Ansar Allah Against All Odds: Understanding The Houthi Factor

"Due to Houthi attacks on cargo ships flying US, European or Israeli flags, insurance premiums have gone up dramatically and many shipping companies have started to take longer routes"

Ansar Allah Against All Odds: Understanding The Houthi Factor

The ongoing civil war in Yemen has dragged on for over ten years now and the Ansar Allah forces, commonly known as Houthis, are one of the two main factions in this conflict. The Houthis are in firm control of the western part of the country, including the capital city Sana. The Houthis are part of the so-called “Axis of Resistance,” a network of Iran-aligned militant groups around the Middle East. While militias like Lebanon's Hezbollah seem to want to avoid a direct escalation with Israel, the Houthis thrust themselves into the spotlight by taking up the mantle of the Palestinian cause. In general, the Houthi movement emerge from communities following the Zaydi branch of Islam, a sect of Islam almost exclusively present in Yemen. Zaydis make up about 25% of the population, while Sunnis make up 75%. Zaydi-led dispensations ruled Yemen for centuries. 

For the last three years, the USA has supported Saudi Arabia in a war against the Houthi movement in Yemen and this war has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in history, threatening to turn into a catastrophic famine.

The Houthi movement began as a cultural revivalist movement in the 1990s, rooted in the Zaydi sect of Yemen. This movement began because many Zaydi Muslims were becoming angry with the growing influence of the Saudi philosophy of Salafi Islam in their country, which they perceived as a threat to Zaydi culture and religious beliefs. The Houthis also resented and opposed the wide spread corruption and poor governance in the Yemeni government and this resulted in the launch of several insurgencies between 2004 and 2010. On 26 March 2015, Saudi Arabia along with a coalition of nine countries launched an intervention in Yemen following a request by the Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi for military support after the government forces were ousted from Sana by the Houthi rebels.

Saleh’s support for the US 'War on Terror' and its 2003 invasion of Iraq prompted anger from the Houthi-led movement

This conflict with the Saudi backed government has led the Houthi rebels to become more closely allied with Iran, from where they receive aid in the form of military hardware and money. Before the recent mending of fences, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been traditional enemies because of differences in religious ideology and the Houthis have been seen as a proxy of Iran in the conflict in Yemen. 

The militant Houthi movement in Yemen was originally led by Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi a Yemeni politician and activist of the Zaydi revivalist movement. They call themselves Ansar Allah or defenders of God and the Houthi movement is named after its founder. 

Since the beginning of 2004, the Houthis are in rebellion against the internationally recognized Yemeni Government and have the support and backing of Iran whereas the Saudi Government is daggers drawn with the Houthi movement. Following the establishment in Yemen of a Zaydī polity in 893 AD, northern Yemen became the home of a thriving Zaydī community. The Zaydīs, usually under the leadership of a political-spiritual head known as an imam, remained the region’s predominant political force thereafter, despite the occasional challenges to Zaydī rule. The most recent such challenge came in 1962 when the imam was overthrown and forced into exile. A military regime—the Yemen Arab Republic—was set up in place of the imamate and was met with fierce resistance from Zaydī royalists throughout the remainder of the decade. Despite securing an agreement to end the hostilities, the regime remained wary of empowering Zaydī elites, a tendency that in turn marginalized the Zaydī community more broadly. The pan-Arabist government, meanwhile, attempted to accelerate an ongoing alignment of the Zaydī sect with modern trends in Sunni exegesis.

But while the convergence of the Zaydī and Sunni doctrines had been a hitherto endogenous movement, the 1970s saw the injection of specifically Wahhābī (ie Saudi) ideas that undermined the core elements of Zaydī doctrine and challenged the authority of Zaydī elites. The establishment in the early 1980s of a Wahhābī seminary near Ṣaʿdah—the heart of Zaydī society—struck a chord. Stirred by what many perceived as an existential threat to the Zaydī community, a Zaydī awakening took place that same decade, which included the concerted embrace of overtly Shiʿi symbols that set them apart from the Wahhābī interpretation of Sunni Islam.

The increasing tension between the Believing Youth and the Saleh regime transformed the network into a broader movement. Saleh’s support for the US “War on Terror” and its 2003 invasion of Iraq prompted anger from the movement’s sympathizers, who believed Saleh was supporting the same imperial endeavour that had disenfranchised the Zaydīs and threatened their traditions and way of life. As the movement grew, the Saleh regime began cracking down on its participants in June 2004 and issued an arrest warrant for Hussein al-Houthi. In September, after months of armed resistance, he was killed by Yemeni forces; leadership of the movement passed briefly to his father and later to his brother Abdul Malik. The Houthi rebels, for their part, presented an increasingly formidable challenge for the Saudi-led coalition. Not only did they gain ground against the coalition in Yemen, but attempts by Houthi militants to strike Saudi territory with drones and missiles became frequent. 

Although it is unclear when Iran became a prominent source of military support for the Houthi rebels, it was beyond doubt that Iran’s clandestine Quds Force was responsible for the growing sophistication of their attacks. Houthi cooperation with Iran was further highlighted when its leaders claimed responsibility for an attack in September 2019 on the oil-processing facilities in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia. The attack, which disrupted Saudi oil production for weeks, appeared to come from north of Saudi Arabia, indicating at least partial Iranian participation. Still, Houthi attacks on Saudi soil were frequent as the Saudi-led coalition struggled to hold ground in Yemen.

As the conflict with Saudi Arabia has been paused and Houthi attention turns towards Israel and its allies, it is worth noting that over 80% of the world trade cargo is carried by ships and ships have to travel through the Red Sea in order to reach the Suez Canal which is the only waterway that allows direct passage between Europe and Asia and it is the most economical and cost effective trade route. 

Due to Houthi attacks on cargo ships flying US, European or Israeli flags, insurance premiums have gone up dramatically and many shipping companies have started to take longer routes along the continent of Africa to avoid being hit by missiles launched by the Houthis, and this may result in the increase of prices in many consumer goods – from clothing to coffee.