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Yemen's Houthis: Who are the Iran-backed militants?

The militant group based in northern Yemen are on one side of the country's long-running civil war. Now, they're threatening maritime traffic on the Red Sea. Who are the Houthis? And what do they want?

For weeks now, the Houthi rebel group in Yemen has been attacking ships of all kinds on the Red Sea, using drones and other weapons. The attacks are part of what the fighters say is their support for the Palestinian cause and the militant Hamas group in Gaza.

Since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, killing about 1,140 people, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been bombing the Gaza Strip, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians. Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by Germany, the European Union, the US and others.

Israel has also launched a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip and has blocked the delivery of most food, water, power and aid into the enclave. Fighting is ongoing and more than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed so far, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza; US officials have suggested that the death toll is likely higher because people buried under rubble are still counted as missing.

The Houthis have said they will continue to attack every vessel on its way toward Israel until the IDF lifts the blockade on the Gaza Strip and allows food and other essentials in.

In mid-November, the Houthis managed to hijack one ship, the Galaxy Leader, which belongs to an Israeli businessman. 

The threats are being taken seriously. Several major international freight companies have already said they won't be sending any more ships through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and will reroute them on a longer and more expensive course. 

Israel-Gaza: Yemen's Houthi group — a new threat for the region's safety?

Connecting the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea, the strait is one of the most important in the world. It sees about 12% of world shipping traffic transiting here, on their way to the Suez Canal, the shortest shipping route between Europe and Asia. To get there, vessels must pass off the coast of Yemen.

This week, as a result of the ongoing threats posed by the Houthi group and the freight firms' announcements, the United States announced an international naval coalition, "Operation Prosperity Guardian," to protect the vital sea passage. The countries taking part in the coalition alongside the US are Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, the Seychelles and the UK. 

The Houthis have also responded to the announcement of the naval coalition this week.

"Yemen's armed forces don't represent any threat to any country: We only target Israeli ships or ships heading toward Israeli ports," their statement said. "We affirm our steadfast position in supporting the Palestinian people until Israel's aggression ends, and [the] siege on the Gaza strip is lifted."

Yemen's long war

The Houthis derive from a tribal group out of the north of Yemen, near the border with Saudi Arabia.

By religious sect, the Houthis are Shiite Muslims but belong to a specific branch called the Zaydi Shiites.

As such, they have beliefs that sett them apart from mainstream Shiite Muslims. For instance they do not believe in the return of a messiah-like figure, the 12th imam. The twelve imams are considered to be the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and the 12th imam is considered to have vanished but is expected to return one day.

Nonetheless, the fact that the Houthis are Shiite Muslims is important because this connects them to Iran, the country generally considered to represent Shiite interests in the region.

Zaydi Shiites make up about one-third of Yemen's population. The political and military movement goes back to the 1990s. The contemporary movement was founded by Hussein al-Houthi, a former Yemeni politician who opposed the policies, and alleged corruption, of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was himself a Houthi. The group are named after Hussein al-Houthi.

A 2017 report said the Houthi military and administrative ranks numbered roughly 100,000 peopleImage: Hani Mohammed/dpa/AP/picture alliance

After the Arab Spring protests of 2011 toppled Saleh's regime, the Houthis increasingly accused Yemen's new government — now headed by a Sunni Muslim — of marginalizing Zaydi Shiites. They also believed that the central government was too close to the US and thereby Israel, and that the current leader, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was also a Saudi stooge.

The Houthis rebelled against Hadi's unpopular government in 2014 and began to take over large parts of the country, including the former capital, Sanaa. For the Saudis, who did indeed support Hadi, this was a major problem and they began to fight against the Houthis. The Saudis have been heading an international coalition fighting against the Houthis since 2015, but without great success.

In 2022, the opponents negotiated a six-month ceasefire. Even though this has since ended, the situation has remained comparatively calm in Yemen as all parties seemed to have come to the conclusion they're at a stalemate.

The war in Yemen has been described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis by the United Nations.

What Houthis believe

The Houthis' ideology can be deduced from their motto: "God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam."

In their territory in northern Yemen, they have adopted a strict Islamist order with an anti-Western and anti-Israel bent.

Since the 1990s, successive Yemeni governments have supported calls for Palestinian statehood and an end to the Israeli occupation. This was in common with most nations in the Middle east. The Houthi group has further radicalized this position and many locals are sympathetic to it. 

The Houthis are now considered close allies of the government in Iran. They see themselves as part of the so-called Axis of Resistance, an Iran-led regional alliance that also includes Hamas in Gaza, Lebanon's Hezbollah and various Iraqi paramilitary factions.

There are notable differences between the Houthis and those other groups, said Hamidreza Azizi, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. They are less dependent on Iran than groups like Hezbollah, he told DW.  

The USS Carney: Increased US presence in the Red Sea in the near future Image: .S. Navy photo/abaca/picture alliance

It is impossible to know exactly how much support the Houthis get from Iran or how much they respond to Iran's orders. It's doubtful that Iran played a role in these latest attacks on ships in the Red Sea, Fabian Hinz, a research fellow for defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told DW.

Although shipping has been endangered, observers suggest that the Houthi attacks don't pose much military danger to Israel itself. Any rockets fired in that country's direction have been repelled or shot down.

Rather, the attacks are a kind of political message for domestic audiences, Farea al-Muslimi, a research fellow with the British think tank Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa program, told DW recently.

"This war is a golden opportunity for the Houthi group to demonstrate its pro-Palestine, anti-Israel and anti-American position to its local population," al-Muslimi said. But their actions are unlikely to open any substantial new front for Israel to fight on, he added.

It is a different story for maritime traffic, though. The US and other countries, including Germany, had previously issued warnings that a naval coalition might be established if the Houthis kept on shooting at ships and attempting to hijack them.

A naval alliance could obviously cause major damage to the Houthis' military abilities. At the same time, it could also lead to more solidarity between the Houthis under attack and residents of Houthi-controlled areas.

This article was originally written in German.

Second publication by courtesy of Deutsche Welle


Henry Ridgwell (VOA), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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