Understanding the Houthis

Updated on October 17, 2017

Unprecedented Violence in Yemen

A chilling photo from Al Jazeera depicts young Houthi recruits.
A chilling photo from Al Jazeera depicts young Houthi recruits. | Source

Who Are the Houthis?

The Houthis, a struggling rebel group in Northern Yemen, are fighting for their religious rights and protesting the growing influence of Western ideals. They are a religious minority and adhere to the Zaidi sect of Islam -- a rarer branch of the Shiite belief system (“Houthis”). The majority of their home country, however, is Sunni. The Houthis’ struggle to obtain governmental power is primarily fueled by the desire to represent widespread Zaidi interests. Similar to the Arabian-Iranian strife, Yemen’s civil war is a classic Shiite-Sunni clash.

Where Did They Come From?

The Houthis’ religious uprising began in the early 1990’s. At this time, their founder, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, led a campaign to educate the local youth about Zaidi. It was “an effort to combine religious revivalism with anti-imperialism” (Ibid.). Their battle turned political in 2003 when Yemen’s president, Abdullah Saleh, publicly stated his support of the United States’ invasion in Iraq (Alley al et.). This angered Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi (the Houthis’ late leader) who responded with loud political activism. “Hussein’s critique was a challenge to Saleh,” (Ibid.) and the government sent out police forces to arrest the Houthi leader. Finally, in 2004, the first shots were fired, and the armed battle between the Zaidis and the Yemeni state had begun (Ibid.).

How Has the Houthi Revolution Fostered Global Tension?

The religious beliefs of each side in the Yemeni Civil War have also fostered a larger, more complex conflict with many foreign powers involved. Neighboring Sunni and Shiite countries have allied with the forces of their respective religion. Iran, for instance, has helped arm the Houthis by shipping guns to the Gulf of Aden (“War in Yemen”). Saudi Arabia has also partnered with their Sunni counterparts (the Yemeni State) and has been working to intercept these packages -- resulting in the further military tension and violence between the two states (Ibid.). The ongoing political turmoil in Yemen has also allowed for development of violent terrorist organizations, bringing the extent of the war to overseas territories such as the United States. In 2015, Houthi extremists took three American citizens hostage (“Three American Hostages Reported Freed in Yemen”) -- not surprising considering the party’s slogan is “God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam” (Basu). This prompted U.S military forces to initialize 208 total drone strikes in Yemen to date (“Drone Wars Yemen: Analysis”). This strategy, however, does not seem potent in its ability to halt Yemeni extremism. By launching missiles and bombs, America is only feeding the fire of hatred in every Houthi rebel’s heart.

What Are the Humanitarian Consequences of This Revolution?

Sadly, this war is far from completion. Houthi forces occupy northwestern Yemen, and have control of the capital: Sanaa -- much to the government’s dismay (“Yemen Crisis: Who is fighting Whom?”). Despite this advantage, the Yemeni government still is no closer to a decisive military loss than the Shiites. While the battle rages on, an absolute humanitarian crisis has arisen. 17 million of the 27 million people in Yemen are considered to be food insecure, and another 14.4 million have no access to clean drinking water (Ibid.). Lack of infrastructure and restrictions on imported goods -- both casualties of war -- have “pushed Yemen to the brink of famine” (Ibid.). By the time the violence is over, there will be nothing left worth fighting for. Both parties are fixed in their political stance and will not budge. These conditions are deadly for Yemen’s population and employ a dangerous utilitarian mindset: “the good of the country must come before the safety of each and every human.”

What Is the World Going to Do About it?

The citizens of Yemen are trapped in a volatile region, divided between violent, extremist rebels and an unjust, dictatorial government. Once again, religion has wreaked havoc on the human condition and provided the fuel for an intense and bloody struggle. The battle has touched neighboring countries and awakened foreign powers. I can only hope that Yemen’s civil war will come to an end before more damage is done. The answer is not to carpet bomb the Middle East or to send out hundreds of automated drones. Global superpowers, the US included, need to extend a helping hand. Foreign aid is the first step in this long, tiring quest for peace.

Works Cited

  • "Houthis." Counter Extremism Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 May 2017.
  • Alley, April Longley, and Zachary Laub. "Who Are Yemen's Houthis?" Council on ForeignRelations. Council on Foreign Relations, 25 Feb. 2015. Web. 07 May 2017.
  • Alley, April Longley, and Zachary Laub. "Who Are Yemen's Houthis?" Council on Foreign "War in Yemen." Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, n.d. Web. 07 May 2017.
  • "Three American Hostages Reported Freed in Yemen." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, n.d. Web. 07 May 2017.
  • Basu, Tanya. "Who Are the Houthis?" The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 Apr. 2015.
  • "Drone Wars Yemen: Analysis." Drone Wars Yemen: Analysis | The International Security Program. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 May 2017.
  • "Yemen Crisis: Who Is Fighting Whom?" BBC News. BBC, 28 Mar. 2017. Web. 07 May 2017.

© 2017 William DeGroot

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