In the summer of 2014, a wave of protests in Yemen in the context of the so-called Arab Springs led to a surprise coup. A militia almost unknown in the West, the Houthis, took the capital, Sana’a, on September 21 and forced the resignation of President Abdelrabbo Mansur Hadi in January 2015. The international community paid little attention to the movement and dismissed its members as rudimentary guerrillas. tribals in djellaba and flip flops. Today, those dagger-wielding militants are armed with Shahab drones and Toophan ballistic missiles, and their attacks on merchant ships crossing the Gulf of Aden threaten global stability and security while paralyzing global trade.

After establishing the “Guardian of Prosperity” coalition to protect traffic in the Red Sea in late December, the United States has taken action. This morning, supported by the United Kingdom, it attacked 60 targets of the Houthi militias in Yemen, with aircraft and cruise missiles in retaliation for their attacks against merchant ships since October.

The tension in the Red Sea has put the Yemen conflict on the map again. We analyze the importance of the Houthi militia and its role in the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

The Houthis (in Arabic, huziyun) take their name from the tribe of their leader, Hussein Badredin al Huzi, who stood out as a political leader who opposed the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh ruled Yemen between 1990 and 2012 and became one of the Arab World’s longest-serving dictators who fell under the impetus of the Arab Springs, the revolutionary tsunami that erupted in Tunisia at the end of 2010 and swept the entire region. Hussein al Huzi was a descendant of a lineage that dates back to the Prophet Muhammad and his father was an important theologian. He lost his deputy seat in 1999 and from then on dedicated himself to revitalizing the Zaidi identity in the face of the grievances of the dictatorship, which privileged other factions and plunged entire regions of Yemen into abandonment and poverty.

It is a branch of Shia Islam that chose the fifth imam, Zayd ibn Ali ibn Abu Talib, as its spiritual guide, as opposed to the twelfth Shia, who elected the twelfth imam. Zayd ibn Ali led an unsuccessful rebellion against the Umayyad caliphate in the 8th century. In its time, Zaidism was prevalent in large areas of Iran, but its influence took root in Yemen, where it has been dominant since the 9th century. The Zaidis have important doctrinal and canonical differences with the main branch of Shiism, reigning in today’s Iran, and one of their main political ideas is that it is justified to overthrow unjust rulers. The Zaidis are today the majority in the Houthi movement.

Experts place the beginning of the Houthi insurgency on June 18, 2004, in what is also known as the first Saada war (the Yemeni region in which they have their stronghold). Then, Yemeni troops launched an operation to capture Hussein Badredin al Huzi, a prominent leader of the Zaidi community and leader of the spiritual group Ash Shabab al Mu’min (Believing Youth, in Arabic). Al Huzi and his followers began to undermine the authority of President Saleh, who was also a Zaydi although descended from a small family. The political challenge and agitation in the streets promoted by the Houthis increasingly weakened Saleh, who accused them of wanting to destroy the State and confronted them. The international context also soured the atmosphere in Yemen: after the 9/11 attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq to fight Al Qaeda, also strongly established in the Arabian Peninsula. The Saleh regime supported the US. The Houthis were manifestly anti-American, anti-Wahhabist (the Sunni doctrine reigning in Saudi Arabia) and anti-Salafist (the Islamist ideology of Al Qaeda). The war was ready but when Hussein al-Huzi died in combat in September 2004, the movement, far from weakening, gained more strength. Between that year and 2010, Houthi fighters grew from just 2,000 men to 100,000. Although there are no updated figures for their numbers today, they could be around 120,000. His leadership has mobilized thousands of men in the face of a possible direct confrontation with Israel in recent days.

The conflict continued to take shape since that first outbreak almost two decades ago. Saleh was ousted from power in 2012 and then aligned himself with the Houthis. Their alliance broke down at the end of 2017, the Houthis accused Saleh of treason and he was killed on December 4 of that year in a confrontation with the militia. In 2014, Houthi forces conquered Sana’a, seizing the presidential palace and key military facilities, and installing a “revolutionary government” in January. To counter the growing Houthi influence and restore the authority of Mansur Hadi, Saudi Arabia led a military intervention since March 2015. After a bloody bombing campaign that plunged the country into the worst humanitarian catastrophe on the planet, Riyadh managed to restore Mansur’s government Hadi, but not defeat the Houthis, who prevail in northern Yemen, where they have established a repressive proto-state. It is estimated that between 2015 and 2022 more than 377,000 people have died in the conflict, 60% due to hunger or lack of medical care. In April 2022, Mansur Hadi resigned, giving way to a seven-member Presidential Council chaired by Rashad al Alimi, a pro-Saudi figure. The war, despite attempts to negotiate a peace, remains latent. The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 and the Israeli offensive on Gaza have reactivated the militia’s attacks and put the Yemeni conflict back on the map.

The Houthis, whose official name is Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), ideologically converge with Iran’s interests in the Middle East and with its confrontation against the United States. Its slogan “God is Great. Death to America. Death to Israel. Down with the Jews. Victory for Islam”, coincides in terms with the historical slogans of the Islamic Republic. Not in vain did Hussein al-Huzi take Ayatollah Khomeini and Hezbollah as “models of resistance,” remember Francisco Veiga, Leyla Hamad Zahonero and Ignacio Gutiérrez de Terán in their book Yemen, the forgotten key to the Arab World (Alianza Editorial). The war unleashed since the early 2000s dragged rival regional powers – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates versus Iran – into a proxy war that stopped being buried as of 2015. The Houthi militia is part of the Axis of Resistance that aligns pro-Iran armed groups in the region, with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and Shiite militias in Iraq.

The Houthis are credited with transforming into a sophisticated militia with a vast arsenal. They have long-range drones (up to 2,000 km), capable of reaching targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They have even launched themselves against Eilat, in Israel, although they were intercepted. They are also credited with Sayyad and Sejjil cruise missiles and medium-range ballistic missiles, some of them with a range of up to 1,000 km. They have deployed kamikaze boats to attack ships in the Arabian Sea and have sea mines. Some of the systems that use these weapons are reportedly smuggled from Iran, but most of the components are manufactured on Yemeni soil. Those scruffy guerrillas are now engineers who assemble their own drones and build their own missiles, after receiving training from the Revolutionary Guards in Iran or Lebanon.

The Houthis have the capacity to carry out multiple attacks with missiles and drones and have reached the Riyadh airport, Aramco oil company facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia and even the Formula One circuit with them. According to a Saudi report Saudi, from 2015 to 2022, the Ansar Allah militia had launched 430 ballistic missiles and 851 suicide drones against the kingdom. They have also developed tactics to combat at sea, at first unsophisticated RPG attacks, but now they are capable of boarding and hijacking ships like the one carried out on November 19 against the Galaxy Leader, whose owner is an Israeli. The ship and its crew are detained in the port of Hodeida. They use 10-meter long patrol boats donated by the Emirates to the Yemeni coast guard in 2010. In 2017 they attacked the Saudi frigate Al Madina with one of them. Therefore, the threat is real and has already been felt. Since October 7 to date, the Houthis have launched twenty cruise missiles against Israel, the vast majority intercepted by US ships, and carried out at least 27 attacks against merchant ships, causing large shipping companies, including Maersk, have redirected their routes to avoid the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal, the shortest route between Europe and Asia. Insecurity has increased prices per container between China and the Mediterranean by 44% this December. The Suez Canal concentrates 12% of the commercial flow and 30% of the world’s container traffic.

As part of the so-called Axis of Resistance, the Houthis play in the Middle East chess as a disruptive force to be taken into account in the Israeli offensive against their Hamas allies. According to Ansar Allah, their attacks will only stop when Israel lets humanitarian aid into Gaza. But the intention may go further: to inflict economic damage on Israel and its allies for the duration of the Gaza offensive. At the same time, championing the Palestinian cause would make the movement popular at home and give them notoriety in their subregion against their enemies. With the Red Sea becoming a new front in the war between Israel and Hamas, the United States announced in December a flotilla to ensure navigation through the enclave. Following the US move, Houthi leader Abdel Malek al Huzi warned that his militia “will not sit idly by” if the US attacks Yemen. “We will not kneel before the Americans,” he added. Now, with the US bombing this morning against Houthi targets in Yemen, the threat of a regional conflict appears to be materializing. The Houthis have promised to respond and warn Washington and London that they will pay “a high price” and suffer retaliation for what they describe as “flagrant aggression.”