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Unpacking the History and Identity of the Houthi Movement

A photo of Houthi militants holding fists in the air while holding up their group slogans

Introduction

Until recently, the Houthi movement remained a relatively obscure force on the global stage. The group's involvement in the Israel-Hamas war and subsequent attacks on important economic waterways have sparked interest in who the Houthis are and their connection to broader affairs in the Middle East. This article aims to briefly examine their ideology, history, weaponry, and recent actions.


Ideology

The Houthis are a Shi’ite Islamist organization based in Yemen. Their military support of Hamas and the Iranian origin of their weaponry, align the Houthis with Iran’s “Axis of Resistance”—an informal anti-Israel, anti-Western alliance whose members include Hezbollah, Syria, and Hamas.  They are also an antisemitic organization whose values are clearly and concisely illustrated by their slogan: "God is the Greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse Upon the Jews, Victory to Islam."



The Houthi Slogan "God is the Greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse Upon the Jews, Victory to Islam."

In response to the Israel-Hamas war, the Houthis began firing missiles toward Israel, with a Houthi spokesman stating that “more strikes would follow until the Israeli aggression stops and the Palestinians are victorious.” This announcement further emphasizes the Houthis’ anti-Israel ideology; despite not being directly involved in the current conflict, the Houthis have nevertheless decided to effectively declare war on Israel.


History of the Houthi Movement

Understanding the Houthis begins with understanding their history. The movement was founded in the 1990s by Hussein al-Houthi from Yemen's Houthi tribe. Known officially as Ansar Allah (Defenders of God), the group emerged in opposition to government corruption and mistreatment of the Shi'a minority in Yemen.


Following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, anti-American sentiment began to increase. The Houthis were highly critical of the Yemeni government for allowing the US to stage counterterrorism operations on Yemeni soil and accused the government of putting US interests ahead of the people of Yemen.


In 2004, the Houthis began an insurgent military campaign against the Yemeni government. During the conflict, al-Houthi was killed, and his brother, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, later assumed leadership over the Houthis—a position he still holds to this day. 


Tensions remained high between the Houthis and the Yemeni government before coming to a head during the Arab Spring, a regionwide pro-democracy movement from 2010-2012, resulting in the removal of Yemen’s longstanding president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, from office. Following new uncontested elections, former vice president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi became the new president of Yemen. 


Despite the change in government, the Houthis were unhappy with their role in crafting the new Yemeni constitution and feared further political marginalization


In 2014, amidst widespread economic turmoil, the Houthis led protests against a proposed increase in fuel prices. These protests were met with violence by the Hadi-led government, and soon the country was plunged into civil war.


The Yemeni civil war is widely regarded as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the Saudi-led coalition supporting the Yemeni government and Iran supporting the Houthis, although Iran has denied such involvement. While some debate exists as to how much influence Iran exerts over the Houthis, especially given recent attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, it is clear that a connection between the two groups exists.


The Houthis have had many notable successes during the civil war, both militarily and politically. The movement now controls Yemen's capital, as well as the strategic port city of Al-Hudaydah on the Red Sea, a vital passage between Europe and Asia. 


Despite making significant territorial gains, the Houthis have failed to gain international recognition and have been condemned by the UN Security Council—most recently concerning Houthi attacks on commercial ships traveling through the Red Sea.


Weaponry

The Houthi movement has a wide array of weaponry, including long-range, sophisticated missiles and several types of drones—both for combat and surveillance. Some of the missiles have a range of up to 2,000 kilometers, which can reach southern Israel. For more information, you can check out the map created by the BNN team below.

Besides these weapons, the Houthis have access to several surface-to-air missile systems, anti-tank guided missiles, guided rockets, light and heavy machine guns, and an assorted variety of rifles.


The Houthis also possess a largely homegrown, albeit quite small, naval force. Their main naval strength is anti-ship weaponry. The vessels in their fleet include 5 fast-attack patrol crafts, containing naval mines, anti-ship missile systems, and anti-ship ballistic missiles. Some of these systems and their ranges can be seen on the map below



Outside of drones, the Houthi air force also contains a single reclaimed F-5 fighter jet.


A houthi reclaimed F-5 fighter jet flying in the sky

Compared to other militant organizations in the world, the Houthis have proven to be incredibly well-armed. However, they have yet to show sophisticated usage of their weapons, resulting in many missile failures and technical issues.


Recent Actions

Not long after Israel’s response to the October 7th Hamas-led surprise attack, the Houthi movement effectively declared war against Israel. Notably, the Houthis fired long-range ballistic missiles toward Eilat, a city in southern Israel, which were subsequently intercepted outside of Earth’s atmosphere by Israel’s Arrow 3 ballistic missile interceptor system— the first occurrence of space combat in recorded history.



The Houthis have hijacked Israeli-owned commercial vessels, taking crew members hostage, and declared that any ship on its way to Israel could be a potential target. However, they have not limited their scope to just Israel-bound vessels. Any ship traversing near the Red Sea trading route is in danger of being attacked. In response, companies have been forced to travel around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa as opposed to traveling through the Suez Canal. The more than week-long diversion has disrupted international shipping and continues to threaten the security of global supply lines.



As such, the United States has assembled a multilateral coalition to combat the Houthi threat and protect the “free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.” On December 31, US helicopters successfully repelled a Houthi attack, sinking three of their vessels and killing at least ten members in the process.


Since then the US and partner forces have repeatedly struck Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen with the intent to “disrupt and degrade the capabilities that the Houthis use to threaten global trade and the lives of innocent mariners.” These targets include “command-and-control nodes, munitions depots, launching systems, production facilities, and air defense radar systems.”


The US has also acted unilaterally striking Houthi sites and intercepting ballistic missiles that have posed imminent threats to maritime travel in the Red Sea.


At the time of publishing, there have been zero civilian casualties reported. However, the situation is still fluid and is being closely monitored by the BNN team.


The Houthis’ capacity to strike at stronger nations despite the ongoing Yemeni civil war showcases their significant resources and military strength—much of which can be attributed in part to Iran. 


Conclusion

The Houthi movement, a militant group, is united under a bold slogan that encapsulates their fervent belief in their cause. Initially emerging as a small political entity, the Houthis have transformed into a formidable militant organization, posing threats to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Western interests. Their attacks on global waterways signify a pivotal shift in regional dynamics. While escalation beyond the shores of the Middle East remains unlikely, the potential exists, particularly in light of the US-led effort to limit Houthi operational capabilities. For the latest information on the Houthis, the Middle East, Israel, and the current Israel-Hamas conflict, be sure to follow BNN.


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Very informative 😁 definitely gonna be reading it again

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What happened to the crew that was taken hostage on Nov 20th?

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Meir Zaks
Meir Zaks
Feb 05
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As of today - no crew members were released yet.

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