This week, members of the Houthi group gathered in the northern Yemeni city of Sa’dah to re-bury the group’s founder in a funeral that ballooned to tens of thousands of attendees. It was one of the largest mass gatherings of Houthis in recent years, and the presence of armed Houthi rebels guarding the ceremony underscored the group’s tense relationship with the Yemeni central government, which certainly did not want this gathering to occur.
The deceased group founder in question, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, in fact died in 2004 at the hands of Yemen’s central government, which at the time was fighting the first in a series of six separate conflicts with the Houthis, and which had placed a bounty on al-Houthi’s head shortly before his death in the Marran district of Sa’dah governorate. His brother, Yahia Badreddin al-Houthi, replaced him as the group’s political leader.
But how could a group numbering roughly 110,000 members and loyalists, according to Houthi expert Ahmed al-Bahri—and most of them not militant—be considered enough of a threat by the central government of Yemen, a nation of 25.4 million people, that it would engage in six separate conflicts with them since 2004?
Since the 1994 civil war that unified North and South Yemen (formerly the Yemen Arab Republic and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen respectively), Yemen has been an unruly and fragmented nation, with the spread-thin central government fighting an al-Qaeda insurgency as well as a Shi’a one.
It is this connection to the Shi’a insurgency that makes the Houthis such an existential threat to the Yemeni central government. While the dominant religious sect in the country is Shafi’i Sunni Islam, the Houthis are Zaidi Shi’a Muslims, also known as Fivers. This has led them to ally staunchly against the largely Sunni central government, seeking the aid of Shi’a foreign agents such as Hezbollah and the government of Iran.
Because of this, the Yemeni central government insists that the Houthis are trying to uproot the central government in order to instill Shi’a religious law in Yemen.
While this may, in fact, be an ultimate goal of Houthi leaders, in the meantime the group has set itself apart by acting as a voice of popular opposition against the Yemeni ruling regime, with its alliance with the United States in its attempt to rid itself of radical actors.
At Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi’s funeral, his followers chanted both “death to America” and “death to Israel.”
In addition to fighting violently against the Yemeni central government in the northern part of the country, the Houthis were among the first to join the Arab Spring uprisings in Yemen, attempting to fill the power vacuum caused by the protests.
The Houthis have their roots in the Houthi tribe, but in a country as tribally oriented as Yemen is, the line between group, sect, and clan is often an insignificant one. By 1994, they extended beyond the typical functionality of a tribe into an insurgent group, calling themselves Ash-Shabab al-Muminin, or the Believing Youth.
By Laura Gates
Source: BBC, Yemen Post, Al Jazeera, Al Monitor