A Houthi Retrospective

This week we witnessed major political developments in Yemen, as the Houthi* Movement--also referred to as Ansar Allah--solidified control of the capital, San‘a, and Yemen’s central government collapsed. As happens every so often, the US and international press are now paying attention to Yemen, but mainstream news outlets rarely provide the background and context their audiences need to understand stories like these. As an aid to readers who may be new to the Yemen beat, I've collected some essential links below.

My coverage of this week's dramatic events (be sure to follow the links in each post, too):

1/19: “Coup, or Business as Usual in San‘a” Monday in southern San‘a began with the sound of machine-gun and artillery fire, as fighting broke out between Houthi “Popular Committee” militiamen and military units loyal to President Hadi.

1/20: “Al-Houthi Lays Down the Law” The ceasefire agreed yesterday between President Hadi and Houthi Popular Committees was quickly shown to be a dead letter, as intermittent clashes began again on Tuesday. By the evening, Houthi forces had the presidential palace, President Hadi's residence, and the military camp overlooking the palace all surrounded, and had cut off all roads leading into the area

1/22: “Hadi and Government Resign under Houthi Pressure” After a week of surprisingly rapid developments in what had previously been a very slow-motion coup, the political situation in Yemen took another turn on Thursday. First, Yemen’s prime minister, Khaled Bahah, delivered his resignation–and that of his government–to President Hadi, who himself resigned soon thereafter.

We’ve also explored the origins and rise of the Houthi movement on previous episodes of our Mafraj Radio Podcast:

9/16/2014: “President Hadi vs. Ansar Allah” On this episode we discussed the protest campaign that preceded the Houthis’ military capture of San‘a, with pro-Houthi activist Alhossain Albokhaiti and journalist Peter Salisbury.

2/27/13: “The Rise of Anti-state Movements” On our first episode we spoke with scholar Madeleine Wells Goldburt and journalist Adam Baron about the origins of the Houthi movement, the six-year armed conflict between the movement and the state, and Ansar Allah’s consolidation of power in Yemen’s far north and beyond. The segment on Ansar Allah begins at 11 minutes, and is preceded by an exploration of the Southern independence movement.

Have questions about the Houthi movement or the current crisis in Yemen? Talk to us on Facebook or Twitter; we're always happy hear from our readers.

*Because the mainstream media almost unanimously use the spelling "Houthi," and I want our blog posts to appear in search results, I'm abandoning my long-standing practice of using the simpler "Huthi" spelling as of today. The old spelling will persist in our archives.

Al-Houthi Lays Down the Law

The ceasefire agreed yesterday between President Hadi and Huthi Popular Committees was quickly shown to be a dead letter, as intermittent clashes began again on Tuesday. By the evening, Huthi forces had the presidential palace, President Hadi's residence, and the military camp overlooking the palace all surrounded, and had cut off all roads leading into the area, according to reports. On Tuesday night, 'Abd al-Malik al-Huthi, the leader of the movement, gave a lengthy televised speech in which he accused President Hadi and his inner circle of betraying the Yemeni people, and threatened further escalation if the president fails to meet four demands. Al-Huthi's demands are:

  1. The restructuring of the body established to monitor the implementation of the National Dialogue Conference outcomes (which makes sense, given that the Huthis are still holding former NDC Secretary General Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak, whom they kidnapped on Saturday);
  2. The revision of the new constitution (al-Huthi wasn't specific about what revisions he wants to see, but much of his speech focused on the idea that the proposed scheme of six federated regions was an assault on Yemen's unity);
  3. The full implementation of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement (PNPA), the accord signed by all parties after the Huthis drove Islah-affiliated military units out of San'a in September, and established de facto control over the city;
  4. Resolution of the security situation in Marib Governorate. This is arguably the most important of the four.

You can hear al-Huthi's ultimatum in his own words below (Arabic). You can also read Hisham al-Omeisy's archived live-tweeting of the speech (in English) here. Given the abandon with which observers have thrown around words like "coup" and "overthrow" this week, it's important to note that al-Huthi did not frame his actions in such terms, nor did he explicitly state any intention to remove President Hadi by force. He did, however, refer to "options" which would be pursued if the above demands are not met.

The first and third demands, concerning the NDC and PNPA, seem a bit silly at this point. Though al-Huthi made a big deal in this speech about adhering to the NDC outcomes and the PNPA, he also made it clear that his movement is above the law, and will not be bound by any of its prior agreements. The Huthis viewed the PNPA, despite its actual wording, as a formal surrender of the capital by the president and the Islah party leadership. The PNPA will never be fully implemented, because the Huthis will not implement their side of the agreement, which involves demilitarization.

The redrafting of the constitution is arguably more important. The Huthis see the six-region federal scheme as an attempt to limit their power to the landlocked north-central highlands (Azal Region), though I don't really think they need to worry about that anymore. Ansar Allah has established an armed presence in at least four of the six proposed federal regions already, so continued whining about this aspect of the constitution might be a bit of a smokescreen. It can also be seen as an overture toward the Southern Movement, which seeks a single southern unit, rather than a south divided between Aden and Hadhramawt.

The demand that President Hadi resolve the security situation in Marib--where, to summarize the events of the past four years, tribesmen hostile to the government routinely cut off the supply of electricity and fuel to the capital--is very interesting. Huthis and Huthi-watchers have been talking about a possible assault on Marib since September, and today's speech makes that eventuality more likely. The Huthis have fought their various adversaries (many of which have some degree of connection to the Islah party or to AQAP) on fronts all over the western part of Yemen already. Marib is the next logical battlefield. As for today's demand, it should be obvious even to casual observers that President Hadi is utterly incapable of meeting it. The president controls very little of Yemen's military (i.e. the continigent of Presidential Guards that failed to hold their tiny bailiwick in southern San'a this week), and a war in Marib would leave the army in tatters. It would seem that al-Huthi's demand can instead be read as a threat that his own forces plan to move into Marib very soon, and they want the military's support (or at least acquiescence) when they do. As weak as it is, the state's military does have a few things the Huthis don't, like an air force, and access to American aerial surveillance assets. Whether or not the Huthis can really afford such a campaign and still hold on to San'a remains to be seen. Their recent campaign to "wipe out" AQAP certainly hasn't gone as well as they'd hoped.

If 'Abd al-Malik is to be trusted, his actions this week were not a coup, but a warning to the president. We'll have to wait and see how many more warnings Mr. Hadi is afforded.

Coup, or Business as usual in San'a?

Monday in southern San‘a began with the sound of machine-gun and artillery fire, as fighting broke out between Huthi "Popular Committee" militiamen and military units loyal to President Hadi. Some sources said the fighting started when Huthi fighters tried to set up a new checkpoint too close to the presidential palace. Others said the Presidential Guard began shelling a Huthi position unprovoked. Either way, the two sides exchanged fire for several hours, from about 6:00am until the late afternoon. President Hadi, who does not live at the presidential palace, was not in any direct danger during Monday's clashes. Minister of Information Nadia al-Sakkaf, who took control of the government's PR effort today, claimed that a "third party"--made up of forces loyal to former president 'Ali Saleh and his family--was also involved in the fighting today, and was responsible for shots that hit the prime minister's convoy and the vehicle of a Huthi representative as they left meetings with President Hadi. Notably, the Presidential Guard units fighting the Huthis did not appear to receive any support from other branches of the military during today's fighting.

By the afternoon, the fighting seemed to center on the hills overlooking the palace, known as al-Nahdayn, which are home to the 3rd Armored Brigade. Huthi officials claim that the Popular Committees took control of the base, which contains several tanks and armored vehicles, though government sources haven't confirmed this. The government did announce a ceasefire beginning at 4:30pm, and said that Huthi representatives were attending negotiations with the president, but sporadic fighting continued after that point. According to al-Sakkaf, the topics under negotiation include the release of Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak--the director of the office of the president, whom Huthi fighters kidnapped on Saturday--and changes to the new constitution, an advanced copy of which was released last week.

Despite early claims by many observers that San‘a was witnessing a coup d'etat, it's not clear what, if anything, was accomplished by Monday's fighting. At day's end, the AP reported that at least nine people had been killed in the fighting, and over 60 injured.

For a more detailed take, read this piece by Shuaib Almosawa and Kareem Fahim and this one from the AP. For a blow-by-blow account of the day's events, read through eye-witness Hisham al-Omeisy's Twitter feed.

Yemen's northern wars: a bad situation gets worse

Yemen's government gave up on fighting the so-called Huthi movement (known "officially" as Ansar Allah) back in 2010, but that hasn't stopped the Huthis from getting into conflicts with other groups in Yemen's northern governorates. In recent months, Huthi fighters have fought Salafi students in the town of Dammaj, militias linked to the Islah party in other areas, and fighters alligned with the Hashid tribal confederation's leading family, Bayt al-Ahmar. Right now, the Huthis are engaged in a very bloody campaign in 'Amran Governorate, where they seem to have taken control of key towns in the al-Ahmar family's archipelago of fiefdoms.  [box icon="info"]For background on the Huthi movement, check out our segment on the origins and evolution of the movement, on episode #1 of Mafraj Radio. The Huthi segment, featuring journalist Adam Baron and scholar Madeleine Wells Goldburt, starts at 11:00[/box]

Sadiq al-Ahmar--the paramount shaykh of Hashid--and his brothers command a huge number of men at arms on their own, and they also have allies within Yemen's armed forces. One of the most troubling things I've heard today (specifically from Adam Baron and Shuaib al-Mosawa on Twitter) is that General 'Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, former commander of the infamous First Armored Division and current military advisor to President Hadi, is planning to/has already begun to involve his own forces in the conflict.

There are a few reasons why I find this possibility so worrying. First, 'Ali Muhsin is no longer officially a commander of military forces. It may be taken for granted by Yemenis and Yemen-watchers that he still has the loyalty of units from the disbanded First Armored Division (known in Yemen as al-Firqah), but on paper he is no longer their commander. The military restructuring process which followed 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh's removal from the presidency also removed several members of the former president's family from their commands, but they too are assumed to retain a degree of de facto control over those forces. If 'Ali Muhsin were to commit "his" forces to combat in 'Amran, the facade of military restructuring would be shattered; such a move could encourage other shadow commanders--‘Ali 'Abdullah's son Ahmad, for instance--to take more active and visible roles. The Saleh-commanded factions of the military fought openly against al-Firqah in 2011; that conflict could be rekindled if rival units were to be put into action in the north.

Second, and this is clearly related to the first point, 'Ali Muhsin's overt involvement in the conflict would seriously undermine the presidency and the government. Of course, Hadi's leadership is already questionable, but there are degrees of undermined-ness. For President Hadi to have one of his top advisors engage in an undeclared war on his own initiative would be several degrees worse than the current situation.

Third, it seems unlikely to me that 'Ali Muhsin could commit a portion of Yemen's armed forces to this conflict without dragging the entire state along with it. The Sa‘dah wars of 2004-2010 grew so much larger and bloodier over time because the Yemeni army created new enemies everywhere it went. Local civilians and their tribes took up arms against the army in those wars not necessarily out of love for the Huthi leadership, but because the state had threatened their lives and livelihoods by putting boots on their land. What starts as a battle between al-Firqah and Ansar Allah will almost certainly expand, and other military units in the war zone will join the battle on one side or another.

Yemen has no shortage of crises and conflicts these days, and it's easy to see each negative development as just another chapter in a never-ended story of chaos. But the situation could always get worse, and some developments and decisions have the potential to make things much worse very quickly. In my opinion, we're looking at one such development in 'Amran right now.

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.

Houthi Expansion and Marginalization

For the second day in a row, we're pleased to offer a piece by PhD candidate and renowned Yemen-watcher Fernando Carvajal. This one covers recent developments in the far north, where the al-Huthi movement is facing battles on several fronts. One of the main issues prolonging Yemen’s instability beyond the recent GCC agreement on transition of power from President Saleh remains the unresolved conflict between Zaydi Houthi rebels and religio-political forces. This issue continues under reported inside and outside Yemen, with only a few videos found online and often brought to our attention by dedicated observers like Aaron Zelin (jihadology.net). The conflict is by no means new, nor confined to events related to the youth revolution, nor is it confined to the six wars fought between Houthis and government forces throughout the predominantly Zaydi northern territories of Saʻdah, al-Jawf and Harf Sufian.

Today’s conflict has reached a point beyond mere political positioning or demands over religious freedom. People still continue to debate its origins, whether it resulted from the new political alignments following the 1994 civil war giving the Sunni Islamists (al-Islah) a share of power, or from broken promises by the regime to the sons of Badr al-Din al-Houthi following the success of the 2000 Border Treaty with Saudi Arabia. Houthis, who were part of the military and ruling party, were instrumental in gaining the support of many Zaydi tribes along the border in order to ensure Saudi Arabia of stability along its southern flank, but in the past 11 years Zaydis had remained targets of Islah’s political agenda in Sanʻa which focused on a stronger hold for Sunni-based education nation-wide. In addition, Zaydis continued to face increasing pressure from Salafist groups bent on engaging Dawa (Calls to Islam) projects in predominantly Zaydi territories, such as the now four-decade-old Damaj ( Saʻdah) Dar al-Hadith center which is part of a major network of teaching centers around the country under the leadership of students of the late Shaykh Moqbil al-Wada’i.

Houthi rebels, led by Abd al-Malik b. Badr al-Din al-Houthi, are now engaged in what could be a war for survival. Following a ceasefire agreement with the government in 2010 the group still remains engaged in armed conflicts in al-Jawf (against Islahi tribesmen), in Saʻdah (vs Salafis in Damaj), in Hajja (against tribes that may offer government forces positions from which to attack Saʻdah) and unarmed conflicts with Islah within Change Square in Sanʻa since late April as they joined the physical occupation of the streets of Sanʻa in support of the Youth Revolution. As a result of their continued marginalization within the political process, Houthis have now moved to a strategy of expansion in order to produce a network of potential launching sites proving them with bargaining power. This expansion includes presence in southern areas as far as ‘Aden, and newly territories such as Rada which would allow them access to Dhamar, an area with Zaydi population. Such positions should be of interest since both Aden and Rada are major targets of Islah during the ten month long revolution and in a post-revolution electoral process as well. Rada has itself witnessed increasing clashes between tribes from al-Ghaysh, loyal to Islah and often associated with Salafist/AQ related training camps (this is where Anwar al-Awlaqi’s brother-in-law comes from as well). The government has so far failed to settle the security issues in Rada, even after visits with Ahmed Ali by the city’s major shaykhs, and while the population has so far remained in support of President Saleh they have threatened to withdraw their support if they have to engage Islahis on their own. Rada is far from joining Islah in a political agreement, and though we see pro-revolution demonstrations in Rada residents indicate they are often under guard of heavily armed men and of low numbers.

We must also keep in mind that the Houthi issue has remained outside the political negotiations that produced the GCC Initiative signed by President Saleh on Wednesday. The Zaydi group, often associated with Iranian elements based in the Yemen Affairs Offices in Tehran and Damascus, has been marginalized politically even though its leadership formed part of the high ranks of the military and were members of parliament. One reason given in Sanʻa for such marginalization has been the fact that there is no viable Zaydi political party active in the negotiations. Al-Haqq party, member of the Joint Meeting Party (JMP), is not recognized legally by the government. Leaders of al-Haqq party have often remain in conflict with the Houthi leadership, and the only contacts of influence for the Houthis have been with personalities outside Yemen that remain in direct conflict with the regime. Neither Mr. Hasan Zaid nor Dr. Mohamed Mutawakkil have been able to produce a rapprochement between the government and Houthis over the past seven years, even though they have full access to the leadership of al-Islah within the JMP that would allow Zaid and Mutawakkil to mediate between Islah and Houthis and pave the way to the end of confrontations with the government.

This week Aaron Zelin posted a video of Salafist shaykh Yahya al-Hajuri from YouTube (dated November 6th) encouraging jihad against the ‘drunk’ Houthis, while we read at the same time this week that Salafis in Damaj and Houthis had agreed to a ceasefire. Last week, before I left Sanʻa I also posted on twitter that Yemeni analysts had mentioned Saʻdah was probably the safest area in Yemen and its economy actually showed signs of growth at a time of complete economic stagnation in Yemen. The accusations against Houthis, which have previously included rapes and forced marriages, in the video of al-Hajuri seem out of place and beyond the Iranian-linked accusations. This conflict in Damaj should also be considered in relative terms and not as an all-out Salafi-Houthi conflict since most Salafis are pre-occupied with the ten-month-old political crisis as they position themselves in support of President Saleh and in direct opposition to Sunnis of al-Islah, mainly seen as Muslim Brothers and not Salafists. This conflict with al-Islah has resulted in a demonizing narrative of the Muslim Brotherhood as the new vanguard of al-Qaeda during sermons, Friday speeches at Sabaeen Stand, even radio talk shows in Sanʻa.

As if things were not yet confusing enough, the role of Saudi Arabia further complicates matters. After the outright failure of Saudi armed forces against Houthis along the border in 2009 the Kingdom had secretly established direct contact with Abd al-Malik al-Houthi and set up confidence building mechanisms in order to avoid clashes along the border. Things were then made more complicated as Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, head of al-Firqa, reached an agreement with Houthis in March in order to prevent clashes between Houthis and Firqa in Saʻdah in order to focus on the political crisis, then he completely disengaged when he defected on 20 March to ‘protect’ the revolution. This situation handed Saʻdah to Houthis and saw the appointment of Faris Man’a, a weapons dealer, as de facto provincial governor. Firqa were withdrawn to the borders of Saʻdah, while Republican Guard forces remained beyond Firqa positions, and Houthis were allowed free movement while encircling Damaj district housing the salafis. All the meanwhile Houthis refused to withdraw from territory gained inside al-Jawf province, to the east of Saʻdah. Since the deals with KSA and Ali Muhsin only addressed the situation in Saʻdah Bakil confederation tribal forces loyal to al-Islah began to engage Houthis in al-Jawf under presumed patronage from KSA. Under Shaykh Ameen al-‘Ukaimi tribal forces had already taken control of al-Jawf and formed a Tribal Council in late March to substitute central government authority and declared their support for the Youth Revolution.

Saudi does not automatically support Salafis in Damaj. The relationship with al-Wada’i’s successor still remains fragile as result of conflicting agendas. It is unclear where Damaj-based Salafists obtain their funding, but they have managed to resist Houthi pressure this year. Houthis still face a long uphill battle in the post transition period, and it seems political actors are in no hurry to take on the issue any time soon. Failure to address the matter immediately will result in prolonged instability and force Houthis to find new staging points around the country in order to exert pressure on the interim government and potentially increasingly destabilize many regions as the 90 day deadline for elections approaches. We must wait to see which political actor assumes the mantel of mediator between Houthis and their religious and political rivals. Just as we see no alternatives for the post of Prime Minister and President in the coming weeks, it is difficult to think of one individual within the JMP or among the Zaydi community willing to take on this task. Also, the previous failure of Qatar to intervene in the matter removes potential international actors able to fill the vacuum. It would also be against Qatar’s interests to represent the Houthis at a time when their vested interests may rest only with Islah and Bayt al-Ahmar as reported by Yemeni journalists and analysts. Iran is often mentioned as a potential mediator, but as the international community continues its rhetoric against Iran vis-à-vis the nuclear issue and Syria’s revolution, it seems highly unlikely the interim government under al-Hadi and BaSundwa will accept any overtures from Tehran and endanger any relations with KSA, the US and the EU at a critical time.

The Huthi movement in revolutionary Yemen

Today we have the honor of sharing a guest post by James King, an expert on Zaydi history and the Huthi movement. James has written extensively on these topics elsewhere, and has done first-hand research in northern Yemen. His insights are extremely valuable. Enjoy! The days of President Ali Abdullah Salih are likely numbered. We’re still miles from that point, but it appears increasingly doubtful that he can survive the end of his term in September 2013, despite his insistence otherwise. More and more, the question is one of how rather than if.

Will he step down at the year’s end to allow for presidential elections, as called for by the JMP? If the protests continue to escalate, will he attempt to mount a Gaddafi-esque megalomaniacal crack-down, likely forcing civil war(s)? Or will the protest movement coalesce around even bolder demands, not merely Salih’s departure, but the fundamental transformation of Yemen’s political order?

As analysts debate how a post-Salih Yemen might look, we must remember that the regime already faces three existing conflicts. These run the gamut from full-blown revolutionary groups like AQAP that seek to overthrow the republican system; to the al-Hirak coalition, whose members’ ambitions range from greater Southern autonomy to secession; to the Huthi movement, a family of prominent Zaydi sayyids and their tribal allies that have spearheaded armed confrontation with the state in Yemen’s northernmost provinces.

Perhaps the most pertinent question on Yemen’s future is whether these groups will play (or be allowed to play) a role in any new government. And does this represent a unique opportunity to resolve conflicts by drawing them into a more inclusive state?

For the Huthis in particular, I am convinced that if given the opportunity, they would participate in any pluralistic state that respects Zaydis' communal rights, whether led by a transitional government or in the context of a new constitutional order.

For starters, the Huthis’ relationship to the Salih regime is far more complex than most people realize. In the early 1990s, Salih supported a nascent Zaydi revival movement in Sa’dah and its neighboring provinces in response to the proliferation of radical Sunni groups. This included the Believing Youth (BY), a sort of predecessor group to the Huthi movement (many of the latter’s eventual leadership were key figures in the BY), whose camps and schools received small amounts of government patronage. While some BY leaders were politically active (including Husayn al-Huthi, who served in Parliament), it was a primarily religious and educational movement, aiming to repel Wahhabi and Salafi influence in traditionally Zaydi areas.

The BY-Huthi transformation from pietistic movement to loyal political opposition to militant resistance group was neither linear nor straightforward.

In fact, the disparate groups that either support or participate with the Huthis’ core leadership remain loosely defined and without a concrete political agenda. Their demands have evolved from the first round of fighting until now, particularly as the conflict escalated. Both employing resonant Zaydi and Islamic rhetoric and appealing to the Yemeni Constitution and human rights discourses, they claim to defend their religious and constitutional rights in the face of government aggression and tyranny. In many ways, their grievances parallel other opposition groups in Yemen, whether al-Hirak or the unaffiliated youth now pouring into protests.

Despite a concerted propaganda campaign from the Yemeni state that labels them as foreign-funded and inspired (Iran, Hizbollah, even Libya) or separatists seeking to re-establish the Zaydi Imamate, the Huthis and their allies have not declared independence or overthrowing the Republic of Yemen as their ultimate goal.

That is not to understate the massive gap between the Huthis and the Salih regime, particularly as the former now de facto controls several provinces in and around Sa’dah. But the point is, this isn’t simply a “rebel” group that categorically rejects the Salih regime, let alone a Republican, non-Imamate form of government.

The Huthi leadership could be brought into a robust process of national reconciliation and dialogue, even if in the context of reform rather than revolution. As one Huthi supporter told me months ago, before these protests: “If the Huthi movement were given the opportunity, it would evolve into something more, even a political party. Because of the current context, they’re unable. They’re not allowed by the government.”

To guarantee their constructive involvement in this process, any future state must prioritize political and religious freedoms, embrace democracy and broad-based participation, and perhaps most significantly, reject the political, economic and military cronyism that cripples Yemen. And it must respect the Zaydi madhhab and cultural and religious rights of Zaydis.

The challenges involved in establishing the framework for such a state, let alone achieving it, are immense.

Ideologically, it would require reforming Yemen’s educational institutions and mediums for public discourse – school curriculum, the media, mosque programming, etc. – which now reflect a Salafi bent.  Considering the political and economic influence of hostile Sunni movements, as well as the strength of anti-Shi’i discourses in general, this will not be easy. Politically, any future government must reverse the divide-and-rule politics that have defined the Salih presidency and which re-enforce these communal tensions. It would also need to grant at least the Sa’dah province, where the government presence has remained weak since it first entered in 1967, considerable autonomy.

Like in the South, the best hope for achieving long-term stability in Yemen’s northwest is to bring together diverse – and until now, alienated – leaders into a negotiation that can facilitate meaningful change and democratic transition. In other words, invest them in the formulation and implementation of a framework for Yemen’s constitutional, political and economic future that is more inclusive and representative.

The Huthi movement would participate in such a negotiation, and if realized, a new Yemen.

Comments on the AQAP statement

This statement has something of a different tone from the previous one; whereas the first adopted the attitude of a proud victim, this one is absolutely gleeful, as its title suggests. It gets a bit dull, though, once the author starts talking about the false deceptive lying falsehoods of the lying Huthis (there are a lot of ways to say "lie" in Arabic). I guess what strikes me is that the author seems to assume that he is addressing a sympathetic audience. His audience is not just the jihadi community, but the Yemeni people as a whole, and he expects them to be happy to hear the wondrous news of this new campaign of violence against the Huthis. I'm holding to my previous assertion, that in the medium and long term this kind of violence won't be well-received in Yemen. But it's important to note that according to this statement, both of the suicide bombers were Yemenis. This is made clear by their names: we aren't given the real names of either man, but both have kunyahs (noms de guerre) containing the adjective "San‘ani." Add to this the assertion, in the final paragraph here, that the Huthis now have the backing of the CIA. The intended take-away is that these were attacks carried out by Yemenis against foreigners, for the sake of the Yemeni people.

Time will tell if this tactic pays off for al-Qa‘idah. But I'm more interested and concerned with the Yemeni government's reactions. So far I haven't heard much, but still think it's likely that President Saleh will try to fan the flames of this conflict for his own twisted reasons.

New AQAP statement

Al-Qa‘idah in the Arabian Peninsula has released another statement about their attacks on supporters of al-Huthi, giving additional details about their "martyrdom operations."

"Glad tidings to the faithful concerning the series of activities in defense of the People of the Sunnah

[We announce that] our heroic, martyred brother Abu ‘A’ishah al-San‘ani al-Hashimi carried out a blessed operation against the procession of influential apostate Huthis in the province of al-Jawf, and that he killed in this operation more than thirty people—among them many of their leaders—and wounded scores of them. This was at 8:40am, the morning of Wednesday the 18th of Dhi al-Hijjah (November 24th), according to our sources at the scene of the bombing.

Our sources present at the scene of the event also informed us that one senior leader of the Huthis was present at the procession, but that his name had previously been withheld by the Huthis.

They then informed us that they would attempt to discover this name in the days that followed. Before long they sent us word that [the person in question] was one of the leading turbaned mullahs. After that the news leaked out that the deceased was the head of evil and corruption, Badr al-Din al-huthi himself, the founder of the apostate Huthi group. He had been in al-Jawf to preside over the celebrations for ‘Eid al-Ghadir, while his son ‘Abd al-Malik presided over them in Sa‘dah. So God enabled us to transform their Day of Ghadir [which literally means “stream” or “brook”] into a Day of Hellfire for the enemies of God who distort Islam and pollute the land of the Prophet (PBUH). For God is great, God is great, God is great, and all praise and thanks be to God.

So our organization issued urgent instructions to send another car bomb—from among several such cars we have prepared for them—to intercept the funeral processions [for al-Huthi]. This blessed martyrdom operation was undertaken by the heroic brother Abu ‘Abdullah al-San‘ani in the stronghold of the Huthis (the area of Dahyan) in the province of Sa‘dah on the morning of Friday the 20th of Dhi al-Hijjah 1431 hijri [November 26 2010]. According to our sources at the scene, this attack killed at least seventy and injured scores of Huthis, who filled the hospitals of Sa‘dah.

The Huthi gang has said—though they are not able to conceal the truth—that Badr al-Din al-Huthi died from natural causes. The Huthi gang wants to deceive the people by claiming that al-Huthi’s funeral, which followed our blessed operation by only one day, was the result of a natural death. The have tried to hide the facts of his death and to circulate information inconsistent with reality, but despite all of this, we have been able to obtain reliable information from within them about the killing of Badr al-Din.

The lies and forgeries and subterfuges [of the Huthis] will not fool any but the most foolish of their followers. The most loathsome of their lies was that their investigations indicated that the blessed martyrdom operation had been carried out by the Israeli Mossad and American intelligence agencies! The truth is that the American intelligence agencies are your helpers; they halted the war [between the Huthis and the Yemeni state] for your sake so that you could work for them in their war against the mujahidin, the vanguard of the Muslim Ummah....

AQAP vs. al-Huthi

In a recently released statement, al-Qa‘idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has officially taken responsibility for the two bombings that targeted Huthi supporters this week. If it's legit, this proves my original thesis wrong. The original Arabic statement can be found on the Jihadology blog. Below is my English translation of the statement in full:

“After repeated appeals from the Sunni people to their brothers the mujahidin for defense, and after the failures of the apostate governments in San‘a and Riyadh—with all their armies, resources, and funds—in addressing the apostate “Huthis” (failures that have abandoned the People of the Sunnah to a fate unknown); the mujahidin of the Arabian Peninsula have decided to begin these martyrdom operations in defense of the land of our Prophet (PBUH) and his Companions (may God bless them all); and in defense of our brothers among the People of the Sunnah, after we have seen them killed, their honor violated and their homes destroyed, driven from their homes and neighborhoods, receiving no assistance.

So we call upon the sons of the People of the Sunnah to enlist in the brigades for the defense of the land of the Prophet (PBUH). The Shi‘i peril is near, and if it is not dealt with, these apostate Shi‘ah will do as they have done to the Sunnis of Iraq and Afghanistan. Hasten, before it is too late; and know that the armies of Saudi Arabia and Yemen do not represent the People of the Sunnah.

Thanks to God we have formed special units to defend our brothers, and to guarantee the extermination of the malignant seeds that have been planted by the apostate Iranian Shi‘ah in Sa‘dah and the adjacent areas, under the leadership of the apostate Huthis.

The People of the Sunnah should know that the apostate Huthis are a legitimate target for us. So we caution our brothers to avoid the Huthis’ gatherings and processions. We call upon those at risk to abandon the apostate Huthis, before it is too late. We have prepared for them, and we will not rest until we have cleansed the land of their filth and their crimes against the People of the Sunnah, and until there is no fitnah, and the only religion is the religion of God, and all evildoers are overthrown and destroyed.”

In the coming week we'll see more analysis of this statement on Waq al-Waq and other blogs, including this one. The first thing that strikes me about this statement is that AQAP claims to be acting in self-defense. No one associated with al-Huthi has ever attacked AQAP. Earlier this year, Huthi supporters took a couple of prisoners linked to AQAP and, in an attempt to advance the peace process, handed them over to the central government. Other than that, the two groups have had no contact.

I think some observers—foremost among them Brian O'Neill—will argue that AQAP is trying to appeal to its international fan base by targeting the Yemeni Shi‘ah (though really, Yemenis almost never refer to Zaydis as Shi‘ah). Their goal is to attract foreign jihadis to their organization. But I have a feeling that this move will end up hurting AQAP, in that it will destabilize the networks of tribal and local support they've built up over the years. Maybe I'm misjudging the Yemeni populace at large, but I really don't think many Yemenis will tolerate sectarian violence on a large scale. Nevertheless, the government is likely to try to exploit conflict between its enemies to its own benefit.

Civil war

Reports yesterday of a bomb killing followers of 'Abd al-Malik al-Huthi as they gathered for 'Eid al-Ghadir marked what will likely be the opening of another round of war in northern Yemen. The attack—which may or may not have been a suicide bombing—was immediately blamed on al-Qa‘idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but that group has not yet claimed responsibility. The Ghadir holiday is celebrated exclusively by Shi‘i Muslims, so it is easy to assume a sectarian motive to such an attack. But AQAP is always quick to claim its actions; the government tried to tie al-Qa‘idah to the bombing of a Zaydi mosque a few years ago, but the group denied it. It is more likely that this attack is related to hostilities that have been ongoing since early November between "Huthi" rebels and pro-government tribes.

It is likely that the current violence will spiral into open war between the rebels and the central government, as it has done six times before since 2004. But I can imagine another possibility, given the wider situation in Yemen today: it could be that the government, or pro-government paramilitary groups (which have ties to Saudi Arabia as well as to the Yemeni military) are trying to incite a war between al-Huthi's followers and AQAP.

The level of pressure on President Saleh's regime from the US, UK, and other international powers to focus on AQAP makes it unlikely that the President and his inner circle would seek a new war with al-Huthi now, as Saleh's international allies have warned him repeatedly to keep the north under control. And while al-Qa‘idah affiliates in Iraq and elsewhere have targeted Shi‘is, this has not happened before in Yemen. Moreover, AQAP is very busy at the moment working to disrupt the US war effort and the central government, so it makes no sense for them to pick a fight with al-Huthi. AQAP has done a great job building support and sympathy from (some of) the public; while some tribes and networks are certainly alligned against al-Huthi, and while anti-Zaydi sentiments are still prevalent in parts of the country, launching a campaign of sectarian violence would not earn AQAP any friends in Yemen.*

In some rare situations, a conspiracy theory yields the most likely answer. This is one of those situations. The Saleh regime knows that its US-supported war against AQAP is going poorly, and is, in the long run, not winnable. It also knows that the United States will not grasp that reality any time soon, and will continue to push for, and to fund, more and more counter-terrorism operations. But the more the US and Saleh push, the weaker their position becomes. So it makes a great deal of sense for Saleh to try to pit al-Huthi against AQAP, and thus distract and weaken both enemies without risking his own resources.

If I'm right about this (I'll admit it if I'm not), the US would be making a horrible mistake if it were to go along with this program, wittingly or not. American envoys should have been talking to al-Huthi years ago, but that's not going to happen. The Obama administration can, however, avoid an even bigger catastrophe than the one it already faces in Yemen by making sure President Saleh refrains from any more of his infamous balancing acts, which always end in misery for the Yemeni people and more power for himself.

Let's all just hope I'm wrong.

P.S. Since this post originally went up, a second bomb killed Huthi supporters en route to the funeral of Badr al-Din al-Huthi, father of 'Abd al-Malik and Husayn al-Huthi and one of the intellectual fathers of the broader Zaydi revival movement.

[*EDIT: Brian O'Neill has been saying for a while that one of AQAP's main goals right now is to recruit "serious jihadis" from abroad. I think he's right, and it is likely that some foreign fighters would be drawn to an anti-Shi‘i campaign. But as much as it wants foreign recruits, AQAP can't survive without local support, which would evaporate if the group were to take on ethnic cleansing as its raison d'etre. I think they know better.]

Status quo

In May of 2010, I wrote the following in a paper on the Sa'dah war:

...it is hardly surprising that the ceasefire that came into force in February of 2010 is already collapsing after only three months, and the president and his allies seem eager to help it fail. Future efforts at mediation will produce similar results so long as the most powerful factions profit more from war than from peace.

Reading the news this week of a new peace deal between the Yemeni government and the northern rebels, I felt a sense of deja vu. The government of Qatar hosted negotiations between the rebels and the government, as they have done several times in the last three years. Before Qatar, Yemeni officials and tribal leaders attempted unsuccessfully to mediate a truce between the partisans of the al-Huthi family and President Saleh's government. Knowing the history of this war, which has caused immeasurable suffering for hundreds of thousands of Yemenis in the far north, I can confidently say that this new agreement will fall apart just like the ones that came before it.

I'm not saying that nothing has changed since 2004, when the war between the government and the rebels began. Plenty has changed in Yemen. The nature of the northern conflict itself has changed: in 2004, Husayn al-Huthi led a small resistance movement, comprised mainly of revivalist Zaydi Shi'is who felt marginalized by a state influenced by Western powers and Saudi funds. Today, the label "Huthi" is applied to a wide -- and probably loose -- coalition of forces pursuing disparate agendas. Yemen has seen changes outside of the northern war zone as well. The Southern Movement has become probably a more pressing concern for the regime than the war against al-Huthi, while international concern about al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has put Yemen in the spotlight for the first time in two decades.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same -- or rather, continue to get worse -- for so many residents of Sa'dah and 'Amran governorates. The war will not end with this new peace deal, because despite all of the new pressures President Saleh faces, he and those in his inner circle still profit from the northern war. While the United States, President Saleh's new best friend, publicly demands that he make peace in the north, the truth is that the US would never support a compromise with al-Huthi. According to the twisted logic that prevails in the Pentagon, a president that gives in to the Shi'a rebels today might  give in to al-Qa'idah tomorrow. And as popular movements all over Yemen demonstrate in the streets for civil rights and increased democracy, the regime in San'a holds ever more tightly to the belief that a strong military, funded by the US and augmented by the reactionary Sunni militias that al-Huthi first rose to oppose, is its own best hope for survival.