Political Twister in Yemen: A Tangle of Arms and Actors

Photo  by calliopejen1   CC BY-SA 2.0

Photo by calliopejen1 CC BY-SA 2.0

Media coverage of the rise of the Islamic State continues to dominate global headlines with important deliberation about foreign policy strategies and the implications for the expansion of IS. While no doubt the debate over IS should remain of serious concern, foreign policy makers should not overlook the increasing trends of secular and civil violence sweeping other parts of the region – specifically the destabilizing security situation in Yemen.

Yemenis are fearful for what seems to be the beginning of a secular war in the north and a secessionist war in the south. The Shia Houthi rebels, consisting of nearly 100,000-120,000 fighters and loyalists, have made serious advances throughout northern Yemen. By late 2011, the Houthis managed to gain control over the Saada Governorate as well as parts of the Amran Governorate, Al Jawf Governorate, and the Hajjah Governorate.

On September 19th, 2014, clashes in the Yemeni capital city Sanaa between government armed forces and the Houthi rebels resulted in 123 fighters killed (between both sides). The Houthis made serious gains in the capital, reportedly to have taken over several government ministries, military bases, the airport, and the city’s communications center. This prompted the Yemeni Prime Minister to resign soon after. One Foreign Policy analyst notes “Sanaa was practically handed over to the Houthis – almost a mirror image of Iraq's response to the Islamic State (IS) in June”.

However, this only briefly summarizes Yemen’s secular conflict. Tensions are also growing in the southern region of Yemen. Multiple southern political factions formed Al Hirak, Yemen’s secessionist movement, in 2007 after the government ignored political demonstrations calling for equal rights between the northerners and southerners.

Who are the Actors?

The rest of this post aims at examining the various actors on the ground in Yemen as well as external influences that have serious stakes. With multiple groups vying for power over competing interests, the global community should be concerned about the proliferation of violence in the Arabian Peninsula – if destabilization in Yemen remains the status quo, then the West should be concerned about the increased threat of global terrorism.

The Houthis

The Houthis belong to the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam; this sect of Islam is almost exclusively prevalent in Yemen. However, the Houthis are considered Yemen’s minority group. Houthis makeup about 30% of Yemen’s population of 25 million people, and as previously stated, about 100,000-120,000 are a part of the sect’s militant wing.

Since 1994, the Houthis have operated in Yemen but have only been armed since 2004. From about 2004 to 2010, the predominantly Sunni government of Yemen launched a series of raids, in conjunction with its tribal fighter allies, against the Houthis in the north who were (and currently are) suspected of being backed by Iran and intent on subverting the country by imposing Shia religious law.

Houthi graffiti throughout Yemini cities can be seen condemning the United States and Israel. Representatives and supporters of the faction contend that the group’s widespread growth and support is a result of its vocal commitment to renewing the Yemeni government’s policies which are said to favor the West.

The Houthi rebels have demanded the resignation of the current Yemeni administration. Citing discrimination by the predominantly Sunni government, labeling them “supporters” of Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Houthis have demanded a redistribution of power in the government to provide political minorities more say within the governing realm. On October 8, 2014, Yemen’s recently appointed Prime Minister Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak resigned after the Houthi militia called for mass protests against the foreign meddling they said was behind his appointment. This move followed the previous submission by Prime Minister Mohammad Basindawa who tendered his resignation as a step to “pave way for a deal” with the Houthis and a new government.

The Gulf Arab states should be especially worried about Houthi advances into southern Yemen. Riyadh should be particularly concerned if the Houthis reach the Bab el Mandeb checkpoint. This strait separates Yemen from Africa and serves as Saudi Arabia’s main passage for millions of barrels of oil every day. Thus, diplomatic and official sources in Sanaa have considered that the Saudis would back secessionist moves by Al Hirak if it means securing this major land feature, discussed in the next section.

The Southern Separatist Movement (Al Hirak)

While geopolitical turbulence remains the status quo of affairs in northern Yemen, trouble also emerges on Yemen’s Southern front. Since 2007, the Southern Separatist Movement, commonly referred to as the Southern Movement or “Al Hirak” in Arabic, has demanded secession from the Republic of Yemen.

The Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen [a Communist state at the time]) were joined in May of 1990 under a unification deal. However, civil war broke out in 1994. Southern forces were severely weakened and most of their political leaders forcibly exiled. In the many years that followed, Southerners expressed objection to the Yemeni Government under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh – there was (and currently is) dissatisfaction with elections fraud, widespread corruption, and abuse of the power-sharing agreement settled in 1990.

Understanding the historical narrative of the Southern Yemenis provides us with a contemporary understanding of the rise of the Southern Separatist Movement today.  Al Hirak is a growing force. Just a few weeks ago, leaders from the Supreme Council of the Revolutionary Peaceful Movement for the Liberation and Independence of the South (a coalition of small separatist factions) called for demonstrations in Aden demanding Northern unilateral withdrawal from the South and calling for self-determination and political independence. 

You can say that Al Hirak and the Houthis have a love-hate relationship. While the two have serious ideological differences (mainly their interpretations of Islam), the Houthis are attacking Yemini security forces and Al Hirak couldn’t be any happier. What better way is there to gain independence than by having Houthi “indirect mercenaries” physically fighting the Republic of Yemen while the Southern Movement is politically fighting through the establishment of coalitions and by gaining political momentum?

But of course, Al Hirak and supporters of independence should also have reason for suspicion about the advancement of the Houthis. While the Houthis are gathering in the north to serve their own interests, their main goal is to unite Yemen under one center of power…theirs. Al Hirak, then, should fear Houthi territorial advances into southern areas that the Southern Movement wishes to liberate.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a radical Islamist group with strongholds throughout Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In December of 2009, then U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton designated AQAP in Yemen a terrorist organization. As such, U.S. foreign policy has worked to target Al-Qaeda cells operating within the country – American air attacks via drone strikes against AQAP have commonly been at the forefront of global criticism for their unintended effect of killing civilians in the line of fire.

Al-Qaeda at the far end of the Sunni Islam spectrum is known for butting (violent) heads with the Houthis at the Shia side. AQAP, who interprets Shiites as heretics and the Houthis as Iranian proxies, has struggled to maintain its influence in Yemen by fighting and preventing the Houthis from making further territorial advances. Witnesses have commonly seen clashes between AQAP and the Houthis at the outskirts of major cities.  

AQAP, like the Houthis however, has a serious problem with the government of Yemen, that external forces, namely the United States, influence the country’s affairs. So when AQAP fighters are not clashing with Houthis for control over Yemen, they spend their days fighting Yemeni security forces.    


While U.S. policymakers continue to weigh their options to protect American interests in the Middle East, foreign policy analysis should not overlook the deteriorating situation in the Republic of Yemen. Understanding the convergence of Yemen’s secular conflict in the north with the debate over secession in the south can provide insight to U.S. policymakers about what strategies will be most effective in combating American enemies in the region. For example, after unpacking the convoluted relationships between prevalent political actors and militant factions, U.S strategy can focus on providing assistance (e.g. financially, militarily) to those Yemeni groups that are supportive of a strong central government, democratic liberal values, and partnership with the West. Strategic support in Yemen will work to deter greater regional threats, such as against the various proxy groups existing in the Iranian sphere of influence.