The Houthi Movement officially called Ansar Allah and colloquially simply Houthis, is an Islamist political and armed movement that emerged from Sa’dah in northern Yemen in the 1990s. The movement was called Houthis because its founder is from the Houthi tribe The Houthi movement is a predominately Zaidi Shia force. The Houthis have a complex relationship with Yemen’s Sunni Muslims; the movement has both discriminated against Sunnis, but also recruited and allied with them. Under the leadership of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the group emerged as an opposition to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom they charged with massive financial corruption and criticized for being backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States at the expense of the Yemeni people and Yemen’s sovereignty. Resisting Saleh’s order for his arrest, Hussein was killed in Sa’dah in 2004 along with a number of his guards by the Yemeni army, sparking the Houthi insurgency in Yemen. Since then, except for a short intervening period, the movement has been led by his brother Abdul-Malik al-Houthi.
The Houthi movement attracts its Zaidi-Shia followers in Yemen by promoting regional political-religious issues in its media, including the overarching U.S.–Israeli conspiracy theory and Arab “collusion”. In 2003, the Houthis’ slogan “God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam”, became the group’s trademark. Houthi officials, however, have rejected the literal interpretation of the slogan.
The movement’s expressed goals include combating economic underdevelopment and political marginalization in Yemen while seeking greater autonomy for Houthi-majority regions of the country. They also claim to support a more democratic non-sectarian republic in Yemen. The Houthis have made fighting corruption the centrepiece of their political program.
The Houthis took part in the 2011 Yemeni Revolution by participating in street protests and by coordinating with other opposition groups. They joined the National Dialogue Conference in Yemen as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative to broker peace following the unrest. However, the Houthis would later reject the November 2011 GCC deal’s provisions stipulating formation of six federal regions in Yemen, claiming that the deal did not fundamentally reform governance and that the proposed federalization “divided Yemen into poor and wealthy regions”. Houthis also feared the deal was a blatant attempt to weaken them by dividing areas under their control between separate regions. In late 2014, Houthis repaired their relationship with the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and with his help, they took control of the capital and much of the north.
In 2014–2015, Houthis took over the government in Sanaa with the help of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and announced the fall of the current government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Houthis have gained control of most of the northern part of Yemen’s territory and since 2015 have been resisting the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen that claims to seek to restore the internationally recognized Yemeni government to power. Additionally, the Islamic State militant group has attacked all of the conflict’s major parties including Houthis, Saleh forces, the Yemeni government, and the Saudi Arabian-led coalition forces. The Houthis have launched repeated missile and drone attacks against Saudi cities, widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Houthis have been accused of violations of international humanitarian law such as using child soldiers, shelling civilian areas, forced evacuations and executions. According to Human Right Watch, Houthis intensified their recruitment of children in 2015. The UNICEF mentioned that children with the Houthis and other armed groups in Yemen comprise up to a third of all fighters in Yemen. Human Rights Watch has further accused Houthi forces of using landmines in Yemen’s third-largest city of Taizz which has caused many civilian casualties and prevent the return of families displaced by the fighting. HRW has also accused the Houthis of interfering with the work of Yemen’s human rights advocates and organizations.
An HRW researcher, quoted in 2009 US embassy report, has downplayed the allegations by the former government of Yemen accusing the Houthis of using civilians as human shields, by saying that they did not have enough evidence to conclude that the Houthis have been intentionally using civilians as human shields.
According to the Human Rights Watch, the Houthis also use hostage taking as a tactic to generate profit. Human Rights Watch documented 16 cases in which Houthi authorities held people unlawfully, in large part to extort money from relatives or to exchange them for people held by opposing forces.
The United Nations World Food Programme has accused the Houthis of diverting food aid and illegally removing food lorries from distribution areas, with rations sold on the open market or given to those not entitled to it. The WFP has also warned that aid could be suspended to areas of Yemen under the control of Houthi rebels due to “obstructive and uncooperative” Houthi leaders that have hampered the independent selection of beneficiaries. WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel stated “The continued blocking by some within the Houthi leadership of the biometric registration … is undermining an essential process that would allow us to independently verify that food is reaching … people on the brink of famine”. The WFP has warned that “unless progress is made on previous agreements we will have to implement a phased suspension of aid”. The Norwegian Refugee Council has stated that they share the WPF frustrations and reiterate to the Houthis to allow humanitarian agencies to distribute food.
UN-funded investigators have uncovered proof that Houthis conscripted about tens of teenage girls as informants, nurses, and guards; an unusual phenomenon in a society as conservative as Yemen. Twelve girls suffered sexual violence, arranged marriages, and child marriages as a result of their recruitment. It alleged the Houthis recruited children as young as seven years old with monetary incentives. The report cited hundreds of accounts and took place between summer 2019 and summer 2020.
Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh had accused the Houthis of having ties to external backers, in particular the Iranian government. Saleh stated in a New York Times’ interview that “The real reason they received unofficial support from Iran was because they repeat same slogan that is raised by Iran death to America, death to Israel”. He also said “The Iranian media repeats statements of support for these Houthi elements. They are all trying to take revenge against the USA on Yemeni territories”. Tehran has denied allegations of Houthis receiving arms support from Iran. The Houthis in turn accused the Saleh government of being backed by Saudi Arabia and of using Al-Qaeda to repress them. Under the next President Hadi, Gulf Arab states accused Iran of backing the Houthis financially and militarily, though Iran denied this, and they were themselves backers of President Hadi. Despite confirming statements by Iranian and Yemeni officials in regards to Iranian support in the form of trainers, weaponry, and money, the Houthis denied reception of substantial financial or arm support from Iran. Joost Hiltermann of Foreign Policy wrote that whatever little material support the Houthis may have received from Iran, the intelligence and military support by US and UK for the Saudi Arabian-led coalition exceed that by many factors.
In April 2015, the United States National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan remarked that “It remains our assessment that Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen”. Joost Hiltermann wrote that Iran does not control the Houthis’ decision-making as evidenced by Houthis’ flat rejection of Iran’s demand not to take over Sanaa in 2015. Thomas Juneau, writing in the journal, International Affairs, states that even though Iran’s support for Houthis has increased since 2014, it remains far too limited to have a significant impact in the balance of power in Yemen.
A December 2009 cable between Sanaa and various intelligence agencies disseminated by WikiLeaks states that US State Dept. analysts believed the Houthis obtained weapons from the Yemeni black market and corrupt members of the Yemenis Republican Guard. On the edition of 8 April 2015 of PBS Newshour, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the US knew Iran was providing military support to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, adding that Washington “is not going to stand by while the region is destabilised”.
Phillip Smyth of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told Business Insider that Iran views Shia groups in the Middle East as “integral elements to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)”. Smyth claimed that there is a strong bond between Iran and the Houthi uprising working to overthrow the government in Yemen. According to Smyth, in many cases Houthi leaders go to Iran for ideological and religious education, and Iranian and Hezbollah leaders have been spotted on the ground advising the Houthi troops, and these Iranian advisers are likely responsible for training the Houthis to use the type of sophisticated guided missiles fired at the US Navy. For Iran, supporting the revolt in Yemen is “a good way to bleed the Saudis”, Iran’s regional and ideological rival. Essentially, Iran is backing the Houthis to fight against a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf States fighting to maintain government control of Yemen. The discord has led some publishers to fear that further confrontations may lead to an all-out Sunni-Shia war.
In 2013, photographs released by the Yemeni government show the United States Navy and Yemen’s security forces seized a class of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles not publicly known to have been out of state control.
In April 2016, the U.S. Navy intercepted a large Iranian arms shipment, seizing thousands of weapons, AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The Pentagon stated that the shipment was likely headed to Yemen.
In August 2018, the United Nations had found out the North Korean government had armed the Houthis via Syria after a meeting between a Houthi member and a North Korean government official.
The Houthis have repeatedly used a drone that is nearly identical to Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company’s Ababil-T drone in strikes against Saudi Arabia.
In 2013, an Iranian vessel was seized and discovered to be carrying Katyusha rockets, heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles, RPG-7s, Iranian-made night vision goggles and artillery systems that track land and navy targets 40 km away. That was en route to the Houthis.
In March 2017, Qassem Soleimani the head of Iran’s Quds force met with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to look for ways to what was described as “empowering” the Houthis. Soleimani was quoted as saying, “At this meeting, they agreed to increase the amount of help, through training, arms and financial support.” Despite the Iranian government, and Houthis both officially denying Iranian support for the group. Brigadier General Ahmad Asiri, the spokesman of the Saudi-led coalition told Reuters that evidence of Iranian support was manifested in the Houthi use of Kornet anti-tank guided missiles which had never been in use with the Yemeni military or with the Houthis and that the arrival of Kornet missiles had only come at a later time. In the same month the IRGC had altered the routes used in transporting equipment to the Houthis by spreading out shipments to smaller vessels in Kuwaiti territorial waters in order to avoid naval patrols in the Gulf of Oman due to sanctions imposed, shipments reportedly included parts of missiles, launchers, and drugs.
In May 2018, the United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s IRGC, which was also listed as a designated terrorist organization by the US over its role in providing support for the Houthis, including help with manufacturing ballistic missiles used in attacks targeting cities and oil fields in Saudi Arabia.
In August 2018, despite previous Iranian denial of military support for the Houthis, IRGC commander Nasser Shabani was quoted by the Fars News Agency which has been described as the semi-official news agency of the Iranian government as saying, “We (IRGC) told Yemenis [Houthi rebels] to strike two Saudi oil tankers, and they did it,” on 7 August 2018. In response to Shabani’s account, the IRGC released a statement saying that the quote was a “Western lie” and that Shabani was a retired commander, despite no actual reports of his retirement after 37 years in the IRGC, and media linked to the Iranian government confirming he was still enlisted with the IRGC. Furthermore, while the Houthis and the Iranian government have previously denied any military affiliation, Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei openly announced his “spiritual” support of the movement in a personal meeting with the Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdul Salam in Tehran, in the midst of ongoing conflicts in Aden in 2019.
The Houthi Movement is a designated terrorist group in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.
It was designated as a terrorist group by United States of America under former President Donald Trump’s administration on January 19th, 2021 but the designation was formally revoked by President Joe Biden’s administration on February 21st, 2021.
On March 2nd 2021, United States imposed sanctions on two Houthi leaders, Mansur Al-Sa’adi and Ahmad Ali Ahsan al-Hamzi.