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New Documentary Goes Inside Yemen’s Houthi Rebel Movement

Journalist Safa Al Ahmad provides an intimate portrait of a misunderstood and hugely important rebel group.

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In an early, memorable scene of an intimate new documentary about Yemen’s Houthi rebels, a Houthi official storms into the office of a deputy finance minister and demands that he sign an order authorizing an investigation into money misappropriated by the previous government. The nonplussed minister signs the document being waved around, but the farce is plain for all to see: While styling themselves as austere crusaders against corruption, the Houthis are not that much different than Yemen’s previous venal rulers.

Since overrunning large parts of Yemen last year, including the capital, Sanaa, the Houthis could make a compelling case for being the world’s most misunderstood militia movement. They practice a religion that’s most frequently described as an offshoot of Shiism, but are doctrinally closer to Sunni Islam. They are maligned as an Iranian proxy group, and while there may be some truth to the claim, it’s usually vastly overstated.

This band of fighters has emerged from Yemen’s impoverished north to become the country’s most effective fighting force, though in Yemen that isn’t saying much. And as the Yemeni state has crumbled in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution that ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis find themselves with power, territory, and huge quantities of military power.

Amid this heady brew of state collapse, guerrilla warfare, and a regional military intervention comes journalist Safa Al Ahmad’s film, The Fight for Yemen, which traces the group’s origins from its internecine wars with the government during the early 2000s to its current experiment with power. For a group so frequently misunderstood, Ahmad’s film is a revelation, both for its remarkable footage of the Houthi movement and for its clear-eyed perspective on Yemen’s politics and future.

Last month, Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of air strikes against the Houthi rebels. The conflict in Yemen is now being sold primarily as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which obscures more than reveals the dynamics of the brewing civil war. The Houthis have been widely accused of serving as Iranian proxies in Yemen, and Saudi officials have described their offensive as an effort to repel Iranian influence to their south.

But evidence of Iranian support is scant, and Saudi officials have rarely backed up their claims with any specificity that Tehran is wholly underwriting the Houthi movement. “The Houthis have local problems and local powers. They don’t need Iranians to bring them weapons. They’re awash in weapons,” Ahmad said. “I’m not saying that there isn’t a relationship, but it’s overplayed.”

Indeed, the conflict in Yemen is a mostly local one that constantly risks being overtaken by geopolitical concerns — and none of them more suffocating than the U.S. war on terror.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group that Washington describes as the terrorist group’s most dangerous spinoff, calls Yemen its home and has found a safe haven in the country’s ungoverned deserts, mountains, and caves. With the Yemeni state evaporating, AQAP stands to benefit. The group thrives in ungoverned spaces, and renewed fighting will probably provide it with additional weapons, funds, and allies. At the same time, the collapse of the Yemeni government has severely hampered the ability of the United States to carry out air strikes and special forces raids against AQAP.

“The Houthis are the most functional of the groups fighting al Qaeda,” Ahmad told Foreign Policy. “In a strange way they’re the natural ally against them.”

But that’s not to say that the Houthis would welcome getting into bed with Uncle Sam. The current Houthi movement is a young one, with its origins in the early 2000s, and was founded in a spirit of Zaidi grievance — the group has governed northern Yemen for about a thousand years during its history — and an amalgamation of anti-imperialist rhetoric. Their slogan appears everywhere in Ahmad’s film, both spray-painted on city walls and on the lips of young children: “God is Great; Death to America; Death to Israel; Damnation to the Jews; Victory to Islam.” A key tenet of Zaidi thought is the right to rebel against unjust rule.

Fearing the group and its historical appeal to the imamate that once governed northern Yemen, the Saleh government — the one ousted in 2011 — launched six wars in the last decade against the group, and the Houthis emerged from these conflicts as a capable fighting force. If they weren’t founded as an overt militant group, they became one during constant fighting with the central government. The group’s founder, Hussein al-Houthi, was killed in 2004 by the government and is now regarded as a martyr by the Houthis. Ahmad’s film includes remarkable footage from his home and the cave in which he was killed that now functions as a Houthi shrine.

Hussein al-Houthi is a complicated and controversial figure, and the ideology he promulgated as the basis of the current Houthi movement is one that Ahmad says is both inspired by the Iranian revolution and informed by a distinctly conspiratorial line of thinking. In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, Hussein al-Houthi became convinced that the attacks were an American and Zionist plot to provide a pretext to attack the Muslim world.

That’s not to say the Houthis are through and through internationalists. The Houthi stronghold in the north, Sadah province, is Yemen’s most impoverished. It lacks schools, jobs, and development, and it is difficult to see how the militant movement would have emerged from the area without a foundation in these local grievances. (Sadah is also stunningly beautiful, and Ahmad’s film is filled with ravishing shots of Yemen’s mountainous north.)

While the Houthis have pointed toward their anti-imperialist slogan as evidence of their non-sectarian nature, Ahmad’s film raises questions about their commitment to that principle. Ahmad interviews a non-Houthi preacher dismissed by the Houthis from his mosque, and the group has tried to control such religious institutions in an effort to consolidate power.

And the Houthis have not shied from exacting revenge on their enemies and violently putting down their opposition. Ahmad’s film is replete with examples of houses demolished by Houthi forces and includes an unforgettable scene in which two dust-covered children stop her car while passing through a village and ask her to film a house they say was destroyed by Houthi fighters. “Film this! We’re already famous,” one of the children says.

As fighting continues in Yemen, that sectarian divide, once a fiction, is threatening to become a reality, as the region’s geopolitical conflicts become grafted on to a local fight. Sunni tribesmen appear in the film as opponents to Houthi rule, and these are groups that Saudi Arabia is now likely backing as it intervenes in Yemen. It’s a spiral the next turn of which is easy to deduce: more violence.

The Fight for Yemen airs tonight on PBS’s Frontline.

FRONTLINE

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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