islamists and the Revolution,” The Middle East Channel, Foreign Policy, February 9, 2012.

[23] Madeleine Wells, “Yemen’s Houthi Movement and the Revolution,” Middle East Channel, Foreign Policy, February 27, 2012.

[24] For instance, accusations of Huthi collusion with the beleaguered head of the Republican Guard and erstwhile inheritor of the presidency Ahmad Ali Abdullah Salih (the former president’s son). It should be emphasized that the charge of opportunism is also made against most other opposition groups in Yemen and is not unique to the Huthis.

[25] For more on Hizb al-Umma see: “A New Political Party ‘Deranged by the Foreign Devil’: The Birth of al-Ummah Party,” al-Masdar, January 5, 2012.

[26] In May 2012, the Huthis said they did not in principle reject the talks but were undecided on participation, setting as a preliminary condition that the national dialogue be held under United Nations auspices, rather than those of a particular country (specifically, the United States and Saudi Arabia). See: “Houthis: Final Position on National Dialogue not yet Determined,” National Yemen, May 11, 2012.

[27] On May 31, 2012, the Huthis officially expressed their willingness to participate in the national dialogue. It is, however, difficult to predict whether or not this position will be maintained.

[28] The Saudi Arabian border province of Najran is a historical component of Yemen that was annexed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1934. It has a large Ismaili (Shi`a) population whose relations with the Sunni rulers in Riyadh have at times been contentious.

[29] Sarah Phillips contends that when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s policy toward Yemen, the “overriding objective is to contain Yemen’s problems within Yemen and to prevent them from spilling over the border,” or as one diplomat put it, “We don’t care what they do, as long as it’s stable.” Sarah Phillips, “Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, Chapter Five: The Regime,” Adelphi Series 51:420 (2011): p. 76. Saudi Arabia has previously noted its view of the Huthis as “a mild threat to regional security – unless they are seen as part of a three-way alliance with Al-Qaeda and Iran.” See Zuhair al-Harithi, “Understanding Yemen’s Troubles: A Saudi Perspective,” Arab Insight 2:7 (2010): p. 80.

[30] “Houthi Says Saudi Arabia Prepares to Attack Yemen Area,” Yemen Post, May 6, 2012. The reference is to local tribes that are seen as receiving Saudi backing.

[31] See any of a number of articles (in Arabic) on the Huthi website at www.ansaruallah.net.

[32] The spread of Huthi Zaydi revivalism, which they call “spreading Qur’anic culture,” has in part succeeded through its appeals to Yemeni tradition. Zaydism is endemic to Yemen and the charge that the Huthis are actually spreading a foreign ideology deeply undermines their religious and nationalist credentials. Their detractors point to several Huthi practices—not to mention the wording of their slogan—as proof of the influence of Twelver Shi’ism on “Huthism.” For more on this, see Lucas Winter, “Conflict in Yemen: Simple People, Complicated Circumstances,” Middle East Policy 18 (2011): pp. 107-109.

[33] On the origins of this clash, see Bernard Haykel, “A Zaydi Revival?” Yemen Update 36 (1995); Shelagh Weir, “A Clash of Fundamentalisms: Wahhabism in Yemen,” Middle East Report 204 (1997). As Weir notes, Salafism found willing adherents in the 1990s among Yemeni tribesmen partly due to its language of egalitarianism, which contrasted sharply with the exceptionalism of sayyids (descendants of Hassan and Husayn) in Zaydi doctrine.

[34] For more on this, see Koehler-Derrick. The most recent attack was a suicide vehicle bomb in al-Jawf: “Suicide Bombing Kills 14 Houthis in al-Jawf,” Yemen Times, May 28, 2012.