1. Introduction

In late summer and early fall of 2014, “Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, [and] Victory for Islam” rang out from the voices of thousands of Houthi fighters who had captured the city of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, forcing the President to resign.[1] The decade long Houthi rebellion can be traced back to the “1962 republican revolt when the northern [Yemen Arab Republic] overthrew the [Zaydi] theocracy,” which had existed for centuries.[2] Formed in the 1990’s Hussein Badr al Din al-Houthi, the Houthis, then a paramilitary group known as “Believing Youth,” sought to return Northwestern Yemen to the leadership of the imamate, as it had been for the previous century before the unification of the country after the republican revolt in the 1960s.

The Houthis come from a strain of Shia Islam, called the Zaydism, and believe that the Imam, or religious and political leader of a country, must to be a descendant of Muhammad in order to be legitimate. Therefore, they believed the President at the time of their formation, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was not a legitimate leader. Other Houthi concerns included, the social and economic marginalization of the northwestern provinces, a close Yemeni alliance with the United States and Saudi Arabia, and a strong Wahhabi influence in the country. Since 2004, sparked by the death of their leader, Hussein al-Houthi, during a government house sweep, the Yemeni government has fought six wars with the Houthi movement.[3] However, this paper will focus on key events that have taken place since a resurgence of violence in 2008. These events have included a well-coordinated Houthi insurgency campaign, a harsh response by the Yemeni government, and then another resurgence of Houthi violence, which culminated in the taking of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. These events reveal a successful utilization of terror tactics by the Houthis and a popular front strategy to achieve their goals and the failure of a comprehensive “firepower” approach to counterinsurgency, which resulted in the alienation of the population.  While other governments, such as Iran (Iranian operations are usually manifested covertly, and the extent of their involvement is inconclusive), Saudi Arabia and the United States have contributed to counterinsurgent operations in Yemen up to this point, the scope of this paper will focus on Yemeni government operations exclusively.

2. 2008 Terror Campaign

On a Friday afternoon in early May 2008, while worshippers were filing out of Bin Salman mosque in the city of Sadah, a bomb rigged to a motorcycle exploded, killing at least 12 people. In a dramatic shift in tactics, the Houthis began a terror campaign that can easily be compared to the Algerian terrorism in the mid-20th century. When the Houthis couldn’t obtain their objectives by fighting the government counterinsurgents in open, they attacked the population and government officials with hit and run tactics instead.

From the spark of the Houthi movement after the death of Hussein al-Houthi in 2004 until their coordinated terror campaign in 2008, the Yemeni government was able to keep the rebels contained in the mountainous northwest province of Sadah by conducting “indiscriminate bombings”[4] and “mass arrests”.[5] During this period the Houthis were contained, but they remained nonetheless, growing stronger and more ideologically entrenched in their tribal communities. This is one of the many times the rebels retreated in the face of a stronger more organized military force. Understanding one of Mao’s main principles of guerilla warfare, the Houthis recognized their own weakness and “withdrew” when the enemy advanced.[6] However, the motorcycle bombing as well as other attacks described as “guerilla operations aimed Yemeni military outposts as well as roadsides ambushes of government and military vehicles” [7] revealed that the Houthis were a force to be reckoned with and a group that was willing to conduct terrorist operations in order to achieve their political goals.

According to Jack Freeman, insurgents were able to advance within 12 miles of Sanaa. Their most effective tactics included “ambushes, sniper attacks, [and] small- to medium-sized bombings,” which resulted in the killing of at least “a thousand military personnel in four years of guerilla warfare”[8] According to the Critical Threats Project, at the height of their campaign, the Houthis began to take control of “large swaths of Sa’adah province, [blockade] military installations in the North, [arrest] Yemeni soldiers, [take] control of 63 schools, [kidnap] teachers and foreigners, and [attack] numerous government buildings and mosques.”[9]These are classic hit and run insurgency tactics targeted at military personnel in order to weaken their resolve. At the outset the Houthis relied on small scale ambushes as their primary operation choice, however during their 2008 campaign that lasted nearly four years, they began to use not only guerilla warfare, but also “urban terrorism.”[10] According to Freeman, new attacks and assaults on the government and civilians signaled an increase in the Houthis “sophistication of bombings”[11] and made the deployment of “terrorist cells to the Capital of Sanaa”[12] possible.

It is likely that the newly established terrorist cells later resurfaced during the Houthi’s 2014 siege on Sanaa. While the government was able to put down this campaign in 2009, the terrorist cells were a key factor in maintaining the operational potential of the group during its retreat. Modern urban insurgencies are unique in that they are able to continue underground even during a powerful counterinsurgency campaign and can easily rekindle when the circumstances are favorable. This was a case of retreating and regrouping, but not dying, similar to AQI in Iraq during the surge.

3. Yemeni Counterinsurgency: Operation Scorched Earth

Promising to strike with an “iron fist,”[13] the Yemeni counterinsurgency campaign in 2009, known as Operation Scorched Earth, was effective in the short term. The goal of operation Scorched Earth was “to put a permanent to the al-Houthi rebellion, either by dismembering the group and destroying its arsenals, or by forcing the rebels to terms of a six-point peace deal.”[14] The Yemeni government’s peace deal included six points:

  1. Fully withdraw from all districts in Sa’adah and remove all road checkpoints.
  2. Descend from the mountain hideouts and end acts of sabotage.
  3. Return all military and civilian equipment seized from the state.
  4. Hand over six foreigners kidnapped in June.
  5. Hand over all kidnapped locals.
  6. Stop interfering with local government authorities in their duties.[15]

However, because the Houthis main goal was to restore the Imamate to the Northern Province, they could not accept these terms and “rejected the peace offer”[16] calling it an attempt to “mislead public opinion.”[17] Therefore, the government opted for a thorough and harsh counterinsurgency campaign. Like the US in Vietnam in the 1960’s and 1970’s the government relied on heavy firepower, which served to alienate the Yemeni population.

The counterinsurgent tactics utilized by the Yemeni government and supported by the Saudi Arabian government were not informed by history, and undeniably resembled an iron fist. They conducted full ground operations supported by artillery and air support. According to Jane Novak, “Yemeni and Saudi bombing flattened over 9,000 structures, including mosques, schools, houses and entire villages.”[18] These attacks make clear that the counterinsurgency operations were directed at the population and civilian targets, far from the historically successful doctrine of the population-centric approach. In addition, civilian attacks did not stop with the bombings. The Yemeni government also organized blockades of ports that were intended to block imports coming into the country to interrupt civilian incomes and allow the locals to starve until they handed over the Houthis.[19] Furthermore, the government “conducted widespread preventative arrests”[20] based on “religious identity, geographical location, [and] family associations” and “routine torture” took place in Yemen’s prisons.[21] Punishing the population has never been a successful counterinsurgency strategy and the resurgence of the Houthis as an even stronger force in 2014, reveals this fact.

On the other hand, the Yemeni government was also involved in counterinsurgent operations that targeted the military capabilities of the Houthi rebels. Government forces focused on destroying arsenals, supply convoys, petroleum stations, and on retaking roads, and clearing houses. According to a military source cited by the Yemen News Agency Yemeni forces were successful on several occasions in “destroying trucks, carrying munitions”[22] and supplies for the rebels. As the military continued to liberate cities and roads the Houthis rebels sought refuge in “mountainous hideouts” or “neighboring strongholds.”[23] In the face of strong opposition, the Houthi rebels stuck to the insurgency playbook championed by Mao. “When the enemy advanced”[24] the Houthi’s “withdrew”[25] to the mountains to wait for the opportune time to resurface.

It is evident that the Yemeni counterinsurgency operation was successful, but at what cost? While “the lack of attacks on the capital of Sanaa,”[26] during the Yemeni offensive “indicate that counterinsurgent measures, like vehicle checkpoints may [have worked] there” there were other more negative long term consequences for the targeting of civilians. The food blockade, intended to coerce civilians to hand over Houthi leaders, failed to render any captures or actionable intelligence. This reveals that the Yemeni Regime failed to wage a successful hearts and minds campaign that compelled civilians to assist them. In addition, Operation Scorched Earth “created mistrust for the Yemeni government within the North of Yemen as well as feelings of resentment, anger, and hopelessness.”[27] In addition, “the destruction…exacerbated grievances among not only [Houthis]…in particular but, more broadly, civilians in all northern governorates.”[28] Similar to countless other 20th century cases, the counterinsurgent won a tactical victory, however the Houthi insurgents were merely forced to retreat while gaining priceless ideological firepower within their communities. According to Kilcullen, battlefield success does not always equal victory.[29]

4. The Arab Spring and the Sanaa Siege: A Popular Front

From the Arab Spring in 2011 to the taking of Sanaa in 2014, the Houthis were successful because of their reliance on pre-existing popular movements, which they were able exploit to achieve their military goals. According to Mao Zedong, the Chinese father of popular warfare, “so long as there is a possibility for victory, and so long as the masses can be aroused, attacks should be launched against [cities] and they should be occupied.”[30] Moreover, “rapidly taking possession of major cities would have the greatest political significance.”[31] Nothing could be truer for the Houthis, who at the point of their victory in Sanaa became part of an international conversation.

The 2011 Arab Spring protests in Yemen were successful in removing the Saleh government from power, which allowed the Houthis to consolidate their power in the Northwest Province.[32] According to the International Crisis Group, the Houthis were able to “run checkpoints, secure roads, collect taxes, oversee local government administration and administer justice”[33] within their stronghold in the Northwest Province. In the absence of an organized centralized state, due to a popular uprising, the Houthis took advantage and began to function like a state within a state.

I addition, the transition created stability and offered the opportunity for various political factions to commit to a power sharing structure within the central government. In 2013 and 2014, the Houthis participated in a Gulf-backed National Dialogue conference (NDC),[34] along with other “opposition forces…such as the southern secessionists, and a youth movement in hopes that they would be able to influence the process.”[35] However, when the traditional government elites suggested dividing Yemen into a six region confederation, which would isolate the Houthis from resources and a port, thus making them more dependent on the central government, the Houthis left the conversation.[36]

Shortly after the breakdown of the NDC, the Houthis again latched onto the popular front to gain power. In May 2014, in order to grant the government a much needed loan, the International Monetary Fund required the Yemeni government to reduce oil subsidies. Unfortunately, the reduction in the oil subsidies resulted in a 90% increase in oil prices, almost overnight.[37] In Early August 2014, “protesters took to the streets” in Sanaa “barricading roads and burning [tires].”[38] The Houthis, also angered by the price hikes, latched onto this protest and used the population as a force multiplier to gain power in the capital. On September 18, 2014, the Houthis decided that the government’s concessions were not enough and the protests became violent. Houthi “militants started their siege at al Imam University,” and continued to take the headquarters of the state run TV network, defeat the 314th armored division and their base, and surround the central bank.[39] By September 21, the government ordered its military to stand down and called its personnel to cooperate with the Houthis. Yemen’s Capital City had fallen.[40]

5. Conclusion

At the time of this writing the Houthi insurgency continues. After the capture of the capital in Sanaa the Houthis continued to move south. Today, they are rivalled by the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as Ansar al-Sharia, and an emirate of the Islamic State. The Houthi case reveals the importance of persistence and a commitment and of fighters and leaders committed to the insurgency’s cause. It took ten years for the Houthis to finally gain political relevance in Yemen, but they prevailed nonetheless. In addition, their cause was emboldened by their enemy’s missteps, which angered the population and entrenched their Zaydi Shiite ideology deeper into the hearts and minds of their communities. Finally, the Houthis revealed the advantage that one’s cause can gain from the moment of coinciding movements, such as the Arab Spring and the 2014 oil protests. The Houthi movement evolved over time from a terrorist operation to a popular front military campaign, which has thus far grown closer to achieving its political and military its objectives.

[1] Iranian operations are usually manifested covertly, and the extent of their involvement is inconclusive.

[1] Alexis Knutsen, “Sana’a Under Siege: Yemen’s Uncertain Future,” Critical Threats Project (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, September 25, 2014).

[2] Jack Freeman, “The Al Houthi Insurgency in the North of Yemen: An Analysis of the Shabab Al Moumineen,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 32 (February 12, 2009): 1008–19.

[3] Katherine Zimmerman and Chris Harnisch, “Profile: Al Houthi Movement,” Critical Threats Project (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, January 28, 2010).

[4] Jack Freeman, “The Al Houthi Insurgency in the North of Yemen: An Analysis of the Shabab Al Moumineen.”

[5] BBC News, “Yemen Profile – Timeline,” BBC News, March 1, 2017, sec. Middle East.

[6] Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, USMC, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2006).

[7] Jack Freeman, “The Al Houthi Insurgency in the North of Yemen: An Analysis of the Shabab Al Moumineen.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Chris Harnisch, “A Critical War in a Fragile Country: Yemen’s Battle with the Shiite Al Houthi Rebels,” Critical Threats Project (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, August 31, 2009).

[10] Jack Freeman, “The Al Houthi Insurgency in the North of Yemen: An Analysis of the Shabab Al Moumineen.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Firouz Sedarat, review of Yemen Attacks Northern Rebels, vows “iron fist,” by Tim Pearce, Reuters, August 11, 2009, United States edition, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSLB277974.

[14] Chris Harnisch, “A Critical War in a Fragile Country: Yemen’s Battle with the Shiite Al Houthi Rebels.”

[15] “In His Address on Ramadan, Saleh to Rebels: Come back to the Right Path,” Almotamar.com, August 22, 2009, http://www.almotamar.net/en/6590.htm.

[16] Chris Harnisch, “A Critical War in a Fragile Country: Yemen’s Battle with the Shiite Al Houthi Rebels.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Jane Novak, “Comparative Counterinsurgency in Yemen,” Middle East Review of International Affairs 14, no. 3 (September 2010).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Military Source: Houthi Rebels Suffer Big Losses in Sa’ada,” Yemen News Agency, August 27, 2009, sec. Local, http://www.sabanews.net/en/news192373.

[23] Chris Harnisch, “A Critical War in a Fragile Country: Yemen’s Battle with the Shiite Al Houthi Rebels.”

[24] Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, USMC, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Jack Freeman, “The Al Houthi Insurgency in the North of Yemen: An Analysis of the Shabab Al Moumineen.”

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb,” Middle East and North Africa (Sana’a/Brussels: International Crisis Group, May 27, 2009), https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/yemen/yemen-defusing-saada-time-bomb.

[29] David Kilcullen, Blood Year: The Unraveling of Western Counterterrorism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[30] Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, USMC, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century.

[31] Ibid.

[32] “The Huthis: From Saada to Sana’a,” Middle East and North Africa (International Crisis Group, June 10, 2014), https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/yemen/huthis-saada-Sana’a.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Peter Salisbury, “What Do the Protesting Houthis Really Want in Yemen?,” Vice News, September 11, 2014, sec. Middle East, https://news.vice.com/article/what-do-the-protesting-houthis-really-want-in-yemen.

[35] Alexis Knutsen, “Sana’a Under Siege: Yemen’s Uncertain Future.”

[36] Ibid.

[37] Peter Salisbury, “Yemen Rage Boils over ‘Unliveable’ Price Hike,” AlJazeera, August 1, 2014, sec. Politics, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/07/yemen-rage-unliveable-price-fuel-201473163925741286.html.

[38] Alexis Knutsen, “Sana’a Under Siege: Yemen’s Uncertain Future.”

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.