August 8-13: Airstrike on school bus draws international attention; new report details prison abuses


International aid groups protested the "symbol of aggression and oppression" the San'a airport has become. There have been 56 coalition airstrikes on the airport in the past two years, an average of one every two weeks.

Yemen’s ambassador to the US, Ahmed Awad Bin Mubarak, argued Wednesday that the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal would “contribute to the end of the war in Yemen.”

December 5-11: US calls for Hadi government to accept peace deal, Oxfam warns of increasing food crisis

Monday, December 5: Yemeni officials say that al-Qaeda has blown up Yemen’s only gas export line, which was located in Shabwa province and delivered gas from Marib to a port on the Arabian Sea.

August 29-September 4: Death toll updated to 10,000; Houthi delegation visits Iraq

Monday, August 29A car bomb struck a military facility in Aden’s Mansourah district, killing at least 60 people and injuring dozens more. The attack, claimed by the Islamic State group, targeted conscripts of the Popular Resistance.

UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen Jamie McGoldrick released a statement expressing his concern for the devastating impact the recent surge in fighting is having on Yemeni civilians. McGoldrick reports that seven people were confirmed dead following Friday’s Saudi airstrike on a market in Baqim in Sa’dah province, while attacks from Yemen across the Saudi border have “caused an unconfirmed number of civilian casualties.”

“In addition to fighting and insecurity, the continued closure of Sana’a airport to commercial flights is having serious implications for patients seeking urgent medical treatment abroad, given the inability of the national health system to treat all medical cases...Initial statistics from the national airline indicate that thousands of people cannot leave while many others remain stranded outside of Yemen…”

A Houthi delegation arrived in Baghdad to meet with Iraq’s foreign minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. The purpose of the delegation’s visit was to push for the recognition of their recently-formed governing council while also updating al-Jaafari on the latest developments in Yemen’s conflict and peace talks.

Tuesday, August 30 UN Humanitarian Coordinator Jamie McGoldrick told a news conference in San’a that 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since the war began 18 months ago. The updated death toll, which is significantly higher than the 6,000 figure that is frequently cited, is based on official information from medical facilities in Yemen. McGoldrick provided no breakdown of the number of civilian deaths, which has previously been reported at 3,800.

Amnesty International is condemning Obama’s unprecedented arms deals with Middle Eastern governments that routinely violate humanitarian law. US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia since Obama took office in 2009 amount to $110 billion.

“One of the unspoken legacies of the Obama administration is the extraordinary uptake in the amount of U.S. weapons and military aid that are provided to major U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt that have terrible records when it comes to human rights,” Sunjeev Bery, advocacy director for Middle East and North Africa issues at Amnesty International USA, told Salon.

Wednesday, August 31 An imam living in Sa’dah was killed along with 16 members of his extended family during a Saudi airstrike on his home, according to a Reuters witness, a medic, and a resident.

“‘The air raid happened in the morning and because the house was made of mud, it took us until noon to be able to dig the bodies out,’ said Nayef, a resident who helped remove the rubble to recover the bodies.”

The Saudi military spokesman says that the coalition was checking if the report is true, and will conduct an investigation if the incident is verified.

UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said that a recent military escalation following the collapse of the peace talks is fueling the spread of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group in the country. The envoy says that a renewed cessation of hostilities is needed to return to negotiations and end the war.

The last US manufacturer of cluster munitions, Textron, announced that it has ceased production of the widely-banned weapon, following a White House order last May to stop the shipment of CBU-105 (cluster bombs)  to Saudi Arabia. The blocking of the sale was at least partly due to pressure from human rights groups that have documented Yemen’s civilian casualties caused by cluster bombs.

Textron spokesman Matthew Colpitts told Foreign Policy that the decision to end production was “due to the current regulatory challenges and in light of reduced product orders.” The company also said that, “The current political environment has made it difficult to obtain...approvals."

Thursday, September 1 The seventh annual Cluster Munition Monitor report outlines the usage of cluster bombs in Yemen (p. 24 of report), Syria, and other conflict zones.

“HRW and Amnesty International have documented evidence of at least 19 cluster munition attacks in the conflict involving the use of seven types of air-delivered and ground-launched cluster munitions produced in three countries...None of the states participating in the Saudi Arabia-led coalition—Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Sudan, UAE—are party to the Convention (banning) Cluster Munitions.”

Friday, September 2 In an interview with a Houthi-run quarterly magazine, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the leader of the rebel group, accused the United States of providing logistical support and political cover for Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen.

Al-Houthi also told the Houthi-run magazine that his group was open to a peaceful solution.

"The hurdle facing negotiations and dialogue is that the other party wants to achieve through the talks what it wanted to achieve through war, not understanding that the path of dialogue and peace is different to the path of war," he said.

Sunday, September 4 Saudi Arabia’s civil defense agency says that cross-border shelling from Yemen killed a woman and injured two other civilians. Attacks from Yemen on Saudi Arabia’s border, along with airstrikes in Yemen carried out by the Saudi-led coalition, have intensified since peace talks were suspended in early August.

May 19-26: UN talks postponed, reversal in al-Dhali', clashes along the border

The planned UN-sponsored peace conference on Yemen has dominated the local press coverage over the past week, along with the Saudi-led campaign and civil conflict in several of Yemen’s main cities. An escalation in artillery fire on the border with Saudi Arabia is also drawing attention. Early last week, after the three-day Riyadh conference was wrapped up, attention turned to the UN-sponsored peace effort, with talks slated to take place in Geneva on May 28. But by the end of the week, this conference was postponed indefinitely, days after President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi—currently in exile Riyadh along with his government—met with the UN Envoy. Meanwhile, Hadi said that he will engage in Geneva talks only if the most recent UN Security Council Resolution is implemented, which requires the Houthis to hand over their arms and withdraw from the cities they took over. Earlier, the Houthi Movement’s leader, ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, signaled in a televised speech his willingness to participate in the UN-sponsored conference.

But on Saturday, a group of Houthi delegates flew to Oman, “to discuss the Yemeni situation and get to know the Omani position.”

The airstrikes over the past week have heavily pounded pro-Houthi/Saleh military bases in several main cities, chiefly the capital, Sanʻa, where the explosions of weapons depots have become common scenes. Meanwhile, clashes between pro-Houthi/Saleh forces and their opponents were reported to have been dramatically intensified in at least ten areas, including Aden, Taʻiz, Marib, al-Jawf, Shabwah, al-Dhaliʻ, Abyan, and Lahj. The “popular resistance” fighters (i.e., anti-Houthi/Saleh forces) were reported to have gained control of some areas.

In the southern city of al-Dhaliʻ, local resistance regained control after two months of sporadic clashes against pro-Houthi/Saleh forces [editor’s note: the 33rd Armored Brigade, loyal to former president Saleh, has been waging a brutal campaign of repression and collective punishment against the population of al-Dhaliʻ since long before the start of this war. Although the international press reported the liberation of the town by “pro-Hadi fighters,” the local resistance is in fact aligned with the Southern independence movement, and has no allegiance whatsoever to Hadi. In fact, President Hadi infamously washed his hands of the conflict in al-Dhaliʻ last year, telling reporters that he had no influence over the 33rd Brigade and declining to intervene against it]. In the eastern province of Marib, local fighters took over a strategic mountain in western district of Sirwah after fierce clashes.

On the border with Saudi Arabia, pro-Houthi fighters have reportedly been trading artillery fire with Saudi troops over the past week. The Houthi-affiliated TV channel, al-Masirah, has broadcast several videos of clashes in the area. The Khamais Mushayt airbase in southern Saudi Arabia was reportedly hit by a Scud missile. On Tuesday, al-Masirah aired alleged footage of homemade missiles called “Piercing Stars” with target ranges of 45km / 75km and warheads of 50kgs / 75kgs.

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.

Mafraj Radio episode 1

Welcome to the home of the new YPP podcast, Mafraj Radio! Our podcast will cover contemporary political, social, and cultural affairs in Yemen and the Yemeni diaspora from a range of sources and perspectives. Our aim with this podcast is to make Yemen accessible to casual listeners who don’t necessarily have a background in Yemen or Middle East studies, while still providing a level of depth and context you can’t get from mainstream media coverage of Yemen. On this episode, we take a look at two growing movements that are threatening the established political and social order in Yemen: the Peaceful Southern Movement, also known as al-Hirak, and the Huthi movement.

Our guests on this episode are:

Adam M. Baron is a freelance journalist based in Sanaa, Yemen who reports regularly for the Daily Telegraph, McClatchy Newspapers and the Christian Science Monitor. His writing has also appeared in Foreign Policy, The Nation (US), The Daily Beast, The Economist, The Independent (UK), Brownbook, Vice and Sports Illustrated. He has been interviewed by radio and television outlets in the United States, Canada and Europe, including CBS Radio, ABC Radio, CNN, the CBC, NPR, RTE and various arms of the BBC.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, he graduated from Williams College with a dual degree in Arab Studies and Religion. He has lived in Sanaa since January 2011.

You can follow Adam on Twitter: @adammbaron

Stephen W. Day Stephen Day is Adjunct Professor of Middle East Politics at the Hamilton Hold School at Rollins College in Florida (USA). He has written for many journals, including Middle East Journal, Middle East Policy, and publications of the Carnegie Foundation. His latest book, Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen: a troubled national union, is published by Cambridge Press.

Madeleine Wells Goldburt is a 2013 visiting research fellow at the AUK and a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the George Washington University, where she concentrates on comparative politics, ethnic politics, and international relations. Her dissertation research focuses on the politics of citizenship and social benefits in the Arabian Gulf. Prior to attending GWU, Ms. Wells worked for two years at the RAND Corporation analyzing rebellion and insurgency in Arabian Gulf and Horn of Africa. She also assisted with research for the Military Leadership Diversity Commission. Ms. Wells is a co-author of the 2010 RAND monograph Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Huthi Phenomenon. She holds an MA in Islamic Studies from Columbia and a BA in Government and Near Eastern Studies from Cornell.

You can follow Madeleine on Twitter: @SwellWells

For a brief but excellent history of the Peaceful Southern Movement (al-Hirak), I recommend that you read these two posts by Yemeni blogger Sama'a al-Hamdani: Part 1, Part 2

The video for the song Dana mentions at the end of act one can be found here:

A note about this episode: we make a serious effort to include Yemeni voices in each episode, but in this case it was not possible to record interviews with any of the three other guests we had planned to speak to before our deadline.

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 ( 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.

Finally, a dialogue!

Ok, so the world's dreams of "peaceful dialogue" between President Saleh and his opponents may not be happening, but at least this week has seen one important dialogue on the Yemeni political situation. Gregory Johnsen of Waq al-Waq (@gregorydjohnsen) and Prof. Charles Schmitz of Towson University (@cpschmitz) held forth on Yemen's affairs on the topical video blog site Bloggingheads has invited us to share the video with you here. Enjoy:

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: 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.