The Houthis are an Iranian-backed, Shiite Muslim armed religious and political movement in Yemen. The Houthis waged a series of bloody insurgencies against the Yemeni government for over a decade, leading to that regime’s overthrow in 2015. The Houthis belong to the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam are supported by Iran. The movement is known for its virulently anti-American and anti-Semitic rhetoric, including the group’s ubiquitous slogan: “God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse upon the Jews! Victory to Islam!”
The Houthis made significant territorial gains in 2014-2015, including the capture of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September 2014, resulting in the removal of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi from power.
On October 2, 2015, the United Nations announced it would broker talks between the Houthis and the Yemeni government in Oman. At the time, government officials stated the Houthis were merely maneuvering tactically by showing their willingness to engage in talks. The Houthis have refused to relinquish territory they have occupied—a stipulation to end Yemen’s civil war under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216.
The Houthi movement’s organizational structure is unclear and likely continues to evolve. The movement began as a grassroots religious organization aimed at youth in the 1990s, but over time it has entered politics and developed military capabilities. Following the killing of movement founder Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi by Yemeni forces in 2004, the Houthis were led by Hussein’s father, spiritual leader Badr al-Din al-Houthi. The movement’s current leader is Hussein’s younger brother, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi.
Iranian Material and Financial Support of The Houthis' Violent Activities
Yemeni officials have long accused Iran’s Shiite Islamist regime of providing political, financial, and logistical support to the Houthi rebels and other secessionist movements in Yemen. Despite a 2009 U.N. report confirming such claims, both Iran and the Houthis have denied engaging in past cooperation.
For instance, the Iranian ship Jihan I was seized in 2013, allegedly en route to Yemen with arms meant for the Houthis. The cache, as Reuters reported in December 2014, included “Katyusha rockets M-122, heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles, RPG-7s, Iranian-made night vision goggles and ‘artillery systems that track land and navy targets 40km away,’” as well as “silencers, 2.66 tonnes of RDX explosives, C-4 explosives, ammunition, bullets and electrical transistors.”
Subsequent reports confirmed Iranian support for the Houthis, including a Reuters article in December of 2014. One source stated, “We think there is cash, some of which is channeled via Hezbollah and sacks of cash arriving at the airport.” Only in 2015 did Iran finally acknowledge providing “direct support” to the Houthis rebels.
The Houthis have historically trained their fighters in Yemen’s mountainous north. The Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has trained Houthis in Yemen and Iranian military leadership is also believed to be present in Yemen to provide strategic military advice. In March 2015, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubair also alleged that Hezbollah operatives were advising the Houthis. In the same month, Syrian military officials were reportedly present in Yemen assisting the Houthis as well.
In early 2015, U.S. officials reported that the IRGC’s training of Houthi rebels covered the use of advanced weapons, which the Houthis seized from Yemeni military bases.