Nabeel Khoury writes: The Houthis are the largest Zaidi tribe in the northern Saada region of Yemen, abutting the Saudi border to the north. For years, the central government in Sanaa had marginalized the Houthis. Sunni Salafis from the north had meddled and proselytized the Zaidi tribe, which is an offshoot of Shia Islam. In 2004, the Houthi leader Hussein Badreddine Al-Houthi declined a summons to the capital by President Saleh. In response, Saleh sent troops to bring the Houthi leader by force, sparking off a six-year war that culminated in Saudi Arabia’s failed incursion into northern Yemen, in 2009 to 2010, to assist Saleh against the motley Houthi army.
At the time, the Houthi political movement was known as Al-Shabab Al-Mumin — the Believing Youth. Saleh had supported the Houthis until they adopted the slogan, ‘Death to America, Death to Israel,’ after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Houthi demands back then were regional and sectarian: They wanted some autonomy within their region, to run their schools and mosques as they saw fit. They also wanted to see a fair share of the national budget spent on projects in their governorate.
After years of fighting a larger more organized army, the Houthis transformed from a regional ragtag militia into the most effective fighting force in Yemen—from a tribe totally preoccupied with local, sectarian goals into an ambitious party. The Houthi leader now makes reference to regional and international issues as he claims to speak on behalf of Islam and Muslims everywhere. The Houthis have transitioned from the insignificant, scarcely-known Believing Youth to Ansar Allah — the Defenders of God — a name derived from a Koranic verse. The Houthis have drawn help from Iran and Hezbollah—and the attention of the world in the process. In the words of Abdelmalek Al-Houthi in a recent speech, “Our ambitions are limitless.” [Continue reading…]