Little noticed amidst the violence fomented by the Islamic State militant group throughout the Middle East and northern Africa has been the disintegration of Yemen and the seizure of power by the Houthis, an Iranian-backed group of rebels. The conflict in Yemen reflects geographic as well as sectarian rifts in the country, but the greatest danger is sustained chaos that allows other, more violent groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaida to insinuate themselves into Yemen and use the country as a base for operations elsewhere.
The roots of the Houthi unrest go back to 1962, when Egypt’s President Gamal Nasser invaded Yemen and with the support of Yemeni republic army officers overthrew the Imamate (Shiite Kingdom) of Yemen. While the Nasser-backed forces prevailed, the Shiites in Yemen, who constitute about 30 percent of the population, have nurtured their grievances ever since. The Houthis, originally called Believing Youth, were formed in 1992 in the city of Saada to fight Sunni-backed forces that sought to gain control over Saada.
In 2004, the group turned against the national government, claiming that Shiites were being marginalized and in protest against the government’s support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. A low-level war ensued until a ceasefire was reached in 2010, but they joined demonstrations against the government that were part of the wave of protest unleashed across the Arab world in 2011.
The Houthi rebels rejected the settlement that was negotiated to end the violence, and built up their strength. Recognizing that the new leader of the country, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was incapable of governing, the group marched south out of its stronghold in northern Yemen in 2014 to seize large chunks of territory. It took control of the capital, Sanaa, in September and ousted Hadi from the presidential palace in January. They then dissolved Parliament, arrested top government leaders and blocked international attempts to find a solution to the disorder.
While the Houthis were born of a sectarian impulse, they prefer to characterize themselves as a popular movement against corruption. They are led by Abdul Malik al-Houthi, a cleric whose images, stylings and rhetoric closely resemble that of Hezbollah. Indeed, both groups are backed by Iran, although there is speculation that some of the Houthi weaponry originated from caches controlled by Ali Abdullah Saleh, the leader who was forced to resign by the unrest in 2012.
While the Houthis control much of Yemen, they do not control it all; few governments in Sanaa have. Yemen was two countries — North Yemen and South Yemen — until 1990, and southerners have been unhappy ever since, preferring to have their own country. Al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula has strongholds throughout the countryside, and the Islamic State group is trying to make inroads into the country in its constant struggle with al-Qaida for supremacy in the world among Muslim terror movements.
For countries like Saudi Arabia, the Houthi offensive is another front in the Iranian-backed effort to extend Shiite influence throughout the Middle East. The government in Riyadh is locked in a struggle with Tehran for preeminence in the region, a struggle that is largely fought with proxies.
But this fight is not Saudi Arabia’s alone. Terrorist groups thrive in the vacuum created by instability. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is considered by most experts to be the most dangerous branch of al-Qaida, and individual terrorists such as “the underwear bomber” who tried to blow up a U.S. aircraft in Detroit in 2009, the Boston Marathon bombing suspects and Maj. Nidal Hasan, the U.S. soldier who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, were allegedly inspired by a cleric in Yemen.
The United Nations Security Council has demanded that the Houthis withdraw from the capital and allow the peace negotiations to move forward, and threatened “further steps” if the violence continues. The resolution calls for an end to all external interference and good faith negotiations to support a political transition in Yemen. The Gulf Cooperation Council has called for a Chapter 7 resolution which would allow for the use of economic sanctions or even force to restore peace.
The Houthi leadership has indicated that it is ready to share power. Foreign governments may have leverage to make that happen. The unrest has forced many Western embassies along with some aid organizations and financial institutions such as the World Bank to close their offices. Without those officials, billions of dollars of aid that they were administering will dry up. That is a powerful incentive for the Houthis to return to the negotiating table, and one that is likely to gain more force as anti-Houthi protests spread across the country.
Another factor is the prospect of a strengthened insurgency by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula or the Islamic State group. While the Houthis have voiced public opposition to drone strikes against al-Qaida — the previous Yemen government was a key ally in battle against the terror group — there has been no attempt to stop the drone attacks. And given the Islamic State violence against all groups that do not share its particular version of Islam, the Houthis must see that group as a threat as well. Yemeni politics will remain Byzantine, frustrating friends and foes alike.