Formed in 1992, the Houthi Movement is an Islamist political group that originates from northern Yemen (5). Founded by cousins Mohammed and Hussein al-Houthi, the group set out to promote the Islamisc sect of Zaydi -- a unique branch of Shi’ism. While originally remaining non-violent, the Houthis played a major role in the 2011 Yemeni Revolution and the eventual collapse of Yemen’s government. The group’s slogan, "God Is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam", demonstrates their anti-Western and anti-Israeli core ideologies, as well as their militant Islamic goals (5).
History and Foundations
In 1992, a group called The Believing Youth (BY) was formed by cousins Mohammed and Hussein al-Houthi in an attempt to advance the Zaydi sect of Islam. The group created summer camps for young adults and children where they were exposed to Shi’ite teachings from Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah (7). Like many Zaydi groups at this time, members of the BY were radicalized by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and many of them perceived the increased western presence in the region as a threat to their sovereignty (5). Led by Hussein al-Houthi, the BY began increasing their anti-American protests, which troubled the Yemeni government. After Yemeni President Ali Abudallah Saleh issued an arrest warrant for Hussein, the latter retaliated by launching an insurgency against the central government. As the government’s actions against Hussein intensified and his bounty was raised from $55,000 to $75,000, he was killed by the Yemeni Interior and Defense Ministries in September 2004, along with 20 other members, in the Marran province.
Despite having its leader killed early in the war, the Houthi Movement successfully fought off the Saudi-backed Yemeni military until a ceasefire was arranged in 2010 (1). Peace did not last long, however, as the Houthis played a key role in the 2011 Yemeni Revolution that saw them controlling a majority of the country (11). On January 20th, 2015, Houthi fighters overtook the presidential palace and assumed control over the government, officially ousting President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi from power (10). Despite constant pushback from neighboring Saudi Arabia, the Houthis remain the strongest social and political movement in Yemen (4).
Objectives & Ideology
Since its inception, the Houthis have remained a primarily political group with strong religious components. As a socially-conscious group, they started with the intention of reducing economic inequality and protecting the minority Zaydi population of Northwestern Yemen (3). Like many minority groups, the Zaydis were underrepresented and their culture was unrecognized, leading to frustration with the Yemeni government. Due to their proximity to Saudi Arabia, Wahhabi groups crept into Zaydi controlled areas and attempted to convert people. The Houthis saw this as a direct threat to their cultural sovereignty, and viewed the Yemeni government as complicit in this attempted colonization (3).
As their slogan states, another element of their beliefs is their staunch anti-Israel and anti-semetic stance. This was not always the case, however, as the early Houthi founders received crucial support from Israel under Foreign Minister Golda Mier during the 1960 Yemeni Revolution (12). Israeli officials believed that by keeping Egyptian forces fighting in Yemen, they would be less inclined to pursue them. As a result, Israeli pilots delivered arms to Yemeni rebels which allowed them to continue the fight against the Egyptians (12). Houthi attitudes soured however, as a result of Hussein al-Houthi’s sermons which decried Israel as supporters of the Saudi regime and viewed their ire towards Iran as an indirect threat to themselves (12). Al-Houthi went a step further in his teachings as well, and described jewish people as “the ones who move this world, who spread corruption in this world” (13). While Houthi leaders have since stated that their true enemy is Israel and not Jewish people, the minority of Jews living in Yemen still live in fear of Houthi oppression (13).
Approach to Resistance
The Houthis have adopted a unique approach to their resistance by combining their cultural, political and military strengths into a powerful force. Initially, they began by taking a strictly political route; this meant participating in civil disobedience, or even attempting to create legal inroads to meet their demands. Hussein al-Houthi successfully ran for a parliamentary seat in 1993, which allowed the group to achieve some level of representation. Nonetheless, this did not last long as al-Houthi began to set his sights on larger issues, such as western influence in Yemen (4). In 2002, al-Houthi coined their infamous slogan of “ God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam.” This phrase deeply troubled Yemeni officials, and it soon became clear that a political route would no longer be feasible.
After President Ali Abdullah Saleh issued an arrest warrant for Hussein al-Houthi, the Houthis responded with a violent insurgency that would last for years. In response, the Yemeni government deployed the full strength of their military and gathered support from neighboring Saudi Arabia. Outgunned and outtfunded, the Houthis relied on the Iranian military to obtain training and weaponry in the fight against the Saudis (2). Tactical training and access to advanced weaponry such as ballistic missiles, anti-tank missiles and naval defense tools helped level the playing field (2).
While their military prowess has played a key role in their success, the Houthis also have an extensive media presence. Their use of televised speeches and published journals are some of their most powerful weapons in their “hearts and minds campaign” (5). Following the model of Hezbollah, the Houthis created their own television network, called ‘al-Masira TV’, which allows them to reach a wide audience (9). They have also employed the use of radio broadcasts such as al-Masira Radio and Sam FM in order to spread their propaganda nationwide. This method of resistance has allowed them to control much of their image as a group in the country, which is a main cause for the public’s support of them (9).
Alliances and International Relations
Despite being considered a terrorist group by many stakeholders in the Middle East, the Houthis are not totally ostracized from the region. The group's biggest foreign ally, Iran, has played a pivotal role in their continued resistance and military strength. Iran views them as another way to weaken Saudi control in the region, and thus an important long term investment (2). Essentially, the Houthis have found themselves at the midst of a proxy war, used as belligerents to the geopolitical Saudi-Iranian regional conflict. Although never officially substantiated, there have also been allegations that North Korea has provided weapons support via Syria (7). While North Korea does not have the same level of motivation that Iran does to back the Houthis, it still remains an important consideration in analyzing the Houthis’ foreign connections.
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - Batati, Saeed Al. “Who Are Yemen's Houthis?” News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 29 Mar. 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/08/yemen-houthis-hadi-protests-201482132719818986.html.
(2) - Jones, Seth G, and Danielle Ngo. “The Iranian and Houthi War against Saudi Arabia.” The Iranian and Houthi War against Saudi Arabia | Center for Strategic and International Studies, 19 Oct. 2022, https://www.csis.org/analysis/iranian-and-houthi-war-against-saudi-arabia#:~:text=The%20primary%20Houthi%20method%20of,missiles%2C%20as%20well%20as%20UAVs.&text=Houthi%20missiles%20and%20UAVs%20have,critical%20infrastructure%20inside%20Saudi%20Arabia.
(3) - Juneau, Thomas. “Iran's Policy towards the Houthis in Yemen: A Limited Return on a Modest Investment.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 6 May 2016, https://academic.oup.com/ia/article/92/3/647/2326947#77890718.
(4) - Kozhanov, Nikolay, et al. “The Houthis' War and Yemen's Future.” Middle East Institute, 17 Oct. 2022, https://www.mei.edu/publications/houthis-war-and-yemens-future.
(5) - Qaed, Anas Al. “A Battle of Hearts and Minds: The Growing Media Footprint of Yemen's Houthis.” Gulf International Forum, 4 June 2020, https://gulfif.org/a-battle-of-hearts-and-minds-the-growing-media-footprint-of-yemens-houthis/.
(6) - Riedel, Bruce. “Who Are the Houthis, and Why Are We at War with Them?” Brookings, Brookings, 9 Mar. 2022, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2017/12/18/who-are-the-houthis-and-why-are-we-at-war-with-them/.
(7) - Roth, Richard. “North Korea Is Hiding Nukes and Selling Weapons, Alleges Confidential UN Report.” CNN, Cable News Network, 6 Feb. 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/05/asia/north-korea-nuclear-sanctions-prep-intl/index.html.
(8) - Salmoni, Barak A, and Bryce Loidolt. “For More Information - RAND Corporation.” Www.randorg.org, RAND Corporation, 2010, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2010/RAND_MG962.pdf.
(9) - Taqi, Abdulelah. “Houthi Propaganda: Following in Hizballah's Footsteps.” The New Arab, The New Arab, 12 Apr. 2015, https://english.alaraby.co.uk/opinion/houthi-propaganda-following-hizballahs-footsteps.
(10) - Usher, Sebastian. “Yemen Crisis: Houthi Rebels Shell Presidential Home.” BBC News, BBC, 20 Jan. 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-30903516.
(11) - White, Elena. “New War with Al-Houthis Is Looming.” Yobserver.com, 12 May 2012, http://www.yobserver.com/front-page/10022057.html.
(12) - Kessler, Oren, et al. “When Israel Helped Yemen's Shiites.” POLITICO Magazine, 21 Apr. 2015, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/04/israel-yemen-shiites-117208/.
(13) - Weinberg, David. “Why Do Houthis Curse the Jews?” ADL, 20 Nov. 2020, https://www.adl.org/news/op-ed/why-do-houthis-curse-the-jews.