Who are Yemen’s Houthis?

By Reuters
May 20, 2015

Yemen has been in the midst of a violent conflict as rival factions compete for power in the impoverished nation on the Arabian Peninsula.

A Houthi fighter stands guard as he secures the site of a demonstration by fellow Houthis against the Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen, in Sanaa April 1, 2015. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

A Houthi fighter stands guard as he secures the site of a demonstration by fellow Houthis against the Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen, in Sanaa, April 1, 2015. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Shi’ite Muslim Houthi rebels emerged from their northern heartland heading south to seize the capital Sanaa last year, pushing aside President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who eventually fled to neighboring Saudi Arabia. The rebels and their Ansarullah political wing have since become the country’s most powerful faction. That worries Riyadh, which since late March has led air strikes against the group in the aim of restoring Hadi to power.

Below are some facts about the Houthis.

WHEN AND HOW DID THEY FORM

The Houthi rebels began as a movement of young men, the Believing Youth, created in 1992 to back the rights of the Zaydi Shi’ite sect, whose Hashemite line ruled for 1,000 years before Yemen’s 1962 revolution.

Dust rises as followers of Yemen's al-Houthi Shi'ite group leave a ceremony during Eid-e-Milad-ul-Nabi, the birthday celebrations of Prophet Mohammad, in Dhahian of the northwestern Yemeni province of Saada January 24, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Dust rises as followers of Yemen’s al-Houthi Shi’ite group leave a ceremony during Eid-e-Milad-ul-Nabi, the birthday celebrations of Prophet Mohammad, in northwest Yemen, January 24, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Originating from the northwestern Saada province, they adopted their name from Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi who led an uprising in 2004 to demand more rights for the group. Houthi was killed in fighting with government forces in late 2004. Complaining of religious and social discrimination, the group led several rebellions until 2010 when a ceasefire was announced.

WHAT MAKES THE GROUP DISTINCT

The rebels adhere to the Zaydi branch of Shi’ite Islam. Zaydis make up around a third of Yemen’s population of around 25 million people.

Shi'ite Houthi rebels swim at the house of the business tycoon and Islah party leader Hameed al-Hamar after they took control of it in Sanaa September 24, 2014.  REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Shi’ite Houthi rebels swim at the house of business tycoon after they took control of it in Sanaa, September 24, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Zaydi Shi’ism takes its name from Zayd ibn Ali, who was the great-grandson of Imam Ali, considered the father of Shi’ite Islam. Zaydi Islam is seen as the closest Shi’ite branch to Sunni Islam.

THE OUTSIDE FORCES

Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of Sunni Muslim Gulf states in air strikes against the Iran-allied Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down in 2012.

A Saudi soldier fires a mortar towards Houthi movement position, at the Saudi border with Yemen April 21, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

A Saudi soldier fires a mortar towards Houthi movement position, at the Saudi border with Yemen April 21, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Riyadh says the militia has received extensive backing from its regional rival Iran. The Houthis have denied receiving military training from Iran. Washington officials have debated the extent of Tehran’s support for the rebels.

TERRITORY UNDER HOUTHI CONTROL

The Houthis gained further control in parts of north Yemen after building a following among local tribes in the 2000s while fighting for Zaydi Shi’ite rights. The rebels have sought to expand territory under their control, advancing on mostly Sunni areas in western and southern parts of the country. They now control much of Yemen.

A Houthi militant pushes a comrade on a luggage trolley at the international airport of Yemen's capital Sanaa May 5, 2015.  REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

A Houthi militant pushes a comrade on a luggage trolley at Sanaa’s international airport, May 5, 2015. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

PHILOSOPHY AND RECORD

Feeling discriminated against and threatened, the Houthis joined the 2011 protests against Saleh, himself a Zaydi. While they participated in an attempt to move Yemen toward democracy, they opposed plans for a federated nation divided into six regions, believing it would weaken them. The Houthis have said they have no sectarian agenda, instead calling their fight a revolution for all Yemenis; however Sunni tribes and parties have rejected this assertion.

A supporter of the Shi'ite al-Houthi group looks on as he takes part in a demonstration in Yemen's capital Sanaa June 4, 2014.   REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

A Houthi supporter looks on as he takes part in a demonstration in Sanaa, June 4, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Their slogan “Death to America, Death to Israel” echoes Iran’s revolutionary motto. Many in Yemen have drawn parallels between the group, led by Abdel-Malek al-Houthi — a brother of the group’s founder — and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Despite eight weeks of strikes, the Houthis and Saleh loyalists are entrenched across Yemen. Concern is mounting over a potential humanitarian catastrophe, with 12 million people short of food.

A doctor attends to a newborn baby in a special care unit at a hospital in Yemen's capital Sanaa May 7, 2015.  REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

A doctor attends to a newborn baby in a special care unit at a hospital in Sanaa, May 7, 2015. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Western states have expressed fear that instability in Yemen may help al Qaeda, which has important training facilities in the country.

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