Who Are the Houthis?

In a new documentary, Safa al-Ahmad charts the rise of the mysterious rebel group now ruling much of Yemen.

In Safa al-Ahmad’s new documentary on the pitched battle for Yemen, which aired this week on Frontline, the Saudi Arabian filmmaker passes by countless posters declaring—and a number of schoolchildren gleefully chanting—a set of lines that may sound familiar to Americans who lived through the Iran hostage crisis:

God is great
Death to America
Death to Israel
God curse the Jews
Victory to Islam

The chilling slogan belongs to the Houthis, the enigmatic rebel group that has taken over the Yemeni capital Sanaa and other parts of the country, and ousted Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his government. But the echoes of Iran's revolutionary "Death to America" chant don't necessarily mean, as many have suggested, that the Houthis are a proxy force for Shia-led Iran in its battle with Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, which borders Yemen and has now launched air strikes against the Houthis.

The multi-front fight for Yemen—which involves numerous other factions including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh—is far more complicated than a straightforward sectarian proxy war, Ahmad says.

"It does nobody justice to simplify [the conflict] within sectarian terms," Ahmad told me by phone from London. She argued that Saudi Arabia has had far more influence in Yemen than Iran has, and bristles at the description of the Houthis as a "Shia militia."

"The Houthis are first and foremost a political group," she explained. They belong to the Zaidi sect, whose members make up roughly one-third of Yemen's 25 million people. The Zaidis "are traditionally part and parcel of the Shia sect, but they hold very different beliefs than, say, Shia in Iran," she added.

Unlike Sunnis and Shias, for example, Zaidis believe they have a religious obligation to rise up against unjust rulers. Houthi founder Hussein al-Houthi, who was killed by the Yemeni government in 2004, mixed Zaidi revivalism with anti-imperialism. Hence the "Death to America / Death to Israel" chant, despite the fact that the Houthis, according to Ahmad, are fundamentally a "local group with local grievances."

So just what terms should we be using to discuss the Houthis—and the dramatic splintering of a country they partially control? An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.

Tanya Basu: What prompted you to start filming this documentary?

Safa al-Ahmad: This is my second documentary in Yemen. I’m a Saudi national, and so I don’t need a visa to go into Yemen. It’s easier for me to get that access than others, so I have always been fascinated with [Yemen] and have people there that I consider like family. I just kept coming back to the country.

I got to know a lot of the Houthis more closely in 2011 when I came to cover their revolution in 2011. I’ve known many of them for a while now. When they came closer and closer to surrounding Sanaa and coming into the capital, I started getting in touch with them and said, “How do you feel about me making this documentary about you guys?” What really helped me was that they already knew who I was. It kind of helped me get in the door that way, even though it was still very difficult once I got into the country.

Basu: There aren’t that many women on the ground making documentaries in areas that are controlled by groups like [the Houthis]. I was wondering about your experiences as a woman.

Ahmad: I would question your question, actually. I think that is no longer correct. A lot of female journalists are out there, who are covering Egypt and Syria and Libya and even Yemen. I think it’s a wrong stereotype to have. Being a woman in the Middle East actually gives you an advantage over men because it gives you access to all sides, especially to other women. I found it to be an asset rather than a detriment to my journalism. I think both men and women as journalists face different challenges, and the Middle East is no exception to that. Ultimately, when I faced hostility, it was hostility to a camera and not to me as a woman; [the Houthis] are very secretive, they’re very paranoid about media in general.

[In] Yemen, they’re sweethearts. They have [a] very advanced civil society. Women have already been in public much more than [in] the rest of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]. They’ve been involved in politics, they were ministers—in no way, shape, or form can you compare [reporting in Yemen] to the other challenges you would have in, let’s say, Saudi Arabia.

Basu: Speaking of myths, then, are there other myths outside of Yemen about the Houthis that you have found to be false?

Ahmad: Yes. The one that drives me insane is the one when they say “Houthi Shia militia” or simply “Shia militia.” That line just makes me cringe, because the Houthis are first and foremost a political group. Their sect is Zaidi. And when you say "Shia militia," it’s actually misinformative. They are traditionally part and parcel of the Shia sect, but they hold very different beliefs than, say, Shia in Iran. When you say "Shia militia," automatically you have a connection with Iran, right? In fact, that misleads you to thinking that they have religious motivations in their control over Sanaa and their spread across Yemen. That is political. They’re very pragmatic. They have alliances and affiliations with a whole bunch of other groups that don’t believe in their core beliefs as Zaidi.

You don’t know how many times I had to say, “You can’t call them Shia militia” when we were writing scripts. And [the scriptwriters] were like, “But everyone is doing that.” But you can’t do that!

When [they] write about al-Qaeda or IS, do they say "Sunni militias?" No, they don’t—they just say "ISIS," they say "al-Qaeda," because you know that al-Qaeda has political aims. What religion or sect they are just is a bystander to it. The major thing is to say, “Ok, these are a Houthi militia. They want x, y, and z.”

I think that really is problematic because the whole concept of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia—[the description of the Houthis as Shia] sits nicely, right, in that proxy war.

Basu: The proxy war: You’re saying that’s a myth, or not?

Ahmad: No, I’m saying it’s part of the whole conversation of the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. One, the role of Iran is vastly overblown when it comes to Yemen. For example: Hamas in Palestine. They have very strong relationships with Iran. It’s not a religious or sect [connection]. They have political alliances. So Iran is quite capable of making alliances with other people that have nothing to do with being Shia. And I would put the Houthis within that paradigm of political alliances with other countries and groups that otherwise have nothing to do with the sect itself, outside Zaidism.

If we’re talking about a proxy war, Saudi Arabia has played a much bigger role when it comes to Yemen than Iran ever [did]. The control, the money, the influence that Saudi Arabia has had for decades over the Yemeni government and the tribes inside Yemen do not compare at all to the impact that is alleged of Iran. Iran does have a relationship with the Houthis, but [it's] not that strong. They can’t pick up the phone and tell the Houthis, “Go do this, go do that.” It’s not that type at all. The Houthis are very much a local group that was borne from local conflict inside Yemen. The outside regional conflict has exacerbated something that was local. But predominantly the Houthis are very much a local group with local grievances.

I’ve met several [Yemeni] tribes that have openly said, “We get money from Saudi Arabia.” Even before the air strikes, the tribes, for example, were telling us that they were getting weapons and money [sent] directly to them to fight the Houthis. And for decades, that’s been the case. They have a special commission in Saudi Arabia just to follow what’s happening inside Yemen. So that is less disputed than the actual Iranian involvement. There’s very little good journalism done about Iranian influences inside Yemen. I know for a fact that the Iranians were sending planes to fly activists from the south to the north, to meet people and things like that. But it doesn’t qualify as direct interference. There are other examples that are harder to prove. But again, the two cannot be compared to the influence of Saudi Arabia, [it’s] much more significant to the country.

Basu: Did you see the Houthis change in any way [once they took over Sanaa]?

Ahmad: Massively. Massively. Before, they were marginal. Before, they were still trying to make alliances with people. They were trying to be more accommodating of other political groups. And until 2010, they were quite isolated. 2011’s revolution reopened doors to them to start directly communicating with other people in Sanaa.

Once they were in power in Sanaa, they were controlling everything. They were less accommodating. They were still talking about anti-corruption and cleaning up the government, but their behavior on the ground was completely different. And to me that was the big thing, this whole contradiction between, “Oh look, we are victims, look what happened to us during [the country's past] wars”—which was horrendous. Nobody can dispute that. But the Houthis, once they got control in Sanaa, started doing the exact same things, the things that [former President] Ali Saleh’s government was doing against them. They were disappearing people, kidnapping people, torturing them, putting them in prison for no reason.

Unfortunately, the Houthis are a militia. A militia isn’t capable of building a state—a democratic, just state. And so that quickly became very apparent. When they started opening fire and kidnapping [peaceful, anti-Houthi] protesters across [Houthi-controlled] regions, all of that made it really clear to people I think that the Houthis were there for power and not there to actually establish a democratic state. This whole thing that they have about, “Oh, we’re fighting al-Qaeda” is not necessarily true because [the city of] Taiz, in northern Yemen, didn’t have al-Qaeda in it, yet [the Houthis] took it over. And there were massive protests there. At least eight people were killed in protests that the Houthis had opened fire on. They are no better than all the other groups that have taken Yemen before them, unfortunately.

Basu: Relatedly: You talk about how the Houthis have changed politically. Have they changed in their view of the Zaidi sect?

Ahmad: That’s a good question. A lot of my friends were like, “When you meet the Houthis, can you please ask them if they still think they’re Zaidi?”

Basu: That’s actually my question: Are they Zaidi, or are they not?

Ahmad: Hussein al-Houthi, who established this movement, was a revivalist. He believed that [the] Zaidism that existed at the time—and I’m talking about [the] late 80s, 90s—didn’t reflect the true spirit of Zaidism. He felt that it needed to be more revolutionary.

One of the basic premises of the Houthi belief is that you are allowed to [oppose] an unjust ruler. In that way, it is very different from both the Shia and the Sunni schools of thought. From the beginning, the schools of thought for both Sunni and Shia [were] that you are not allowed to go against an unjust ruler, because there would be chaos after. The Zaidis were the first to say, “It is your religious duty to come out against an unjust ruler.” This is what I mean by saying they are so different from the Shia and other schools of thought. [Not until Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini was [Shiism] seen as something revolutionary in that you’re allowed to have that. And that was quite recently—I mean, we’re talking ’79, right?

Zaidis—within 200 years of Islam, they had established this. So in that way, they are quite revolutionary. But what [Hussein al-Houthi] did is that he mixed Zaidi revivalism with anti-imperialism, anti-U.S. [sentiment]. And so the slogan that said, “God is great / Death to America / Death to Israel / Curses to the Jews”—that slogan, that was his way of mashing the two together. That this is how you’re supposed to be as a good Zaidi Muslim, is to go against these unjust rulers.

But the Houthi movement, when they arrived in Sanaa, changed their name. They now call themselves Ansar Allah. Ansar Allah—“the Partisans of God”—kind of like Hezbollah. They call themselves the passers of the Quran. So they are claiming they want a movement beyond a sect, where they can unify all Muslims together to fight imperialism. They have all these really grand ideas of who they are and what is there mission. It is quite fluid. When you talk to them, they use all this flowery language about the divine victory of God that made them arrive in Sanaa and spread across Yemen. They believe a lot of that religious ideal of "God is on their side," especially their fight with al-Qaeda. In a strange way, regardless of the “Death to America” slogan, the Americans and the Houthis are actually fighting the same enemy. This is part of the complexity. The Saudis are allegedly fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda, the Americans are allegedly fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda, and so are the Houthis. They’re all on the same side. Yes, they’re all fighting against each other. Welcome to the Middle East.

In the film, [I show] a man who says, “I love [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi, I love ISIS,” and then he says, look, “There’s democracy for a few years, and look what it got us: nothing.” A lot of people put a lot of faith in the political process. And then they see that everybody outside the country is putting their finger in it and messing with that process to their advantage. A lot of people are going to resort to violence because they think shortsightedly and think, “This didn’t work out.” So the Americans need to be really careful about American foreign policy when it comes to these things. I mean, look, $500 million worth of weapons went missing in Yemen because the American special forces left the base and left everything behind. Fantastic! Great—who do you think is using that now? I think that’s really frightening. We keep paying lip service to democracy in the Arab world. But what we are effectively doing, and directly doing, is arming dictatorships to the teeth.

Yemen is the poorest Arab country. Over a million children are malnourished in Yemen. The whole embargo by air and sea is just exacerbating it. There is no more petrol in Yemen. Nobody can go anywhere because they can’t find petrol. Food was already in short demand and now is even worse. Who is going to like America or Saudi Arabia after this war? You [Americans] have created massive hatred towards you, because you’re seen now as supporting even more radical Islamists. I see nothing good coming out of these air raids. They will not be able to eradicate the Houthis. What kind of air raid ever succeeded in doing so? The Americans with their drone strikes, it didn’t manage to eradicate al-Qaeda from Yemen. It just exacerbated the situation. So now we’re going to come to a point where [those carrying out air strikes will think], “Oh, now, we have to put boots on the ground because nothing was solved out of air strikes.” So it’s déjà vu of Iraq and Afghanistan.