Houthis disrupting Red Sea shipping have 1,000-year history

By Mike Heuer
Images released by Yemen's Houthi group on November 20 show Houthi militants as they hijack a cargo ship reportedly owned by an Israeli businessman near Yemen in the southern Red Sea the day before. File Photo courtesy of Houthi Group Press Service
1 of 7 | Images released by Yemen's Houthi group on November 20 show Houthi militants as they hijack a cargo ship reportedly owned by an Israeli businessman near Yemen in the southern Red Sea the day before. File Photo courtesy of Houthi Group Press Service | License Photo

Jan. 4 (UPI) -- Who are the Houthis who are targeting commercial shipping near the Yemeni coast of the Red Sea? The short answer is a dedicated group of religious zealots -- dubbed terrorists by the United Nations Security Council -- who want to control Yemen.

The long answer goes back more than 1,000 years and lays the groundwork for the fanatical group based in the mountainous region of northern Yemen. The Houthis have existed in one form or another since about 790 and have controlled the same mountainous area of northern Yemen for centuries.


Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, the Houthis have attacked civilian infrastructure in Israel and vessels traversing the Red Sea, which accounts for 15% of global trade. On Wednesday, a coalition of 13 nations, including the United States, pledged to hold the Houthis accountable for the attacks.


The Houthis are Zaydi Shiite Muslims who have been at war with the Yemeni government since 2004. The Houthis captured Yemen's capital city of Sanaa in 2014 and have controlled most of northern Yemen since 2016.

Iran is considered the primary supporter of the Houthis, which other Sunni states and Yemeni officials say is trained, armed and financially supported by Iran and Hezbollah.

According to the Wilson Center, the United States and Saudi Arabia have provided evidence showing Iran transfers arms to the Houthis. The evidence includes missiles and other arms used by Houthi militants in Yemen and Afghanistan.

Historic legacy

Shiite Muslims are a minority within the Muslim religion when compared to the Sunni Muslims, and the Zayadi Shiite Muslims are a minority within the Shiite version of the Muslim religion. The Zayadi Shiites also go by Zadiyyah, which is from Zayd bin Ali, who was the great-grandson of Muhammad's son-in-law and cousin. Zayd bin Ali in 740 led a revolt against the Umayyed Empire, which was the first Muslim dynastic empire and ruled from Damascus.

Zayd died leading the revolt, and legend suggests his head is buried in a shrine to him in Kerak, Jordan. Zayd is remembered for opposing what the Shiites consider to have been a corrupt Umayyed regime, according to the Brookings Institution. Today's Houthis likewise consider themselves to be at war with corrupt nations and governments, starting with Yemen.


The Houthis have had a significant presence in the mountainous region of northern Yemen since the ninth century and fought against the Ottoman and Wahhabis in the 18th and 19th centuries. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the conclusion of World War I, the Zaydis established a monarchy in the mountains of northern Yemen called the Mutawakkilite Kingdom. The kingdom's capital was in Taiz, and the kingdom was led by an imam who served as a spiritual and secular leader.

The Mutawakkilite Kingdom fought Saudi Arabia during the 1930s and lost some of its territory to the Saudis. Despite the setback, the kingdom endured until 1962, when a military cabal supported by Egypt and the Soviet Union overthrew the Mutawakkilite king and established a nationalist Arab government based in Sanaa.

The Mutawakkilite royalists fled to the mountains of northern Yemen near the Saudi border and continued to fight the newly established government in Yemen. According to Brookings, Saudi Arabia and Israel supported the royalists in their fight against the Egyptian-influenced republican forces, but the Saudis lost interest in the region and made peace with Egypt after losing the 1967 war with Israel.

A series of coups soon followed and continued until 1978, when republican Gen. Ali Abdullah Saleh gained power and ruled over Yemen for the next 33 years. Saleh united northern and southern Yemen in 1990 and generally supported Iraq during the 1991 war in Kuwait. Saleh maintained control despite a 1994 civil war in southern Yemen and became loosely aligned with Saudi Arabia and the United States against al-Qaida.


Houthi radicalization

The Houthis arose in the 1990s to oppose Saleh and his corrupt government, according to Brookings. The Houthis were led by Hussein al Houthi, which is where the Zaydi resistance obtained its name. The Houthis accused Saleh of stealing the wealth of the poorest nation in the Arab world and using it to enrich his family. The Houthis also criticized the United States and Saudi Arabia for supporting Saleh's dictatorship.

The Houthis became especially radicalized against the United States upon its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Brookings said the Houthis then created the slogan: "God is great, death to the U.S., death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory for Islam."

The Houthis crossed into Saudi Arabia in 2009, but the Saudis deployed their army and struck the Houthis from the air while also fighting in limited engagements on the ground. Another round of fighting between the Houthis and Saudis occurred in March 2015. This time, the United Arab Emirates allied with Saudi Arabia to launch airstrikes against the Houthis in Yemen.

Saleh and the Houthis became loosely allied in 2015, which the Wilson Center said enabled the Houthis to gain control of most of northern Yemen. Despite the loose alliance, the Houthis killed one of the top advisers to Saleh in August 2015, which caused Saleh to end his support for the Houthis on Dec. 2, 2015. Two days later, the Houthis assassinated Saleh during a roadside ambush, the Wilson Center said.


The struggle with Saudi Arabia continued, and the Houthis claimed responsibility for launching a ballistic missile at the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Nov. 4, 2017. The Saudis said the missile was Iranian in origin and launched by Hezbollah, but the Saudi's air defense system neutralized the missile.

The Houthis continued launching missiles against Saudi Arabia in 2018 while Yemen's population descended into what the United Nations called the "world's worst humanitarian crisis." The Houthis claimed credit for drone attacks on two Saudi oil installations in 2019, but U.S. officials said the strikes came from Iran and not Yemen.

The Wilson Center said the Houthis targeted the UAE with missiles and drones in 2022, but the UAE and the U.S. military intercepted two ballistic missiles that targeted Abu Dhabi on Jan. 24 that year. Officials in Iran have expressed their support for the Houthis, which they compare to Hezbollah, but they continue to deny providing arms, training and financial support to the Houthis.

Shortly before leaving office, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration on Jan. 10, 2021, declared the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization and said Iran's Revolutionary Guards provide the Houthis with drones, missiles and training to use them. U.S. President Joe Biden's administration removed the Houthis from the foreign terrorist organization designation a month after taking office in early 2021.


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