The Rapid Rise of Yemen’s Houthi Rebels

It is rare that a country’s capital can fall to a rebel group in four days. Rarer still that this news never makes world media headlines. Yet in the chaos of the last month, amongst global worries about the spread of Ebola, the rise of ISIS and a host of other pressing foreign policy issues, the capture of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, by Houthi rebels went largely unnoticed by both global media and the foreign policy establishment.

Although the Houthi takeover of Sana’a has largely avoided intense analysis or foreign interference, it should be studied. The politics surrounding the events of the takeover are exceptionally pertinent and prescient – they highlight the flaws of global counter-terrorism efforts that turn countries into terrorism hotspots instead of treating them as sovereign states with complex societies and diverse political movements. Furthermore they highlight how targeted counter-terrorism operations that aim at keeping Western boots off the ground leave foreign powers with a simplistic, aerial view of the political situation on the ground.

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Yemen has been the focus of counter-terrorism efforts ever since the Al Qaeda off-shoot, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was formed in 2009 by the joining of Al-Qaeda Yemen and Al-Qaeda Saudi Arabia. The attempted Christmas Day bombing of 2009 was an AQAP operation, and attempts to target AQAP have been behind the incredible number of drone strikes in Yemen under the Obama administration.

The complexity of internal power struggles is something that is missed when counter-terrorism efforts operate from a distance, gathering ‘intel’ from a bird’s eye view in the sky. This may be why governments around the world (including in Yemen) were taken by surprise when Houthi rebels successfully captured government and military buildings in Sana’a on 21 September, 2014 after weeks of protest and just four days of fighting in the city. Indeed the speed and relative lack of violence with which the city was taken, was shocking. However the presence and demands of the group should not have been regarded as a sudden apparition – the Houthis have been in conflict with the government of Yemen for nearly a decade. Yet the rise of the Houthis seems to have passed under the radar, a somewhat inconceivable fact in a country that has been a focal point of the Obama administrations counter-terrorism efforts. It also was a country that underwent substantial and protracted upheaval during the Arab Spring, and has received a great deal of attention and funding from the US, the EU and the UN in the past five years; including a $121 million Assistance Agreement through USAID[1]. So how is it that an unknown rebel group from North Yemen could suddenly take over Sana’a and catch everyone by surprise? It may be partly because the Houthi rebels defy simplistic counter-terrorism categorization.

Originating in the North of Yemen, the Houthi rebels are predominately made up of Zaydi tribesmen, representing a sect of Shiism that split in 740 over the succession of the Caliphate. Today Zaidis make up about a fifth of Yemen’s population, residing predominately in the mountainous North. In 2004, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi started an uprising in the name of the Zaidis, demanding greater independence and less marginalization. The Houthi rebels are named for their leader, although they are also known as Ansarallah, or Partisans of God. The conflict between Houthi rebels and government troops has been going on in the North of Yemen for nearly ten years and has involved numerous military operations. After the ouster of President Saleh in 2012, in which the Houthi rebels participated, the Houthis have turned their attention towards gaining greater representation and consolidation of power in the North. Many of their activities have come in conflict with the Islah party, an Islamist party backed by Sunni tribesmen who supported the post-Arab Spring government and army. The Houthi rebels have also attacked the presence of AQAP in Yemen and simultaneously opposed US drone strikes.

This defiance of simplistic labelling continues when it comes to the actions of the Houthi rebels since their takeover of Sana’a. Firstly, the Houthi rebels have made clear that they want greater representation and desire Yemen’s post-Arab Spring agreements to be upheld. Their eventual takeover of Sana’a was preceded by weeks of popular protest supporting the movement and its calls to create a fairer government and reinstate popular fuel subsidies. They have made no effort to take over the government themselves. Rather, as part of a UN brokered peace deal, the rebels agreed to withdraw from Sana’a once a new prime minister, whom they approved of, had been selected. On 13 October the rebels agreed to the selection of Khaled Baha, the Yemeni envoy to the UN, as the new prime minister. The group has also pushed through the reinstatement of fuel subsidies, a populist measure that affects all Yemenis, not just Zaidis.

However the greatest impact of Houthi rule may be yet to come. On Wednesday a mass rally in Aden was staged by supporters of the Southern Separatist movement, shortly after the Houthi takeover of the southern port of al-Hudaydah. Unlike many secessionist movements, the Southern Seperatist movement in Yemen has historical precedent – North Yemen and the People’s Republic of South Yemen were united as one country as recently as 1990. Calls for re-splitting the country have increased over the years, and this week the majority-Sunni Islah party for the first time acknowledged calls for Southern independence.

The counter-terrorism movement may be confused by these developments. AQAP has reared its head in the past few weeks, but not against the West. The group has struck Houthi protests and strongholds in Sana’a and Hadramout province in the North with four suicide bomb attacks, and the confrontation between AQAP and Houthi rebels may be looming as the Houthi rebels advanced on AQAP territory in Southern Yemen for the first time on 16 October.

It is unclear what will happen next in Yemen, but foreign policy observers should watch closely. The takeover of Sana’a by Houthi rebels illustrates the problems with narrow conceptions of counter-terrorism policy. Yemen is not just a host location to AQAP. It is a complex country with a long, rich history and multiplicity of actors. It is so much more than just a target on the counter-terrorism on map, and people who are truly interested in fighting the root causes of both internal and international terrorism should acknowledge this reality.

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