Yemen’s Parallel War in Cyberspace

Persistent contact with fake news disrupts even stable societies—but in war zones, it can be lethal.

By , a principal at the SecDev Group and co-founder of the Igarapé Institute.
Radio station in Yemen
Radio station in Yemen
Yemeni talk-show hosts chat as they record a program at the Somara FM radio station’s studio in Sana’a, Yemen, on Feb. 13, 2021. MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images

Yemen’s horrifying civil war is paralleled by a second conflict in the information space—in digital and traditional media and over control of the internet itself. Amid the world’s worst humanitarian crisis—one that has claimed as many as 377,000 lives and forced another 4 million to flee—is an infodemic of online misinformation, disinformation, hate speech, and extremism that is undermining what little trust remains after seven years of conflict. These digital harms are not only slowing efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but by deepening antagonisms among Yemenis, they are also eroding prospects for a durable peaceful settlement.

Yemen is the armed conflict everyone is trying to forget. Civil war was triggered in 2014 and quickly turned into a regional proxy conflict after Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents seized the capital, Sanaa. After the Houthis forced then-President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his administration to resign in 2015, a coalition of Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, intervened on his behalf, launching a merciless campaign of airstrikes and economic blockades. Successive peace deals and political arrangements failed to take hold, with both the Houthi-Iranian side and the government-Saudi side intent on delivering a military victory. Meanwhile, the Houthis stepped up their irregular campaign against Saudi Arabia using missiles, drones, and naval mines—mainly supplied by Iran and its proxies—to disrupt Saudi oil supply chains.

Unsurprisingly, sustained chaos in Yemen has turned it into a magnet for violent extremists. The country is hardly a stranger to terrorism: The bombing of the U.S.S. Cole as the warship was refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000 brought al Qaeda to global attention a year before the 9/11 attacks. Since then, groups ranging from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State’s Yemen affiliate to Iranian-backed entities such as Hezbollah have consolidated their influence there, including in Yemeni cyberspace. For its part, the United States has launched hundreds of airstrikes in Yemen since 2011, though it paused U.S.-Saudi intelligence sharing, logistics cooperation, and arms sales in 2021.

Yemen’s horrifying civil war is paralleled by a second conflict in the information space—in digital and traditional media and over control of the internet itself. Amid the world’s worst humanitarian crisis—one that has claimed as many as 377,000 lives and forced another 4 million to flee—is an infodemic of online misinformation, disinformation, hate speech, and extremism that is undermining what little trust remains after seven years of conflict. These digital harms are not only slowing efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but by deepening antagonisms among Yemenis, they are also eroding prospects for a durable peaceful settlement.

Yemen is the armed conflict everyone is trying to forget. Civil war was triggered in 2014 and quickly turned into a regional proxy conflict after Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents seized the capital, Sanaa. After the Houthis forced then-President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his administration to resign in 2015, a coalition of Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, intervened on his behalf, launching a merciless campaign of airstrikes and economic blockades. Successive peace deals and political arrangements failed to take hold, with both the Houthi-Iranian side and the government-Saudi side intent on delivering a military victory. Meanwhile, the Houthis stepped up their irregular campaign against Saudi Arabia using missiles, drones, and naval mines—mainly supplied by Iran and its proxies—to disrupt Saudi oil supply chains.

Unsurprisingly, sustained chaos in Yemen has turned it into a magnet for violent extremists. The country is hardly a stranger to terrorism: The bombing of the U.S.S. Cole as the warship was refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000 brought al Qaeda to global attention a year before the 9/11 attacks. Since then, groups ranging from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State’s Yemen affiliate to Iranian-backed entities such as Hezbollah have consolidated their influence there, including in Yemeni cyberspace. For its part, the United States has launched hundreds of airstrikes in Yemen since 2011, though it paused U.S.-Saudi intelligence sharing, logistics cooperation, and arms sales in 2021.

Meanwhile, another kind of war is playing out over Yemen, but this time it’s in cyberspace. Early in the conflict, the Houthis gained control of the “.ye” domain, which Yemeni websites can use instead of “.com.” They also took control of the local internet service provider, YemenNet, in order to filter content and manage national websites. Over time, they restricted internet usage. censored sites, and disrupted social media, including access to popular platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The Houthis also oversaw influence campaigns designed to mobilize international support against Saudi attacks, U.S. airstrikes, and what they described as a Saudi-U.S.-Israeli conspiracy against them. Described by locals as a “soft war,” pro-Houthi platforms are spewing out documentaries, media stories, satirical cartoons, and online posts to win over the public. In order to short-circuit foreign attempts to derail their propaganda efforts, Houthis cut undersea cables with Iranian support and even started mining cryptocurrency to finance their operations.

Yemen is emerging as a testing ground for humanitarian efforts to strengthen digital hygiene and deter harms amid an ongoing civil war.

These efforts to control the Yemeni information space have bolstered the Houthi cause abroad and strengthened their legitimacy domestically. Today, Yemenis living in Houthi-dominated areas are more likely to trust Houthi news outlets or view statements from Houthi authorities as reliable, even if they are demonstrably false. A survey conducted by DT Global last year found that respondents in Houthi-held areas considered Al-Masirah, a Houthi mouthpiece banned in several countries outside Yemen, among the most reliable media outlets. An earlier survey in 2020 determined that almost 80 percent of those living in Houthi-held areas trusted their local officials, as compared to just around a quarter in government-held territories. For the Houthis, media control appears to be paying off.

The Hadi government countered Houthi moves in 2018 by starting its own internet provider, AdenNet, to wrest control from YemenNet. Based in Saudi Arabia, run through Huawei routers, and independent of Yemen-based submarine cables, AdenNet promised high-speed fiber-optic internet access at lower prices than its rival. The company found willing customers, especially after YemenNet hiked prices, but coverage is still comparatively limited. Like its rival, AdenNet offers no evidence of privacy policies or terms of service, worrying potential users. Not surprisingly, reliance on virtual private networks has increased among tech-savvy Yemenis who are trying to circumvent intrusive surveillance and frequent internet blackouts.

Competition over control of the telecommunication and information sector is poisoning the country’s conventional and social media landscape. Yemeni news networks are deeply polarized, and most citizens outside Houthi-controlled areas are losing faith in the objectivity and truthfulness of domestic media outlets. Research conducted by DT Global and Ark, a human rights organization, suggests that a majority of Yemenis believe that most television, radio, and print media are misrepresenting stories about the county’s security situation, peace negotiations, and economy. Many also don’t trust local coverage of COVID-19, and conspiracy theories about the virus and vaccines abound. In Houthi-held areas, however, a majority of residents believed the information they were supplied was reliable despite the spread of demonstrably false information from Houthi officials about the virus.

As we all know by now, persistent contact with fake news is disruptive even in stable contexts. In war zones, it can be lethal. Access to reliable information is essential to avoid violent confrontation, access relief aid, and eventually build peace and reconciliation.

Disparaging independent media is a common tactic in conflict zones. But this seems to have been taken to a new level in Yemen. During the first few years of the country’s civil war, the leader of the Houthi rebels described media workers as “more dangerous” than the armed forces they were fighting. The goal of all warring parties is to control the narrative. By reducing access to and slandering international and local news providers, opposing groups can ensure civilians are kept in the dark and more vulnerable to influence operations. To spread their own propaganda, the Houthis have created a virtual monopoly on information, including print and broadcast media, in the areas under their control.

Social media, too, is a critical front in any 21st-century battlespace. Yemen has roughly 3.2 million social media users, roughly 10 percent of the population; more than two-thirds of those are on Facebook, 24 percent regularly use YouTube, and a much smaller proportion is on Twitter. Campaigns to demonize particular sides in the conflict abound and have metastasized into attacks on various social groups. Researchers have documented not just infiltration of WhatsApp groups but also a disconcerting rise in offensive and inflammatory speech targeting atheists, Bahais, Jews, and others.

Extremist groups are taking advantage of deepening fragmentation and polarization across Yemen’s digital ecosystem in order to build profile and influence. One researcher estimates that over 50 percent of tweets supposedly coming from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula draw attention to the group’s supposed community development outreach, an effort to present it as a legitimate alternative to the beleaguered Hadi government. Since the United States declared the Houthis a terrorist organization in 2021, anti-Houthi social media campaigns have also emerged across the country. The truth, however, is that the full extent and origin of hateful and extremist content are not yet fully understood.

Yemen is emerging as a testing ground for humanitarian efforts to strengthen digital hygiene and deter harms amid an ongoing civil war. UNESCO is supporting a local organization, Dakkh, to counter hate speech and promote unity. It is also funding the Media Association for Peace to train Yemeni journalists to fight disinformation. Two organizations I co-founded, SecDev Group and SecDev Foundation, are working with local grassroots partners to shine a light on the ways social media platforms are amplifying digital harms, including by deploying tools to detect and disrupt the harmful spread of misinformation and disinformation in Yemen. A similar example is SalamaTech, a platform launched in 2012 to provide Syrian front-line responders, including youth and women’s groups, with digital safety audits and real-time remediation.

While they may not resolve underlying tensions, these kinds of digital humanitarian response mechanisms can help inform and empower affected communities and their networks by providing them with accurate and vetted information. Access to trusted journalists and online networks sharing reliable information can improve humanitarian action through targeted communication campaigns and expansion of services to reach the most vulnerable, while also strengthening digital peace dialogues and both local and United Nations-backed peace negotiations.

Fortunately, a generation of tech-savvy Yemini activists is taking the lead in pushing back against digital harms. Young Yemenis are leveraging Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok to advocate for more attention to the crisis. Some users are weaving hard facts and figures about the armed conflict into catchy mini-videos reaching hundreds of thousands of viewers. Their efforts—together with outside support to bolster trusted networks and promote awareness of online influence operations—will help Yemenis build immunity against the digital warfare that is inflaming local grievances and prolonging the conflict.

Ahmed Alqarout, an analyst at SecDev Group, contributed to this article.

Robert Muggah is a principal at the SecDev Group, a co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, and the author, with Ian Goldin, of Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years. Twitter: @robmuggah

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