No end in sight for Huthi-Islah conflict

Friend-of-the-blog Fernando Carvajal gives us his take on the ongoing conflict between the Huthi movement and the Islah party. Fernando is a PhD candidate at University of Exeter (UK). He currently resides in Sanʻa.  After two years of a volatile cease fire between Zaydi rebels and government forces, and a year after Yemeni president ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh agreed to step down, the threat of all-out war still looms in northern Yemen. Tensions remain high in three provinces surrounding the Huthi stronghold Saʻdah, not to mention the capital Sanʻa.

Most attention in recent weeks has focused on the delayed National Dialogue, which is mandated by the GCC Initiative to help unify the various conflictive regions. While not much is reported of the increasing tensions between particularly the Huthis—a rebel group in control of territory in northern Yemen—and the Islah party, which has grown more powerful in the course of the Arab Spring. This conflict between a Zaydi (Shiʻah) group and a Sunni political party, composed of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi elements, has been downplayed as a mere political conflict, not a sectarian one. Yet, as tensions increase as a result of both armed conflicts in northern provinces and Islah’s increasing political domination of the transition government, political rhetoric has focused on public attacks with religious underpinnings.

Milestones of conflict

Analysis refrains from calling armed conflicts in 2011 a civil war, even though the same conflicts existed between the same parties in the same areas prior to the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring. While the six wars fought between 2004 and 2009 involved direct conflict between Huthis and government forces, since 2011 clashes have [maily] involved armed militias. This new level of conflict produced a new dynamic whereby the state, in this case represented by transition president ‘Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, is unable to directly control the conflict. As a result, analysts have gauged the potential for expanded armed conflict based on perceived degrees of escalation.

As religious holidays, such as ‘Eid al-Adha or ‘Eid al-Ghadir, came to an end peacefully, fears of potential sparks for all-out conflict began to diminish. Analysts continue to forecast the potential for a civil war, however, rising from a number of small, sustained skirmishes in cities and villages in northern provinces like ‘Amran, Hajjah, and al-Jawf. At the start of the Islamic holiday ‘Eid al-Adha (25 October) many expected Huthi and Islahi militias to take advantage of the security forces’ low guard to expand their physical presence around the capital Sanʻa and other areas. Yet, no major incidents were reported, and Zaydi celebrations of Eid al-Ghadir in Sanʻa remained peaceful.

In late October, a suspected US drone killed three al-Qa‘idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives in a camp along the Saʻdah/al-Jawf border. Both of these provinces are under Huthi influence, leading Huthis to warn both the Hadi government and the US of grave consequences if Huthis were targeted in a similar manner. Yet, this rebel group has been accused of cooperating with the US against AQAP.

On November 11, 2012 Huthi rebels agreed to sign a de-escalation agreement with the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) at the home of Dr. Yasin Saʻid Noman, Secretary-General of the Yemeni Socialist Party. Since the JMP is led by al-Islah party as senior partner, this was hailed as a major achievement. But the agreement focused on ending media attacks, and was not a cease-fire between Islah and Huthis. This was evident when within a few days of signing the agreement clashes were once again reported in al-Shabwan, al-Jawf Province.

Convenient Alliances

The tension between the two groups is far from cooling. No efforts have been made to engage in a dialogue between the two religious forces, and this serves continued political posturing. Instead various  alliances of convenience are formed, which represent efforts to counter Islah’s rise since the signing of the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative on 23 November 2011. Such shifting alliances are too often neglected in analysis.

The new political environment has brought old foes together. Huthi expansion into southern provinces, and funding from Iran for exiled southern leaders such as Ali Salem al-Baydh has created strange bedfellows. Huthi and Southern Movement (Hirak) elements have joined forces to counter their common foe Islah in places like the port city of ‘Aden. And, although Husayn Badr al-Din al-Huthi, the first leader of the Huthi rebels, raised arms in 2004 against the government of former president ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh, the deposed president is said to have opened channels with Husayn’s brother and successor, ‘Abd al-Malik al-Huthi.

Sources in Sanʻa indicate former president Saleh has met Huthi representatives such as Saleh Habrah, Saleh al-Wijman, Yusef al-Madani and others. People close to actors in Beirut point to meetings between Yemeni politicians and Abu Mustafa of Hezbollah and diplomat ‘Ali al-Hajj. Media outlets in Sanʻa affiliated with the General People’s Congress (GPC), headed by ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh, have also refrained from attacking the Southern Movement since the summer, giving an impression of an unofficial agreement. Hirak have also refrained from slogans against the ‘Zaydi Occupiers,’ which have previously been used since 2007. Islah has attempted to co-opt the Southern Movement through its own southern organizations, led by Nabil Ghanem. But the memories of Islah’s role against current leaders of Hirak in the 1994 civil war, still form an important part of the Southern narrative.

In a conversation with ‘Ali al-Emad, spokesman of ‘Abd al-Malik al-Huthi in Sanʻa, details were provided as to the gap between propaganda and the Huthi’s political aims. Al-Emad admitted to effective political expansion by his group beyond Saʻdah, crediting political gains among young Yemenis, who may not be Zaydis or Shiʻah themselves. Al-Emad also insists that “Hirak trusts the Huthis,” and while he did not completely deny possible financial support from Iran for the movement, he questioned the bias implicit in this question, as it is well known that Saudi Arabia supports Islah [and the GPC, among others].

During our conversation, ‘Ali al-Emad commented on the role of the US Embassy during the transition. While he does not expect US Ambassador Gerald Feierstein to visit Saʻdah any time soon, he denied any Huthi role in the 13 September attack on the embassy in Sanʻa. Recalling the fact that the Huthis did not sign the GCC Initiative, al-Emad points to their willingness to participate in the National Dialogue through the role played by Muhammad al-Bukhaity and Dr. Ahmad Sharaf al-Din. He pointed to good relations with the European Union, having hosted a European delegation to Saʻdah accompanying Dr. Yasin Saʻid Noman earlier this year.


While low-level confrontations with Islah do not yet amount to a sectarian war, the attack on a Huthi celebration of Ashoura on 24 November in Sanʻa may be a new level of escalation. It also still remains to be seen if alliances of convenience will hold over time as political positioning continues in the absence of a National Dialogue conference. The cohesiveness of the Huthi group may also suffer from internal vulnerabilities as time passes. ‘Abd al-Malik’s leadership is constantly challenged by his cousin Muhammad ‘Abd al-Thim al-Huthi, considered more of a religious leader. As a result of increasing confrontations with Islah and Salafi elements, and in the absence of direct dialogue toward a permanent cease-fire, time will have more of a negative affect for efforts to achieve comprehensive reconciliation, particularly in northern provinces.

Yemen's other Islamists

Our loyal guest blogger in San‘a sends us this well-researched piece on the role and structure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen. YPP's leadership pretends no significant knowledge on this subject. Reader comments, as always, are welcomed. In Yemen, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) begins to position itself directly within the post-Saleh political structure. While their primary struggle to date has been an internal balance within at-Tajammu al-Yemeni lil-Islah‎ (The Yemeni Congregation for Reform), the two month old anti-government protests have allowed the Brotherhood sufficient opportunities to either split from al-Islah or become the primary ideological force, possibly marginalizing the more radical Wahhabi elements.

While their physical presence inside the Sahat al-Tagheer (Change Square) remains minimal at a tent named after Abdo Mohammed al-Mikhlafi (major MB personality in 1960s), the Brotherhood is well organized under highly influential and charismatic leaders. Since the 1994 Civil War they have remained behind the scenes as part of al-Islah, led by radicals such as Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani and other Muslim Brothers within Wahhabi networks. But now they attempt to follow the approach of Egypt’s Brotherhood within the context of the Popular Revolution. This more covert approach in Yemen was revealed by President Saleh during his interview on 28 March with the Saudi network al-Arabiyya, joining the fear-mongering chorus appealing to the West. This approach to attack Brotherhood elements, instead of pro-Saudi Wahhabis, was followed by comments from Abdo al-Janadi, Deputy Minister of Information, to a Yemeni newspaper (Yemen Observer utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter) Al-Janadi directly linked the Brotherhood to the leadership of the Joint Meeting Party (al-Mushtarak) through al-Islah, and argued that the “Muslim Brotherhood has managed to convince America that they are liberals” and be part of the negotiations for the transition plan.

The leadership

There are many major political personalities that while they remain behind the scenes today most analysts are quick to recognize their particular roles. Under the current Morshed (Guide) Yassin Abd al-Azziz, who happens to be Tawakkil Karman’s maternal uncle, the network extends to local preachers as well as major personalities atop Islah’s leadership, such as Mohammed Al-Yadomi, Chairman of al-Islah and Abdul Salam Khalid Karman, former Minister of Legal Affairs and member of Islah’s Majlis As-Shura (father of Tawakkol Karman). Amongst the leaders we also find Ministers of Parliament such as Mohammad al-Hazmi (, Muhammad al-Sadeq (often mentioned as a successor to Shaykh Zindani), Haza al-Maswary, as well as Shaykh Hamud Hashim al-Dharihi, Abdullah al-Homeidi and Muhammad Hassan Dammaj (former Minister of Local Administration).

Personalities in political leadership positions may still number a few, but the Brotherhood relies more on local group leaders at Universities, such as al-Iman, and inside mosques in every city, which grants it a major force multiplier within al-Islah in regards to popular mobilization. The Brotherhood still operates through small cells developed from within mosques or institutions, secret groups that remain apart from other members and leaders. Many members are recruited in their early teens, and are groomed and indoctrinated at week-long summer camps in areas outside Arhab (near Sana’a), Mahweet or near Taiz. Here students get to interact with major personalities such as Shaykh Zindani, Mohammad al-Hazmi and Abdullah Sa’ttar. Such structures may present a difficulty in separating Brothers from other Salafi adherents loyal to al-Islah, but it may all become clear once the dust settles if Saleh is removed from office. The aftermath may see a proliferation of political parties gaining advantages in a political vacuum, but a fractured Islah party, Wahhabis and Brotherhood, may lead to a strategy whereby conservative Islamists may gain a larger majority in the new legislature due to their abilities to mobilize support and produce a larger alliance within Parliament obscuring more secular parties. This fragmentation of al-Islah will also guarantee the dissolution of the JMP, which may render Socialists, Nasserists and Ba’thists completely marginalized without major constituencies.

The politics of the Brotherhood in Yemen

While President Saleh engaged a demonizing campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, his history with the Brothers paints a different picture. Some members, like Shaykh Hamud Hashim al-Dharihi are said to have been close allies like Shaykh Zindani. Also, even though analysts cannot directly confirm dates when people like Brg Gen Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar (Senhan) gave their bay’a (allegiance) to the Brotherhood, they are clearly identified as part of the organization. Even Shaykh Hamid b. Abdullah b. Hussein al-Ahmar is said to have a loose relationship with the Brothers, primarily as a financial supporter. The latter has maintained a rather conflicting relation since the major source of support has traditionally come from areas like Ibb and Taiz, where major economic competitors to Shaykh Hamid are more interested in marginalizing him within the Brotherhood. Al-Ahmar gained a stronger footing within the organization due to his strong financial support for al-Islah during the 2006 presidential campaign.

Public attacks by Saleh’s regime on the Muslim Brotherhood intensified after the 18 March massacre. This has to do more with Ali Muhsin’s ‘defection’ and support for anti-government demonstrators. Observers in Yemen have commented on the large Brotherhood-based network maintained by Ali Muhsin, within al-Firka (1st Mechanised Division) and civilians extending to the 1994 Civil War. Some of the most public figures within this network include Mr. Nasr Taha Mustapha (former manager of Saba News), Mr. Faris al-Saqqaf (former Chairman of the Book Authority), Ambassador Abd al-Malek Mansour (Arab League), Omar al-Arhabi (Director of Yemen Oil Company and nephew of Abd al-Kareem al-Arhabi, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation), Muhammad Abdulillah al-Qadhi of Senhan (nephew of President Saleh and alleged acquaintance of Sahykh Omar Abd al-Rahman), and Ambassador Abd al-Wali al-Shamiri (co-owner of al-Saeeda TV and former Arab-Afghan). The latter is said to have raised his profile during the 1994 Civil War as a recruiter of Jihadi militias for Ali Muhsin.

This network also includes brothers Hamed and Abd Ghani al-Shamiri, the latter was by Ali Muhsin’s side in Aden in 1994 and now allegedly serves as a main communication’s advisor to the general. Both men work as executives of Saeeda Television, which is said to have captured much of the advertising funds from the Hail Saeed Group after family members hailed their support for the anti-Saleh demonstrators. When we analyse the background of most of the officials who resigned and sided with Ali Muhsin we can see the other face of Saleh’s intentions when attacking the Brotherhood. His intent was to discredit a faction of the Islamist party without attacking the Wahhabis, linked to Saudi Arabia, and also raise suspicions among Western diplomats looking for reliable alternatives to president Saleh and to marginalize some of those approached to take part in the dialogue process proposed by the US and EU Ambassadors.