Who Are the Houthis, and Why Are We Hearing From Them Now?

In 2011, as the Arab Spring dawned across the region, the people of Yemen rose up. On March 18, over 100,000 protesters gathered in the streets of the capital, Sanaa, demanding the resignation President Ali Abdullah Saleh. When Saleh resigned only to see Saudi Arabia, backed by the United States, slip in a reasonable facsimile, they felt their Arab Spring had been betrayed. The new government, headed by Saleh’s vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, excluded and marginalized the Houthis. The Houthis responded militarily, and Yemen’s latest civil war began.

The Houthis emerged in Yemen in the 1990’s. They are members of the Zaydi branch of Islam, which is a distinct branch of Shia Islam. A little over one third of Yemenis are Zaydi. During the protests against Saleh, the Houthis shared the anger of much of Yemeni society at the corruption and incompetence of the Saleh government. But they were also angry over the growing strength of the Saudi-led Salafist Islam that they saw as discriminating against and repressing their religious and cultural rights.

During the Russian war in Afghanistan, Saleh, encouraged, he said, by the U.S., organized and paid for thousands of Yemenis to be sent to join the mujahadeen in fighting the Soviet Union. When Yemen’s jihadists returned, Saleh gave them sanctuary in return for service. The fighters became al Qaeda, and al Qaeda helped Saleh control his enemies. Al Qaeda flourished in Yemen and became, perhaps, its fiercest franchise: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Between 2004 and 2010, the Houthis launched six wars against Saleh. Saleh used al Qaeda forces, Saudi forces and funding, and U.S. trained and armed special operations forces to fight the Houthis. AQAP competed with the Houthis for influence in Yemen.

Though the web of alliances is convoluted and confusing, the Houthis might have been seen on our side as they fought the growing al Qaeda force in Yemen. But they weren’t. After an initial period of indirect ties with the ascending Houthi so the U.S. could continue drone strikes against AQAP, in the civil war that followed Saleh’s resignation, the U.S. backed the Saudi’s who supported Saleh’s successor against the Houthi.

Though the Houthis are attacking American ships now, it was the United States who first attacked the Houthis. In 2015, when Saudi Arabia led a coalition in the bombing and blockading of Yemen, the U.S. greenlighted and supported the Saudis. The U.S. provided the Saudis with weapons, logistical support and midair refueling for, and servicing of, the jets that were dropping the bombs.

There is an unbroken thread of claims that runs from Saleh to Joe Biden that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy acting on the Ayatollah’s behalf. But the thread is thin. From the earliest days of the Houthis, Saleh justified his offensives against them with the claim that he was doing America’s work in fighting the local end of a Houthi-Iran link. But, as Jeremy Scahill reveals in his book Dirty Wars, in a “classified cable, US officials acknowledged that the Houthis hadn’t attacked US interests or personnel since the fighting began in 2004 and raised serious questions about the extent of Iranian involvement.”

The Houthis belong to a branch of Shia Islam, but it is a very distinct branch from the Shia Islam of Iran. It was the war against Saudi Arabia that pushed the Houthis into a relationship with Iran, not Iran that pushed the Houthis into a war with Saudi Arabia. Iran does support and influence the Houthis, but the Houthis are not a simple proxy that acts at the will of Iran. Analysts have pointed out that Iran “bandwagons” on Houthis success as often as it causes it.

The U.S. has long known of the independence in the relationship. A 2015 NSC assessment said that “Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen.” U.S. intelligence agreed: “It is wrong to think of the Houthis as a proxy force for Iran,” a U.S. intelligence official told The Huffington Post.

Stacey Philbrick Yadav, the chair of international relations at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and the author of Yemen: in the Shadow of Transition, told Time in December 2023 that the Houthis “do have a relationship with and support from Iran, but are not a straightforward proxy of Iranian interests. They have their own locally defined interests and so I think that their actions in the past two months have reflected that.”

Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and an expert on the Middle East, agrees. He told me after the Houthi attack on the Maersk Hangzhou that “If Iran didn’t like what they’re doing, they could probably stop it.” But, he added, it is also probable that the Houthis “initiated the attacks themselves.”

It is even possible that Iran lacks sufficient influence to stop the Houthis from carrying out actions of their choice. In 2014, as the Houthis advanced on the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, Iran specifically urged them not to capture the city. The Houthis resisted the influence and captured the capital, effectively demonstrating Iran’s lack of control.

We are hearing about the Houthis today because we were not been listening before. After years of punishing war and an air and naval blockade that have led to a combined 377,000 deaths, the Houthis have emerged, not beaten, but stronger. They now control territory that is home to 70-80% of the population of Yemen and are negotiating a settlement with Saudi Arabia that would end their war and leave the Houthi as the official government of Yemen.

As they prepare to form a government in the poorest country in the Middle East, defending Palestinians and standing up to the United States is a potent way to gain legitimacy. In attacking ships in the Red Sea, the Houthis say  they are “performing their religious, moral and humanitarian duty in support and aid of those who have been wronged in Palestine and Gaza.” They promise to continue their operations in the Red Sea “until adequate supplies of food and medicine are allowed into Gaza.”

Aside from their own concern for the people of Palestine, Philbrick Yadav says that support for Palestine “is a way in which the Houthis can try to expand their appeal to Yemenis.” That appeal may not just be domestic. Zunes told me that the Houthis are likely “trying to gain legitimacy by supporting the Palestinian cause.” That legitimacy could solidify and enhance their status in the region.

The U.S. response to the illegal maritime threat coming from the Houthis has been to continue shelling Yemen, striking for the eighth time on January 22 in large-scale strikes of multiple targets coordinated with the U.K. in an operation now called Poseidon Archer. But after nearly a decade of the American-backed Saudi aerial assault, the Houthis have become very good at being bombed. The Houthis do not fear a U.S. attack. Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi went on T.V. to say that “the Yemeni people, are not among those who are afraid of America. We are comfortable with a direct confrontation with the Americans.”

Much of Yemen’s capacity to strike remains in tact. They have continued to strike ships in the Red Sea, and on January 15, the Houthis hit a U.S. owned cargo ship with a ballistic missile. On January 18, they targeted another. Though the U.S. strategy is unlikely to deter the Houthis, it is very likely to escalate the conflict with the Houthis and widen the war in Gaza: precisely the outcome the United States has been working so hard to avoid.

While insisting that the U.S. does not want war or a conflict of any kind with Yemen, The Washington Post reported on the day of the seventh missile strike that the Biden administration “is crafting plans for a sustained military campaign targeting the Houthis in Yemen.”

In the absence of exploring a diplomatic resolution with the Houthis, something the Biden administration will not do because of their resistance to the Houthis demand, there seems to be no choice but to continue a failed policy that risks undermining Washington’s foreign policy objective to contain the war. When President Joe Biden was asked on January 18 whether the air strikes on Yemen “are working,” he answered, “Well, when you say working, are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes.”

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at tedsnider@bell.net.