The Houthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah, is a Zaydi revivalist group formed in the 1980s as a response to perceived state-sponsored attempts at cultural and religious eradication after the Zaydi imamate of north Yemen was overthrown in 1962.
The sectarian tensions with the central government in Sana’a, headed by Ali Abdullah Saleh, boiled over since 2004 in five rounds of conflict. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring and president Saleh’s negotiated resignation in early 2012, the Houthis pushed into Sana’a and by January 2015 had placed President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi under house arrest. On March 26, 2015, a Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm with the stated goal of returning President Hadi to power.
On January 30, 2017, a “suicide gunboat” attack west of Yemen’s Hodeida port on a Saudi vessel killed two sailors and wounded three others. The attack was allegedly intended for an American warship, according to US defense officials.
The Houthi al-Masira TV channel claimed that the explosion was caused by a guided missile. The video of the January attack on the Saudi ship widely disseminated by the Houthi media permits a glimpse into the group’s ideological transformation. The rebels who monitor the attack shout a known slogan in the Iranian Shi’ite coalition: “Death to the United States, death to Israel, curse of Allah upon the Jews.”
The issue of how important Iranian military support is to the Houthi rebels, especially in the field of strategic antiship and ground-to-ground missiles, is in dispute among the regional and global actors involved in the Yemeni conflict.
A UN panel of experts on Yemen concluded that the Houthi-Saleh military alliance has potentially significantly increased the maritime threat to vessels passing through the Red Sea and Strait of Bab al-Mandab, and to those delivering humanitarian aid to Yemen.
In April 2015, MEMRI published a comprehensive paper on Iran’s views and official declarations concerning political, military and economic support of the Houthis, stressing the strategic and geopolitical benefits for Tehran in its conflict with Saudi Arabia and the West. Mehdi Taeb, director of the Ammar Headquarters think tank that advises Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, argued that “without Iran... Ansar Allah would have never emerged.”
The relationship between the Houthis and Hezbollah goes back over a decade.
They trained together in Iran, then in Lebanon and in Yemen. Hezbollah also helped establish the Houthi al-Masira channel based in Beirut’s Hezbollah- controlled southern suburbs.
In mid-2014, Yemen arrested Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members who had assisted the Houthi rebels. In September 2016, president Hadi was forced to free a number of IRGC and Hezbollah operatives under pressure by the Houthis. At the beginning of 2017, IRGC men were arrested at the airport after arriving in Yemen to help train the Houthis.
There are significant differences between Zaydi Shi’ism and the Iraqi and Iranian version (“Twelver Shi’ism”), both in doctrine and in practice.
Badr al-Din al-Houthi, the patriarch of the al-Houthi family (who died in 2010) and one of the most prestigious Zaydi religious scholars in Yemen, visited Iran during the 1990s as Tehran had “a fraternal view of the Houthi family.”
The lectures and preaching by Hussein al-Houthi, Badr al-Din’s eldest son and the ideologue of Zaydi revivalism, were largely circulated beginning in 2000. He made regular reference to the idea that the Muslim world is in a state of weakness “under the feet of the Jews and Christians” and referred to the “Zionist entity” as a “cancer” and America as “the Great Satan.” Hussein traveled to Iran and toured Qom to learn about the success of the Iranian revolution and Hezbollah’s evolution, while Lebanese and Iraqi Shi’ites visited Yemen in the late 1990s, to study in “Houthi centers” and establish Twelver-style learning centers (Husseynias) in the region.
In June 2004, the government of Yemen sought to eliminate the Houthi threat by arresting Hussein al-Houthi, depicted him as a proxy for Iran, and finally killed him.
THE NEW young leader of the movement after the killing of his brother Hussein, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, emerged as the ideological head of the group, building on the legacy of his father and brother. In a 2008 interview, he declared: “The Houthi current is an expression of popular solidarity mobilizing peacefully to oppose the American- Israeli attack on the Islamic world and spreading the Koranic culture in the face of intellectual assault.”
The Houthi’s propaganda strategy, developed since the battle against the regime in mid-2004, contains “hallmarks of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement’s own propaganda operation in its discourse and format.” Abdul Malik delivers his speeches inspired by the “performances of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah whom he mimics in tone, mannerisms and discourse.”
IRGC Brig.-Gen. Hossein Salami said that “Ansarollah [Ansar Allah] is a similar copy of [Lebanese] Hezbollah in a strategic area.”
In November 2015, in 2016 and again in April 2017 Abdul Malik accused Israel and the US of being behind the Saudi war on Yemen and claimed that Israel seeks to “enslave Muslims.”
In a clear sign of their ideological inclinations, in April 2017 Houthi leaders appointed Beraas Shams al-Din Muhammad Sharaf al-Din as a new Mufti, to serve as the leading religious authority in Sana’a. Sharaf al-Din was educated in Iran and is believed to be one of the most important links between Iran and the Houthi movement.
A physical Iranian presence based on a strategic cooperation with the Houthi movement, which is in the process of becoming a perfect copy of Hezbollah, in Yemeni ports of the Red Sea; the control of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait and the threat to free navigation from Israel’s Eilat harbor, represent a direct threat to Israel’s security and interests.
This project will permit Iran to completely encircle Israel on the Lebanese, Syrian, Gazan and now Yemeni frontiers, and increase the ground and naval challenges for the Jewish state.
Moreover, the Houthis, Hezbollah and other Shi’ite “foreign fighters” could use a territorial presence in Yemen to threaten Israeli, American and Western interests in the region and beyond.
The author is a senior research scholar at The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya.