Yemen’s Iran-Backed Houthi Movement – A Brief Primer In View Of Recent Escalation Against Israel And The U.S.

Introduction

Yemen’s Ansar Allah Houthi Movement – a delisted foreign terrorist organization (FTO) – has, since October 7, launched six rounds of aerial projectiles at Israel,[1] downed a U.S. drone in Yemen,[2] captured a shipping vessel in the Red Sea,[3] and, most recently, fired ballistic missiles and drones in the vicinity of a U.S. Navy vessel.[4]

Senior Houthi officials have reiterated the movement’s intent to continue targeting U.S. and Israeli interests, despite the Israel-Hamas ceasefire, and in the face of a possible U.S. redesignation of the movement as an FTO.

“In the event [a U.S. redesignation] causes harm to the interests of our people,” Houthi deputy foreign minister Hussein Al-‘Izzi warned on X on November 25, “Then we will consider it a declaration of war and America will discover the disaster of engaging in escalation with Yemen, the graveyard of empires and the first country of attrition in history.”

The threat posed by the Houthis to conflict resolution to Gaza is thus clear and immediate. Yet, Houthi attacks in support of Hamas also threaten to derail U.S.-supported peace initiatives in the region, including the movement’s own longstanding peace process with Saudi Arabia. The attacks may also escalate conflict on a regional level.

In view of this significant Houthi threat to regional peace and stability, the following report provides a primer on the Ansar Allah Houthi Movement, including the group’s historical background, profiles of several of its key leaders, and its primary media and social media operations.

Ideology And Ties To Iran

The Ansar Allah Movement is a Zaydi Shi’ite militant organization in Yemen. Zaydi Shi’ism[5] – which differs from Twelver Shi’ism, the state religion of Iran – has a millennium-long history in Yemen’s northern highlands, but its adherents were disempowered in the country in the latter half of the 20th century.

In this context, the Houthi movement’s eponymous founder, Hussein Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi, emerged as a charismatic voice for the marginalized Zaydi Shi’ites in Yemen during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In his speeches, which now comprise the core texts of Houthi ideology, Al-Houthi railed against the Yemeni Government for its relations, at that time, with the U.S, especially following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He also staged anti-American and anti-Israeli protests, with his movement at the time adopting its sarkha, or slogan: “God is great, death to the U.S., death to Israel, curse the Jews, and Victory for Islam.”

Al-Houthi’s outspoken criticism of Yemeni-U.S. relations brought him into open conflict with the Yemeni government. The government killed him and dozens of his followers in 2004. Thereafter, his followers launched a rebellion, known as the Sa’ada Wars, which lasted until 2010.

Houthis And Yemen’s Politics

Following the ouster of longstanding Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, the Houthis took part in the country’s national dialogue process to determine a post-Saleh political future. However, in 2015, the Houthis allied with Saleh, and jointly took the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, by force.

The takeover of Sana’a by Houthi-Saleh forces brought international condemnation, and a Saudi-led intervention to restore the ousted government of the Republic of Yemen. The Saudi intervention included air, land, and sea blockade of the country, as well as a bombing campaign. In 2017, Saleh announced he would severe relations with the Houthis. Days later, he was assassinated by Houthi fighters.

Since Saleh’s assassination, the Houthis have cemented their control over governance in Yemen and launched several military offensives aimed at capturing territory held by the internationally recognized Republic of Yemen Government. In April 2022, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire agreement between Yemen’s warring parties, which has largely held. Currently, the Houthis are engaged in negotiations with Saudi officials over a permanent ceasefire, which would acknowledge Houthi control of most, but not all, of Yemen.

Leadership

Below are several of the most prominent political and military leaders of the Houthi Movement.

Abd Al-Malik Al-Houthi: The Banner Of Guidance

Born in 1979, Abd Al-Malik Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi is the current leader of the group. He assumed the position in September 10, 2004, succeeding his brother – Hussein Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi, who was killed by the Yemeni army during a raid in Marran province.

Houthi members refer to Al-Houthi as Alam Al-Hoda, or the banner of guidance, and endow him with both spiritual as well as temporal authority over the movement.

The 44-year leader maintains close ties to Iran and other elements of the Axis of Resistance, with advisors from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) stationed in Yemen.

He also delivers frequent public addresses, in which he rails against the perceived subordination of Muslims by the “Global Jewish Zionist lobby,” the U.S., and the West. For example, on September 27, 2023, Al-Houthi stated:

“The global Jewish-Zionist lobby in the world, and its arms America, Israel, some European regimes, and their allies, continues to head towards containing Muslims and infiltrating them in every way and form, culturally and intellectually, to the point of interfering in their curricula, as happens in many Arab and Islamic countries, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has opened the way to even deleting Quranic verses from the curricula ‘which the Jews resent,’ and amending some concepts and changing others.”[6]

Earlier, in July 2023 televised remarks about Quran burnings in Sweden, Al-Houthi blamed the “Jewish lobby” for orchestrating the events. “What the Jewish lobby is doing in Western countries in terms of burning and tearing up the Quran is the height of unbelief and an act of aggression against Islam and Muslims,” he said. He advised Western countries to “liberate themselves from the slavery of the Jews and return to the divine message” before the Jewish lobby “pushes them to the abyss, where they will reap Allah’s wrath and torment.”[7]

Al-Houthi has also threatened the United States in televised addresses. Three days after the Hamas attack on Israel, Al-Houthi warned the U.S. against direct military intervention on behalf of Israel. In an address aired on Al-Manar TV, he asserted that the Houthis are “completely coordinated with our brothers in the Jihad and resistance front.” The Houthi leader also added that they were ready to send hundreds of thousands of mujahideen to Palestine, despite the “geographical” problem they face. He threatened that if the U.S. raises its support level to Israel to begin direct military intervention, the Houthis will carry out military strikes against American targets, using rockets, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as well as other military options.[8]

Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, Member Of The Houthi Supreme Political Council

Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi – a cousin of Houthi leader Abd Al-Malik Al-Houthi – is a member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council in Yemen.

He formerly served as President of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee, which was the transitional executive body installed by the Houthis following their seizure of Sana’a in 2015.

As such, Al-Houthi effectively served as the country’s de-facto president, and he continues to wield significant political power in the country.

He is an outspoken critic of the U.S. and Israel, and often derides “the Jews” in media appearances for allegedly controlling both countries to the detriment of humanity. For example, Al-Houthi blamed the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – who is Jewish – in an interview on Mayadeen TV in March 2022. Al-Houthi stated: “I think that what happened to Ukraine is the result of the evil-doing of the Jews. This is proof that when a Jew is the leader of a country, it results in war. If the president of Ukraine was someone else rather than that Jew, perhaps they would not have ended up in war.”[9]

Al-Houthi has also threatened the U.S. on X (formerly Twitter) since the outbreak of the Hamas-Israel war.

In an October 9 post, he stated: “We warn America that its direct intervention in the aggression against the Palestinian people means that it will turn into a regional war.”[10] Earlier, on the same day at a rally in Sana’a, Al-Houthi also praised the Hamas attack for “exposing Israel’s weakness.” “Today we saw your trained soldiers kneel,” he declared.[11]

Mohammed Abd Al-Salam, Houthi Spokesman And Chief Negotiator

Mohammed Abd Al-Salam is the Houthis’ spokesman and chief negotiator. He is an adept media operative who also oversees the movement’s primary, Beirut-based media arm, Al-Masirah.

Abd Al-Salam maintains a verified account on X and a Telegram channel which he uses to propagate Houthi talking points and disparage the U.S. and Israel.

For example, on November 28, 2023, Abd Al-Salam responded on X to a statement released by the foreign ministers of the G7, in which they called on the Houthis to release the merchant vessel Galaxy Leader, its captain, and its crew, which the movement seized, illegally, in the Red Sea.

Abdulsalam noted in the post that the seizure of the Galaxy Leader merchant vessel came in the context of “repeated warnings” by the Houthis that “ships belonging to the Israeli enemy or working with it will be vulnerable to being targeted.” He also said that the ship’s crew have been “dealt with in accordance with Islamic morals and humanitarian norms,” and that “the fate of the ship is linked to the choices of the Palestinian resistance and what serves its goals in confronting the Israeli aggression.” Further, Abdulsalam reiterated that the Houthis consider Israel “a threat to regional and international security and peace” and accused the G7 – especially “America and the West” – of violating international law by “granting legitimacy to the Zionist entity’s self-defense.”

Houthi Media Outlets

Al-Masirah TV is a Yemeni satellite television channel, launched in 2012, which is owned and operated by the Houthi Movement. The station is headquartered in Beirut, Lebanon, near the studios of the Hizbullah-owned Al-Manar TV. It is also a member of the Islamic Radio and Television Union, an IRGC-QF-controlled media organization which was designated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in October 2020.According to the Saudi-funded Asharq Al-Awsat, Iran also helped the Houthi establish another television network called “Al-Sahat,” which reportedly suffered financial setbacks in 2015.

In April 2023, local media reported that Lebanese authorities closed the offices of the two TV networks, noting that Al-Masirah is now broadcasting from Yemen. Reports further claimed the decision to move Al-Masirah office to Yemen coincided with the March 10 Iran-Saudi Arabia reconciliation deal, brokered by China.

Hizballah’s media support for the Houthis extends to training media operatives, particularly those working for the Houthi “Military Media” department. The department focuses on covering the group’s military activities, such as disseminating content related to the recent claimed attacks against Israel.Additionally, the Houthis have their own official website that features official content released by the group, including videos, articles and statements. MEMRI JTTM reviews shows the website server is registered in Germany.

Social Media Accounts

Al-Masirah currently operates three accounts on X.Al-Sahat has an account on X. It also operates a Facebook page, a Telegram account, and three YouTube channels with over 50,000 subscribers, combined.

On X, the Houthis’ Military Media has a verified account with 94,000 followers. The outlet also operates a website and a Telegram account, with more than 55,000 subscribers.

Military Capabilities: Videos Published Since October 7

Since October 7, the Houthi Movement has sought to brandish its military capabilities as it has launched attacks against Israeli and U.S. interests. Through its media apparatus, the group has released several videos documenting military hardware and military drills held in support of Hamas.

On October 3, three days prior to the Hamas attack on Israel, a Houthi-affiliated music group released a video promoting the group’s air force capabilities.[12] In the video, footage documented the use of aircraft, helicopters, and UAVs, including medium twin-turbine helicopters, Saqr-1 (Iranian 358) and anti-aircraft missiles.

On October 30, the Houthis released a video documenting a military drill titled, “Al-Aqsa Flood” – the name given by Hamas to the October 7 attack.[13] In the video, soldiers can be seen carrying out a simulated attack on Israeli targets, involving helicopters, rockets, bombs, motorcycles, RPGs, and other weapons.

The Yemeni War Media also released videos on November 1, which it claimed showed the launch of munitions directed at Israel in an October 31 attack – the first attack claimed by the Houthis against Israel since October 7.[14]

On November 20, the “Armed Forces” of the Houthis released video footage taken during the capture of the merchant vessel Galaxy Leader a day earlier.[15] The footage showed a helicopter landing on the vessel, and eight armed fighters hijacking the central cabin.

[1] See MEMRI JTTM report Houthi Ansar Allah Movement Claims Cruise Missile Attack On Israeli City Of Eilat, November 23, 2023.

[2] See MEMRI JTTM report Houthi Ansar Allah Movement Claims Downing U.S. Drone ‘Carrying Out Reconnaissance Activities In Support Of Israel,’ Posts Video, November 8, 2023.

[3] See MEMRI JTTM report Houthi Ansar Allah Movement Claims Capture Of ‘Israeli Ship’ In Red Sea; Says Israeli Vessels Are Legitimate Target Until ‘Aggression’ Ceases Against Palestinian People, Threatens ‘This Is [Just] The Beginning’, November 20, 2023.

[4] See MEMRI JTTM report Following Attempted Hijacking Of Commercial Tanker In Gulf Of Aden, And Missile Launch From Houthi Territory Toward U.S. Warship That Came To Its Aid, Senior Houthi Officials Claim Incident Is Fabricated, Vow To Continue Attacks On Israel And Israeli Ships, November 28, 2023.

[5] Zaydi Shi’ism is a branch of Shi’ite Islam which affirms Zayd ibn Ali as the fifth imam. In contrast, Twelver Shi’ism, the dominant branch of Shi’ite Islam, professes Muhammad Al-Baqir as the fifth imam.

[6] See MEMRI JTTM report Yemen’s Houthi Ansar Allah Leader: Global Jewish-Zionist Lobby Seeks To Subordinate Muslims; Military Manufacturing Is Our Priority, September 27, 2023.

[7] See MEMRI JTTM report Houthi Ansar Allah Leader: ‘Jewish Lobby’ Orchestrates Quran Burnings In West As Part Of Its War On Islam; Western Societies Should ‘Liberate Themselves From The Slavery Of The Jews’ Before Being ‘Pushed To The Abyss, Where They Will Reap Allah’s Wrath And Torment’, July 28, 2023.

[8] See MEMRI TV report Yemeni-Houthi Leader Abdul-Malik Badreddine Al-Houthi On Hizbullah TV Warns The U.S. Against Direct Military Intervention On Behalf Of Israel: We Are Prepared To Join The Fray Using Rockets, UAVs, Other Military Options, October 10, 2023.

[9] See MEMRI TV report Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi Of The Yemeni-Houthi Leadership: Ukraine Is At War Because It Is Led By A Jew; We Are Worried That The Goal Of The War Is To Exhaust Russia, March 14, 2022.

[10] See MEMRI JTTM report Senior Member Of Houthi Ansar Allah Movement Declares Arab Airspace, Waters Must Not Be Used To Assist Israel, Threatens Direct U.S. Involvement Will Provoke ‘Regional War’, October 10, 2023.

[11] See MEMRI JTTM report Political Leader Of Ansar Allah Houthi Movement Delivers Remarks At Rally In Sana’a, Yemen, In Support Of Hamas Attack, Addresses Israel: ‘Today We Saw Your Trained Soldiers Kneel’, October 7, 2023.

[12] See MEMRI JTTM report Iran-Backed Houthi Ansar Allah Movement In Yemen Releases Music Video Showcasing Air Force Capabilities, October 4, 2023.

[13] See MEMRI TV report Houthis In Yemen Showcase ‘Al-Aqsa Flood’ Military Drill Demonstrating A Simulated Attack On Israeli Targets Involving Helicopters, Rockets, Armed Soldiers, October 30, 2023.

[14] See MEMRI JTTM report Telegram Outlets Affiliated With Iran’s Proxies Publish Video Of October 31 Houthi Drone, Missile Attack On Israel, December 5, 2023.

[15] See MEMRI JTTM report Iran-Backed Ansar Allah Movement (Houthis) Releases Footage Documenting Vessel Hijack Op In Red Sea, November 20, 2023.

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