The Houthis ( Arabic : الحوثيون al-Ḥūthiyyūn IPA: [ˈħuːθij.juːn] ), officially called Ansar Allah ( anṣār allāh أنصار الله "Supporters of God"), are members of an Islamic religious-political movement that emerged from Sa'dah , northern Yemen in the 1990s. They are of the Zaidis sect, and are predominantly Shia -led, though the movement also includes Sunnis . [4]

Tension between the Houthis and the central government steadily grew in the 1990s, with war breaking out in 2004 with the group's founder, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi , [4] leading a rebellion against then President Ali Abdullah Saleh . The group is now led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi , brother of the first leader who was reportedly killed by Saleh's Yemeni army forces in 2004. [4] [4] In late 2014, Houthis fixed their relationship with the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and with his help, they took control of the capital and much of the north. [4]

Like many Iranian-backed groups such as Hezbollah , the Houthi movement attracts its Zaidi-Shia followers in Yemen by promoting regional political-religious issues in its media, including the overarching US-Israeli conspiracy and Arab "collusion". [164] [165] In 2003, the Houthi's slogan "God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam", became the group's trademark. [165]

The movement's purported goals include combating economic underdevelopment and political marginalization in Yemen while seeking greater autonomy for Houthi-majority regions of the country. [166] They also claim to support a more democratic non-sectarian republic in Yemen. [92]

The Houthis took part in the 2011 Yemeni Revolution by participating in street protests and coordinating with other opposition groups , and they did join the National Dialogue Conference in Yemen as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative to broker peace following the unrest. However, the Houthis would later reject the November 2011 GCC deal's provisions, claiming that it did not fundamentally reform governance and that the proposed federalization "divided Yemen into poor and wealthy regions". Houthis also feared the deal was a blatant attempt to weaken them by dividing areas under their control between separate regions. [166]

In 2014–2015 Houthis took over the government in Sana'a with the help of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and announced the fall of the current government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi . [25] [167] Houthis have gained control of most of the northern part of Yemen's territory and are currently resisting the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen that claims to be seeking to restore the internationally recognized Yemeni government [5] to power. Additionally, the Islamic State militant group has attacked all of the conflict's major parties including Houthis, Saleh forces, the Yemeni government, and the Saudi Arabian-led coalition forces. [5] [5]

The Houthis group is considered as a terrorist organization by the governments of Saudi Arabia , the United Arab Emirates and Australia . [167] The movement is not listed as a terrorist group by the United Nations , United States , United Kingdom , France , Russia , the People's Republic of China and the European Union .


According to Ahmed Addaghashi, a professor at Sanaa University , the Houthis began as a moderate theological movement that preached tolerance and held a broad-minded view of all the Yemeni peoples. [31] Their first organization, "the Believing Youth" (BY), was founded in 1992 in Saada Governorate [170] : 1008 by either Mohammed al-Houthi, [32] : 98 or his brother Hussein al-Houthi. [33]

The Believing Youth established school clubs and summer camps [32] : 98 in order to "promote a Zaidi revival" in Saada. [33] By 1994–1995, 15–20,000 students had attended BY summer camps. The religious material included lectures by Mohammed Hussein Fadhlallah (a Lebanese Shiite scholar) and Hassan Nasrallah (Secretary General of Lebanon's Hezbollah Party) " [32] : 99 [34]

The formation of the Houthi organisations have been described by Adam Baron of the European Council on Foreign Relations as a reaction to foreign intervention. Their views include shoring up Zaidi support against the perceived threat of Saudi-influenced ideologies in Yemen and a general condemnation of the former Yemeni government’s alliance with the United States, which, along with complaints regarding the government’s corruption and the marginalisation of much of the Houthis’ home areas in Saada, constituted the group’s key grievances. [35]

Although Hussein al-Houthi, who was killed in 2004, had no official relation with Believing Youth, according to Zaid, he contributed to the radicalisation of some Zaydis after the 2003 invasion of Iraq . BY-affiliated youth adopted anti-American and anti-Jewish slogans which they chanted in the Saleh Mosque in Sana'a after Friday prayers. According to Zaid, the followers of Houthi's insistence on chanting the slogans attracted the authorities' attention, further increasing government worries over the extent of the al-Houthi movement’s influence. "The security authorities thought that if today the Houthis chanted ` Death to America ’, tomorrow they could be chanting `Death to the president [of Yemen]". 800 BY supporters were arrested in Sana'a in 2004. President Ali Abdullah Saleh then invited Hussein al-Houthi to a meeting in Sana'a, but Hussein declined. On 18 June 2004 Saleh sent government forces to arrest Hussein. [36] Hussein responded by launching an insurgency against the central government but was killed on 10 September 2004. [38] The insurgency continued intermittently until a ceasefire agreement was reached in 2010. [31]

The Houthis participated in the 2011 Yemeni Revolution , as well as the ensuing National Dialogue Conference (NDC). [171] However, they rejected the provisions of the November 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council deal on the ground that "it divide[d] Yemen into poor and wealthy regions" and also in response to assassination of their representative at NDC. [41] [42]

As the revolution went on, Houthis gained control of greater territory. By 9 November 2011, Houthis were said to be in control of two Yemeni governorates (Saada and Al Jawf) and close to taking over a third governorate (Hajjah), [44] which would enable them to launch a direct assault on the Yemeni capital of Sana'a . [46] In May 2012, it was reported that the Houthis controlled a majority of Saada, Al Jawf, and Hajjah governorates; they had also gained access to the Red Sea and started erecting barricades north of Sana'a in preparation for more conflict. [47]

By 21 September 2014, Houthis were said to control parts of the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, including government buildings and a radio station. [48] While Houthi control expanded to the rest of Sana'a, as well as other towns such as Rada' , this control was strongly challenged by Al-Qaeda . It was believed by the Gulf States that the Houthis had accepted aid from Iran while Saudi Arabia was aiding their Yemeni rivals.

On 20 January 2015, Houthi rebels seized the presidential palace in the capital. President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was in the presidential palace during the takeover but was not harmed. [50] The movement officially took control of the Yemeni government on 6 February, dissolving parliament and declaring its Revolutionary Committee to be the acting authority in Yemen. [25] On 20 March 2015, The al-Badr and al-Hashoosh mosques came under suicide attack during midday prayers, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant quickly claimed responsibility. The blasts killed 142 Houthi worshippers and wounded more than 351, making it the deadliest terrorist attack in Yemen's history. [3]

In a televised speech on 22 March, Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi accused the US and Israel of supporting the terrorists attacks. He blamed regional Arab states for financing terrorist groups operating inside Yemen. [173] On 27 March 2015, in response to perceived Houthi threats to Sunni factions in the region, Saudi Arabia along with Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan led a gulf coalition airstrike in Yemen . [56] The military coalition included the United States which helped in planning of air strikes, as well as logistical and intelligence support.

According to a 2015 September report by Esquire magazine , the Houthis, once the outliers, are now one of the most stable and organised social and political movements in Yemen. The power vacuum created by Yemen’s uncertain transitional period has drawn more supporters to the Houthis. Many of the formerly powerful parties, now disorganised with an unclear vision, have fallen out of favour with the public, making the Houthis — under their newly branded Ansar Allah name — all the more attractive. [23]

Houthi spokesperson Mohamed Abdel Salam stated that his group had spotted messages between UAE and Saleh three months before his death. He told Al-Jazeera that there was communication between Saleh, UAE and a number of other countries such as Russia and Jordan through encrypted messages. [7] The alliance between Saleh and the Houthi broke down in late 2017, [176] with armed clashes occurring in Sana'a from 28 November. [7] Saleh declared the split in a televised statement on 2 December, calling on his supporters to take back the country [7] and expressed openness to a dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition . [176] On 4 December 2017, Saleh's house in Sana'a was assaulted by fighters of the Houthi movement, according to residents. [7] Saleh has been killed by Houthis on 4 December. [180] [181]

Membership and support

Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was allied with Houthis between 2014 and 2017

There is a difference between the al-Houthi family, which has about 20 members [32] : 102 and the Houthi movement, which took the name "Houthi" after the death of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi in 2004.

The Houthis avoid assuming a singular tribal identity. Instead, the group strategically draws support from tribes of the northern Bakil federation, rival to the Hashid federation which had been a traditional ally of the central government. The Houthis’ lack of centralised command structure allows them to generate immense support, as Yemenis from diverse backgrounds have joined their cause. [7]

Membership of the group had between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters as of 2005 [7] and between 2,000 and 10,000 fighters as of 2009. [7] In 2010, the Yemen Post claimed that they had over 100,000 fighters. [63] According to Houthi expert Ahmed Al-Bahri, by 2010, the Houthis had a total of 100,000-120,000 followers, including both armed fighters and unarmed loyalists. [64]

As of 2015, the group is reported to have managed to pick up swaths of new supporters outside their traditional demographics. [35] [8] On 5 February 2016, Iran's PressTV reported that Men of Hamdan, one of Yemen's most powerful tribes, rallied to the north of the capital, Sana'a, vowing to provide support in the form of potential mobilisation for the country's fighters resisting the Yemeni government. In a gathering held in the capital, hundreds of tribesmen from the southern parts pledged union against what they described as a U.S.-Israeli initiative targeting the country, which was being implemented by Saudi Arabia. [8]


Houthis belong to the Zaidi branch of Islam , also known as Fivers, a sect of Islam almost exclusively present in Yemen. [183]

Zaydis make up about 25 percent of the population, Sunnis make up 75 percent, and there are also tiny minorities of Muslims who are members of other Shia sects — the Ismaili and Twelver communities. Al-Houthi Zaydis are estimated to make up about 30 percent of the Shiite population, according to Hassan Zaid, secretary-general of the al-Haq opposition party. The Zaydis ruled Yemen for 1,000 years up until 1962. During this time they ferociously defended their independence and fought off foreign powers (Egypt, the Ottomans) who controlled lower Yemen and tried to extend their rule to the north. [36]

Similar to Shia Muslims in matters of religious law and rulings, the Houthi belief in the concept of an Imamate as being essential to their religion makes them distinct from Sunnis. [68] As of 2014 it has been observed that "The Houthi group's approach is in many ways similar to that of Hizbollah in Lebanon. Similarly religiously based and Iran-backed, both groups follow the same military doctrine and glorify the Khomeini revolution in Iran". [8]

As a consequence, the Houthis have regularly been accused, even by many fellow Zaidis, of secretly being converts or followers of the Twelver sect, which is the official religion of their ally and backer Iran. [183] [70] [8] [8]

The Houthis have asserted that their actions are to fight against the expansion of Salafism in Yemen, [70] and for the defence of their community from discrimination, whereas the Yemeni government has in turn accused the insurgents of intending to overthrow the regime out of a desire to institute Zaidi religious law, [72] destabilising the government and stirring anti-American sentiment. [73] The Yemeni government has also accused the Houthis of having ties to external backers, in particular the Iranian government. [74] In turn, the Houthis have countered with allegations that the Yemeni government is being backed by al-Qaeda and Saudi Arabia . [75] [76] [77] The discord has led some publishers to fear that further confrontations may lead to an all-out Sunni-Shiite war.

Flag and slogan

The group's flag reads as following: " God Is Great , Death to America , Death to Israel , Curse on the Jews , Victory to Islam ". This motto is partially modelled on the motto of revolutionary Iran , which reads "Death to U.S. and death to Israel". [10]

Some Houthi supporters stress that their ire for the U.S. and Israel is directed toward the governments of America and Israel. Ali al-Bukhayti, the spokesperson and official media face of the Houthis, tried to reject the literal interpretation of the slogan by stating that in one of his interview "We do not really want death to anyone. The slogan is simply against the interference of those governments [i.e. U.S. and Israel]". [10] However, in the Arabic Houthi-affiliated TV and radio stations they use religious connotations associated with jihad against Israel and the US. [165] They also call Saudi Arabia a U.S. puppet state.

Charges of harassment against Jews

The Houthis have been accused of expelling or restricting members of the rural Yemeni Jewish community . Reports of abuse include Houthi supporters bullying or attacking the country's Jews. [10] [82] Houthi officials, however, have denied any involvement in the harassment, asserting that under Houthi control, Jews in Yemen would be able to live and operate freely as any other Yemeni citizen. "Our problems are with Zionism and the occupation of Palestine, but Jews here have nothing to fear," said Fadl Abu Taleb, a spokesman for the Houthis. But despite insistence by Houthi leaders that the movement is not sectarian, a Yemeni Jewish rabbi has reportedly said that many Jews remain terrified by the movement’s slogan. [82] As a result, Yemeni Jews reportedly retain a negative sentiment towards the Houthis, who they allege have committed persecutions against them. According to Ayoub Kara , Houthi militants had given an ultimatum telling Jews to "convert to Islam or leave Yemen". [10]


Ansar Allah fighters in Yemen, August 2009.

Motives and objectives

When armed conflict for the first time erupted back in 2004 between the Yemeni government and Houthis, the then-Yemeni President accused Houthis and other Islamic opposition parties of trying to overthrow the government and the republican system. However Houthi leaders for their part rejected the accusation by saying that they had never rejected the president or the republican system but were only defending themselves against government attacks on their community. [90] Zaidi Shi'ites compose one-third of the population of Yemen and Houthis have often voiced the grievances of the Zaidi population.

The group has also exploited the popular discontent over corruption and reduction of government subsidies. According to a February 2015 Newsweek report, Houthis are fighting "for things that all Yemenis crave: government accountability, the end to corruption, regular utilities, fair fuel prices, job opportunities for ordinary Yemenis and the end of Western influence". [10]

Hassan al-Homran, a former spokesperson for Ansar Allah, has said that "Ansar Allah supports the establishment of a civil state in Yemen. We want to build a striving modern democracy. Our goals are to fulfil our people's democratic aspirations in keeping with the Arab Spring movement." [3] In an interview with Yemen Times , Hussein al-Bukhari, a Houthi insider, said that Houthis' preferable political system is a republic with elections where women can also hold political positions, and that they do not seek to form a cleric-led government after the model of Islamic Republic of Iran for "we cannot apply this system in Yemen because the followers of the Shafi ( Sunni ) doctrine are bigger in number than the Zaydis." [92]

Ali Akbar Velayati , International Affairs Advisor to Supreme Iranian Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, stated in October 2014 that "We are hopeful that Ansar-Allah has the same role in Yemen as Hezbollah has in eradicating the terrorists in Lebanon". [3]

According to Caleb Maupin , a journalist who participated in a humanitarian mission to Yemen with the Red Crescent Society, the Houthis' political goals are to "assert [Yemen's] independence" and "break Yemen out of Saudi domination." [3]

Activism and tactics


During their campaigns against Hadi government, Houthis used civil disobedience. Following the Yemeni government's decision in 13 July 2014 to increase fuel prices, [3] Houthi leaders succeeded in organising massive rallies in the capital Sana'a to protest the decision and to demand resignation of the incumbent government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi for "state-corruption". [3] These protests developed into the 2014-2015 phase of the insurgency. Similarly, following 2015 Saudi-led airstrikes against Houthis which claimed civilians lives, Yemenis responded to the Abdul-Malik al-Houthi 's call and took to streets of the capital, Sana'a, in tens of thousands to voice their anger at the Saudi invasion. [3] [3]


The Houthis have also held a number of mass gatherings since the revolution. On 24 January 2013, thousands gathered in Dahiyan, Sa'dah and Heziez, just outside Sana'a, to celebrate Mawlid al-Nabi , the birth of Mohammed. A similar event took place on 13 January 2014 at the main sports' stadium in Sana'a. On this occasion, men and women were completely segregated: men filled the open-air stadium and football field in the centre, guided by appointed Houthi safety officials wearing bright vests and matching hats; women poured into the adjacent indoor stadium, led inside by security women distinguishable only by their purple sashes and matching hats. The indoor stadium held at least five thousand women — ten times as many attendees as the 2013 gathering. [23]


The Houthis are said to have "a huge and well-oiled propaganda machine". They have established "a formidable media arm" with the Lebanese Hezbollah's technical support. The format and content of the group's leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi 's televised speeches are said to have been modeled after those of Hezbollah's Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah . Following the peaceful youth uprising in 2011, the group lunched its official TV channel, Almasirah . "The most impressive part" of Houthi propaganda, though, is their media print which includes 25 print and electronic publications. [165]

Combat and military

In 2009, US Embassy sources have reported that Houthis used increasingly more sophisticated tactics and strategies in their conflict with the government as they gained more experience, and that they fought with religious fervor and courage. [102] [103]

Armed strength

Ethnoreligious groups in 2002. Zaidi Shia followers make up over 42% of Muslims in Yemen. [184]

Late in 2015, Houthis announced the local production of short range ballistic missile Qaher-1 on Al-Masirah TV. On May 19, 2017 Saudi Arabia intercepted a Houthi fired ballistic missile targeting a deserted area south of the Saudi capital and most populous city Riyadh. [3] [3] [3]

Allegations of Iran's support

In April 2015, the United States National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan remarked that “It remains our assessment that Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen". [3]

Saudi and former Yemeni officials have claimed that the Houthis have received significant support from Iran in the form of weapons, money and training since 2004, while Houthi leadership denies having received weapons or financial support from Iran. [3] Also, Tehran has denied allegations of Houthis receiving arms support from Iran. A December 2009 cable between Sanaa and various intelligence agencies disseminated by WikiLeaks states that US State Dept. analysts believed the Houthis obtained weapons from the Yemeni black market and corrupt members of the Yemenis Republican Guard. [102] On the edition of 8 April 2015 of PBS Newshour , Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the US knew Iran was providing military support to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, adding that Washington "is not going to stand by while the region is destabilised". [3]

Gulf Arab states have accused Iran of backing the Houthis financially and militarily, though Iran has denied this, and they are themselves backers of President Hadi. [3]

Phillip Smyth of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy told Business Insider that Iran views Shia groups in the Middle East as "integral elements to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)." Smyth confirmed to Business Insider the strong bond between Iran and the Houthi uprising working to overthrow the government in Yemen. According to Smyth, in many cases Houthi leaders go to Iran for ideological and religious education, and Iranian and Hezbollah leaders have been spotted on the ground advising the Houthi troops. These Iranian advisers are likely responsible for training the Houthis to use the type of sophisticated guided missiles fired at the US Navy. [3] For Iran, supporting the revolt in Yemen is "a good way to bleed the Saudis," Iran's regional and ideological rival. Essentially, Iran is backing the Houthis to fight against a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf States fighting to maintain government control of Yemen. [3]

In 2013, photographs released by the Yemeni government show the United States Navy and Yemen’s security forces seized a class of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles not publicly known to have been out of state control. [3]

According to Saudi-owned Al Arabiya , Fars News Agency , which is the official news agency of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, has admitted to arming Houthis with missiles and training. The agency quoted “a prominent analyst” Seyed Sadeq al-Sharafi as saying that militias “are developing their missile power to target Riyadh and Dubai in the future, after they increased their missile and military capabilities and expanded the range of their military operations against the enemies" [3]

In April 2016, the U.S. Navy intercepted a large Iranian arms shipment, seizing thousands of weapons, AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers that likely were headed to Yemen. [3]

Also, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in conflicts with them for 2 decades and currently allied with them, has accused Iran of supporting the Houthi many times. Saleh stated in a New York Times' interview that "The real reason they received unofficial support from Iran was because they repeat same slogan that is raised by Iran death to America, death to Israel". He also said "The Iranian media repeats statements of support for these Houthi elements. They are all trying to take revenge against the USA on Yemeni territories". [164] However his claims of material support remained unsubstantiated. [197]

Thomas Juneau, writing in the journal, International Affairs , states that even though Iran's support for Houthis has increased since 2014, it remains far too limited to have a significant impact in the balance of power in Yemen. [197]

Allegations of human rights violations

Houthis have been accused of violations of international humanitarian law such as using child soldiers , [3] [105] [3] shelling civilian areas, [3] forced evacuations, executions and human shielding . [102] [3] According to the Human Right Watch, Houthis have inclined up their recruitment of children in 2015. The UNICEF mentioned that children with the Houthis and other armed groups in Yemen comprise up to a third of all fighters in Yemen. [3] Human Rights Watch has further accused Houthi forces of using landmines in Yemen’s third-largest city of Taizz which has caused many civilian casualties and prevent the return of families displaced by the fighting. [3] HRW has also accused the Houthis of interfering with the work of Yemen’s human rights advocates and organizations. [3]

The Yemen Times reported that most children working for the Houthis are not combatants. [105]

An HRW researcher, quoted in 2009 US embassy report, has downplayed the repeated allegations by the former government of Yemen accusing the Houthis of using civilians as human shields, by saying that they did not have enough evidence to conclude that the Houthis have been intentionally using civilians as human shields. [102] [103]


According to the 2009 US Embassy cable leaked by WikiLeaks , Houthis have reportedly established courts and prisons in areas they control. They impose their own laws on local residents, demand protection money, and dispense rough justice by ordering executions. AP 's reporter, Ahmad al-Haj argued that the Houthis were winning hearts and minds by providing security in areas long neglected by the Yemeni government while limiting the arbitrary and abusive power of influential sheikhs. According to the Civic Democratic Foundation, Houthis help resolve conflicts between tribes and reduce the number of revenge killings in areas they control. The US ambassador believed that the reports that explain Houthi role as arbitrating local disputes were more likely than the sinister suggestions. [102] [103]

Areas under administration

The Houthis exert de facto authority over the bulk of North Yemen . North Yemen was united with South Yemen in 1990; the Yemen government has repeatedly suppressed separatist protests by force. [3] The Houthis' direct administration includes the following territories: