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.

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.

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.