Rebels attack again in northern Yemen

There are conflicting reports of the latest attacks by Houthi rebels in northern Yemen. 

The Yemen Post says seven soldiers were killed on Thursday and Friday in al-Khamees district of Saada province. AFPquotes a military source as saying: "Clashes broke out after Houthi rebels attacked army bases in the Saada province, during which seven soldiers were killed, while a number of others were wounded or captured." The Yemen Observer, referring only to an attack on Friday morning, says five soldiers died. Reuters says three were killed on Friday and a fourth abducted.

Meanwhile, two men have been named as suspects in the killing of an army colonel and his two bodyguards in Saada on Tuesday: Abdulmohsen Taos and Hazmal Ali Hazmal.

This seems an appropriate moment to explain some of the background to the Houthi rebellion – Yemen’s bloodiest conflict since the 1994 north-south war – which has been running intermittently in the far north of the country since 2004. Its origins are complex and its objectives not entirely clear, but the Houthis (the family leading the rebellion) belong to the Zaidi sect, a branch of Shi’a Islam that is prevalent in parts of northern Yemen. 

It is also linked to an organisation called Believing Youth (al-Shabab al-Mu’min) whose teenage members have caused disruption at mosques in various parts of the country by chanting “Death to America, Death to Israel” after Friday prayers. The youths have often been arrested, only to return later and do it again. (I wrote about the rebellion here, shortly after its outbreak in 2004.)

The original leader, Hussein al-Houthi (who was killed in the early months of the rebellion) insisted he had no quarrel with the Yemeni government beyond opposing its co-operation with the United States, though the movement also seemed to be trying to counter the spread of Sunni Wahhabi influence.

Meanwhile the government, perhaps in the hope of discrediting Houthi, claimed he had a monarchist agenda – since the rulers of north Yemen who were overthrown in the republican revolution of 1962 had also been Zaidis. 

Whatever its original driving force, though, the rebellion has clearly been fuelled by economic marginalisation, a lack of services and the government’s heavy-handed military response.

The rebellion has supposedly ended several times, only to resume again shortly afterwards.

Access to the area is restricted, so reliable information tends to be scanty. In May this year the International Crisis Group published a report, Defusing the Saada Time Bomb, which is probably the best up-to-date exploration of the conflict. It is also discussed in a briefing paper issued by Chatham House last November.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 July 2009