BYLINE: Michael R. Malone

Newswise — Costantino Pischedda is an associate professor of international relations with the Department of Political Science. Author of “Conflict Among Rebels: Why Insurgent Groups Fight Each Other.” Pischedda’s research focuses on civil war dynamics—in particular, relations among rebel groups—counterinsurgency, ethnic conflict, religion and violence, civilian victimization and terrorism.   

Bradford (Brad) McGuinn is a senior lecturer with the Department of Political Science and director of the Master of Arts in International Administration program. McGuinn holds a Ph.D. in International Studies with concentration in Middle Eastern studies. His fields of research and teaching include international security, Middle Eastern studies, civil-military relations and political violence. 

On Nov. 19, six weeks after the Hamas’ attack on Israeli civilians and as the conflict in Gaza continued to escalate, Houthi militants landed a helicopter on the Galaxy Leader, a cargo ship passing through the southern Red Sea. The rebels redirected the vessel to a Yemeni port and seized the crew who remain detained. Since that seizure, the Iranian-backed group has carried out some 30 attacks on vessels passing through one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, 13 of them resulting in direct strikes with missiles and drones. 

In retaliation and seeking to stymie the attacks, on Jan. 11, a Western coalition launched the first of a wave of missile attacks on Houthi military bases in Yemen. Those attacks have continued. 

Comments by source experts:

Who are the Houthis and what do they want? 

Pischedda: A Yemenite rebel group with an Islamist ideology, the Houthis emerged in 1992 and, since 2004, have engaged in on-and-off armed rebellion against Yemen’s internationally recognized government. The Houthis rebellion significantly intensified in 2014, and the group took control of Yemen’s capital Sanaa the following year. In the past couple of years, fighting between the Houthis and Yemen’s government has fizzled. The colloquial name Houthis—the formal name being “Ansarallah,” or Supporters of God—derives from the name of its first and deceased leader, Husein Badr al Din al Houthi, an influential member of the Houthi tribe. 

The Houthis longstanding objectives in Yemen have been about addressing what it considers socio-economic injustices and corruption in the country, and the political discrimination against the group and the tribe its members hail from. The Houthis have also long expressed ideological hostility towards Israel and the United States. Since the beginning of the war in Gaza, the Houthis opposition to Israel and the United States has moved from the rhetorical realm to the military one, launching missiles against Israel and targeting ships crossing the Red Sea. The stated goal of these actions is to induce Israel to cease its military operations in Gaza, though the Houthis probably also expect to gain significant domestic and international prestige by projecting an image of themselves as the only actor willing to take radical actions on behalf of the Palestinians.   

McGuinn: A people of Yemen’s highlands, informed by traditions of family association and fluid theological politics, the present Houthi movement has been shaped by a series of shocks. By the 1990s. traditions of elastic sectarian affinity gave way to polarization, as among the Shafi’i Sunni emerged more literalist Salafi currents and the ecumenical Zaydi Shi’a, fashioned into the Ansar Allah, inclined toward political theologies associated with the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah. For the Houthi, the period after the Arab Spring would be a time of sectarian mobilization. Ali Abdullah Salih’s reign ended, and the Houthi movement undertook an audacious bid to extend their control south to Aden. The counteroffensive launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies would yield a devastating proxy war, leading to an acute, protracted, humanitarian crisis. But as with the experience of Hezbollah in the long Syrian civil war and the Iraqi Shi’a militias in their combat with ISIS, the Houthi movement would develop and build resilience through its seasons of “battle testing.” 

Are the Houthis an isolated group or are they allied with some regime? 

McGuinn: The disintegration of many Arab states and the proliferation of regional proxy conflicts have allowed the Houthi to transcend their parochialism. The Zaydi revival during the 1990s, ideational convergence between Houthi and the Islamic Republic of Iran, fashioned a conceptual habitus as Houthi leaders oriented their movement around the theme of resistance to the Middle Eastern dominant order defined by United States, Israel and their Arab allies. For the Houthi, Hezbollah, and Hamas, the militias of Iraq and Iran’s Islamic Republic serve as “models of resistance.” 

The relationship between the Houthi, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’a militias was given a measure of operational coherence by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, making possible transfer into Yemen of military technology, including an array of missiles and drones. The “Axis of Resistance” appears not to function in mechanistic unity, as each element in the coalition will be shaped by preoccupations of a local nature, but as strategic framework. Taken together the alliance poses the most effective challenge to the region’s “dominant order” in recent history. 

Pischedda: The Houthis have been receiving substantial support from the Iranian government, which sees the civil war in Yemen as a way to gain influence in the broader Middle East. Saudi Arabia—at the helm of a coalition of Arab states supported by the United States—backs Yemen’s internationally recognized government; thus Saudi Arabia and Iran, two bitter rivals, are on opposite sides in the Yemen civil war, which can be thought of, to a some extent, as a proxy war between Riyad and Teheran. Lebanon’s militia known as Hezbollah has also been a source of support for the Houthis. 

Who do they consider to be their enemies and why? 

Pischedda: Like the Iranian government and most of its population, the Houthis embrace Shia Islam, though they belong to a distinct Shite sect. Religious and ideological affinity is probably a factor driving the Houthis-Iran alliance, in addition to the fact that the two actors have some enemies in common. The fact that Iran supports the Houthis, it should be noted, does not imply that the latter are a mere Iranian pawn—the Houthis ultimately pursue their own agenda and may end up defying Teheran’s wishes if they think it is in their interest.  

The Houthis oppose:

  • The internationally recognized government of Yemen
  • Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries allied with it in the fight against the Houthis as the backer of Yemen’s internationally recognized government
  • Israel, because of its treatment of Palestinians and because its existence is seen by the group as a violation of sacred Islamic principles
  • The United States,and some of it close allies, because of its support for Israel and its violent meddling in the Muslim world—notably the 2003 overthrow of the Iraqi government and the subsequent counterinsurgency campaign in the country 

To what degree are they a cohesive force? What is the source of their power? 

McGuinn: Little organic cohesion is known to the Houthi movement as its history is one of internal conflict. But participation in armed actions against Saudi Arabia through missile and drone attacks over the past decade, and now its campaign of attacks on Israel, international commercial shipping, and American targets allows the movement a more distinct identity. The Houthi polity seeks legitimacy and authority. To the power it obtains through connections with Iran and regional movements, the Houthi gain stature as a force challenging the security architecture dominated by the United States, Israel and Sunni powers, engaging in effective asymmetrical conflict with the American military, while demonstrating agility in protecting its offensive military capabilities in space inhospitable to outside intervention. 

Pischedda: The Houthis strength is drawn from its popularity with its constituency, the large Shia minority of Yemen; the substantial battlefield experience that the group has acquired fighting Yemen’s government and its allies for decades; and a significant arsenal of missiles, drones, and small arms provided by Iran. The recent attacks on ships traveling through the Red Sea and the U.S. military response targeting Houthis launch sites and weapons is likely to significantly increase the level of both domestic and international support enjoyed by the Houthis. 

To what degree are they a true threat to the United States or European coalition? 

McGuinn: To the costs associated with damage to the commercial shipping the Houthi have attacked in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, to supply chain disruptions challenging the global economy, is the strategic cost associated with northern Yemen serving as a platform for drone and missile launches against civilian, economic, and military infrastructure from Israel across to the Persian Gulf. Absent a unified central government capable of controlling militia activity, Yemen allows for a permissive space for the Houthi and their demonstrably impressive strike capability, leaving the United States and its coalition partners with limited retaliatory options. 

Pischedda: By their demonstrated willingness and ability to interfere with a major artery of global trade—shipping through the Red Sea—the Houthis have emerged as a significant threat to U.S., European, and global economic interests.