The World Is Not Taking the Houthis Seriously Enough

Of all the actors that have taken the world stage since October 7, the Houthis are surely the most surprising. Where did they come from and what do they want?

February 22, 2024 | Ari Heistein, Jason M. Brodsky
About the author: Ari Heistein is a business development professional helping innovative Israeli startups break through to the U.S. federal market. Previously, he served as chief of staff and a research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program.
Yemenis protesting the U.S.-led airstrikes and sanctions against Houthis in Sanaa, Yemen on Feb. 16, 2024. Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua via Getty Images.

Of all the actors that have taken the world stage in the months since October 7, the Houthis are surely the most surprising. Formerly an obscure Yemeni militia, they have emerged a highly armed and motivated member of Iran’s Axis of Resistance, putting to shame more famous yet recently more passive partners like Hizballah. Claiming to defend Gaza, the Houthis have effectively halted shipping in the Red Sea, and regularly release videos daring the world to stop them. Many in America, at least, are taking their claims at their word. This is a deep mistake. The Houthis are in fact motivated much more by their own local necessities and regional ambitions than they are by the wellbeing of civilians—or of their Hamas allies—in Gaza. It is therefore far too simplistic to suggest that the Houthis will halt their attacks if Israel and Hamas agree to a ceasefire. The truth of the matter is that, unless countered, their domestic ambitions, coupled with Iran’s broader goals, will make the Houthis a force to be reckoned with in the region irrespective of the Palestinian situation.

To grasp that reality properly, it helps to get a sense of who the Houthis are and how they have gotten here, for they did not simply emerge fully formed in the last year.

The Houthis are a political-religious movement from northern Yemen that began as a 1980s youth movement called the Believing Youth, or al-Shabab al-Mu’minin. Since its founding by Husayn Bader al-Din al-Houthi, a Shiite scholar and activist from the North Yemeni backwater of Saada, the group has re-invented itself numerous times: from a youth movement to a political party known as al-Haqq in the 1990s, from a political party to a guerrilla organization in the early 2000s, and then from a guerrilla organization to a proto-state in the 2010s. During that time, the leadership of the organization was passed from Husayn to his father Bader al-Din al-Houthi after Husayn’s 2004 assassination by the Yemeni military, and then from Bader al-Din to Husayn’s brother Abdelmalik Bader al-Din al-Houthi, who remains in control of the group today. While the group calls itself Ansar Allah, because of this dynastic leadership it is usually referred to by local opponents and the outside world as the Houthis.

The clannish aspect to the Houthis’ rise is not a coincidence or some sort of Orientalist imposition onto current events. It is a critical element for understanding the group’s motives, especially its motives for overthrowing the Yemeni government. The al-Houthi family is one of many Hashemite families in Yemen, all of whom are said to be descended from the prophet Mohammad. Constituting about 5-10 percent of Yemen’s population, such families enjoyed a privileged status in North Yemen until the ruling Imamate was overthrown in 1962. The Yemen Arab Republic, which was founded in the Imamate’s place and supported by President Gamal Nasser of Egypt, did away with the old ruling class and replaced it with a new crop of leaders, many of whom came from the military elite.

Yet by the time the Arab Spring rocked Sanaa, the capital, in 2011, Yemen’s post-1962 leadership had become a hollowed-out collection of plutocrats who lacked a strong base of public support despite their extensive patronage networks. The chaos following the resignation that year of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled for over three decades by that point, presented an opportunity for those seeking power in Yemen. The Houthis, who had already fought six wars against the central government since 2004, had established their anti-government credentials, possessed a Hashemite lineage that connected them to generations of leaders, and were well-organized compared to their competitors. When the interim government reduced petrol subsidies in 2014, the Houthis rode a wave of popular discontent into Sanaa with minimal opposition, forcing the government into exile in its own country. After taking power, the Houthis appointed friends and family to key positions and instituted laws to undo the 1962 revolution, especially by returning the status of the Hashemites to that of a privileged class. This includes the creation of what is tantamount to a Hashemite slush fund powered by a new 20-percent khums tax on certain economic activities. The 1962 military overthrow of the Imamate, formerly a cornerstone of Yemeni civic culture, is no longer celebrated as a holiday in Houthi-controlled areas; those who insist on doing so in public risk the wrath of the Houthi security services.


Accomplishing all this would not have been possible by one group alone. A crucial reason for their success is that, since their birth, the Houthis have been intimately connected to Iran. Inspired by the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the movement positioned itself as a Shiite revivalist organization only a few years after. In the 1990s, Husayn al-Houthi spent several years in Iran, years that, upon his return to Yemen, motivated his early 2000s reinvention of the group as a guerrilla militancy. One obvious feature of the Houthi regime, brought back from Iran at the same time, is its slogan. Known as the “scream,” it announces “Allah is the greatest. Death to America. Death to Israel. A curse upon the Jews. Victory to Islam.” Of course, this sounds quite like the Islamic Republic’s famous chants.

Since the taking of Sanaa a decade ago, it has become apparent that the similarities between the Houthis and the Islamic Republic are not just theoretical or theological but carry over into governance. Both regimes have instituted parallel bureaucracies meant to ensure the ideological commitment of the state apparatuses. In the Islamic Republic, this bureaucracy has been formally institutionalized in the form of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), while in Sanaa it is known as “the supervisory system,” which embeds and empowers Houthi loyalists in almost all places in the territories under Houthi rule; the Houthi supervisors, mushrifin in the local parlance, provide the group eyes and ears into neighborhoods, towns, cities, government bureaucracies, and large companies.

While there are certainly some theological differences between the Houthis, who are Fiver Shiites also known as Zaidis, and the Islamic Republic, which subscribes to Twelver Shiites ideology, those gaps appear to have narrowed over time. The theological divergence between Fivers and Twelvers is based on a dispute over the line of succession of the original Shiite imams in the 8th century, which resulted in differing attitudes toward political leadership, with the former being more activist and the latter more quietist. Fiver Shiites in Yemen were once considered to be similar to some of their Sunni counterparts in terms of Islamic jurisprudence, but their radicalization by the Houthi movement and their virulent anti-Western orientation has created a more natural theological connection with Iran.

Still, Iranian support is mostly based not on ideology or theology but on power politics. Iran gave relatively little support to the Houthis in the 1980s, 1990s, and even 2000s. It was only when the Houthis linked themselves to regional politics and exerted more power in domestic Yemeni dynamics that things changed. When Saudi Arabia began supporting the Yemeni government’s counterinsurgency efforts in 2009, Iran saw an opportunity to weaken its enemy and increased assistance to the Houthis, who were similarly positioned against the Saudis. Then, when the Arab Spring toppled Saleh’s regime in 2012, Iran and Iran-controlled Hizballah worked even more seriously to cultivate their Yemeni counterparts. And when the Houthis took Sanaa in 2014, prompting Saudi Arabia to launch a full-fledged military campaign to reinstall the internationally recognized government, Tehran sent the Houthis additional military advisors and even more money.

Those are the broad strokes of the last decade of Houthi history. Some of the details are also instructive and bring the story up to include Israel and the West. After being protested out of power in 2012, former president Saleh and his loyalists in the security services built an alliance of convenience with the Houthis. Both sides assumed they could use the other to take power, and then dispose of their partner after. The Houthis won; by 2017, their alliance with Saleh collapsed, and they assassinated him. Saleh out of the way, the Houthis embarked on an even more intensive and cooperative relationship with Iran, which sent them precision-guided weaponry capable of hitting targets over 1,000 miles away. This is an unprecedented capability for non-state actors—though who constitutes the Yemeni state at this point is not so clear and as much a matter of opinion as a matter of fact.

For a decade now, a vicious, often stalemated civil war has raged between the Houthis and various Republic of Yemen forces, a war that has at times spilled over the country’s borders. Since 2015, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have supported several anti-Houthi factions within Yemen, but their progress stalled after about three years, leaving the Houthis in control of much of north and west Yemen, areas that include about two-thirds of the nation’s 30 million people. Saudi and Emirati support has, in turn, resulted in thousands of Houthi cross-border attacks against critical infrastructure meant to pressure those countries into withdrawing. Saudi Arabia in particular is seen by the Houthis as a particularly pernicious foe. There has been a lengthy history of border disputes, and Riyadh, considering its much poorer neighbor to be its backyard, has for decades exerted much involvement inside Yemen in the security, political, and tribal realms.

By 2020, however, Saudi Arabia was making good-faith efforts to extricate itself and its coalition partners from the conflict. But well-meaning if poorly advised steps from the Biden administration in early 2021 threw a wrench into such efforts. Biden declared a unilateral end to U.S. support for Riyadh’s offensive operations in Yemen and undid the Houthis’ designation as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), undoing a step made by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the final days of the Trump administration. This policy, by effectively empowering the Houthis, not only stopped Saudi-Houthi peace negotiations, it prompted the Houthis to escalate. By 2022, the Saudis and Houthis agreed not on a negotiated peace but on a ceasefire in order to figure out what appeared to outside observers like a combination of a Saudi surrender and a mafia-style protection fee.

By then, Riyadh was only asking to be left alone. In exchange, it appeared willing to 1) accept the Houthi presence on the Saudi-Yemeni border, to 2) funnel its former adversaries billions of dollars to pay Yemen’s public-sector salaries, including the paychecks for those same Houthi soldiers who had been fighting against Saudi Arabia, and to 3) pay for post-war reconstruction that would line the group’s pockets. Since the ceasefire, however, the Houthis have been in no rush to finalize an agreement. Why would they? They get to enjoy Saudi concessions during the negotiation process while continuously raising the price Saudi Arabia will ultimately need to pay for quiet.

Still, even as their foreign policy was going quite well for the Houthis, their domestic position was eroding. Even after nearly two years of relative quiet on the Yemeni battlefields, by the summer of 2023 the Houthis appeared to be losing public support. The economy was a disaster, sparking unprecedented public protests, and the Houthis could no longer attribute Yemen’s misery to Saudi bombing raids. Casting around for some sort of strategic direction that would allow them to defuse their domestic crisis, or for least a villain to blame the crisis on, the Houthis once again escalated on several lines, increasing their cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia and intensifying their efforts in the civil war. But nothing was working.

And then October 7 dropped into their lap. When Hamas launched its attacks on Israel and kicked off the Gaza war, the Houthis saw a gleaming moment of opportunity. Their villain to blame would be Israel, and attacking it would be their strategic direction, the public stand that would allow them to quiet, if not entirely resolve, their domestic challenges, as well as to prove their indispensability to their patrons in Iran.

So far, they have seized that opportunity spectacularly. In a few months the Houthis have launched missiles at Israel, which have been intercepted by not only the Jewish state but also by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They have, notoriously, harassed commercial shipping in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait between Yemen and Africa. They have even attacked American and allied warships. In sum, the Houthis have entered the regional arena in a significant way, far outperforming other members of Iran’s Axis of Resistance in the intensity of their attacks, the publicity gained, and the economic cost imposed. Tehran, which had unsuccessfully been trying to isolate Israel by encouraging Arab boycotts and economic pressure, has been delighted to use the Houthis as its own tool of economic pressure, forcing changes in global shipping routes and increasing costs for consumers.


In other words, the Houthis are much more motivated in their intervention by what it does for their own position both domestically and in the wider region than by what it does for Gaza. Indeed, if they cared so much about the Palestinians, they could have attacked Israel at any point since they took power a decade ago. Yet not everyone outside the Middle East seems to realize what the Houthis have done and what they are after, preferring instead to take them at their word.

Recent arguments given in the Wall Street Journal by influential foreign-policy voices illustrate this to a disturbing degree. Ali Vaez and Kevin Donegan, an Iran expert and a retired American vice admiral, respectively, claimed that “the most effective way to curtail the Houthi threat is to bring an end to the war in Gaza.” According to Donegan, “That’s the only thing that’s going to allow other things to happen. In the meantime, we can’t allow the Houthis to blow up the global supply chain.” In other words, give the Houthis what they say they want. But what the Houthis want is further conflict, conflict that strengthens them by the day. Otherwise, why would they attack ships that have nothing to do with Israel? In America this is often taken, condescendingly, as a sign of their silliness—look at those ragtag fools who don’t even know they’re attacking non-Israeli ships. But of course the Houthis know whom they’re attacking; they simply and rightly see wanton attacks on civilian ships as a way to make themselves known and to grasp the power and standing that comes with such knowledge.

When understood properly, therefore, the Houthis require America and its allies not to give them what they want to quiet them down—a move that creates terrible incentives for all future actors—but to take them seriously as an adversary that possesses advanced military capabilities and that wants to disrupt the global economy. Such an approach, one based on the Houthis’ real motivations as well as on a normal understanding of incentive-making, would proceed on two timelines.

In the immediate term, there is degradation and deterrence. Targeted assassinations of key Houthi figures would be a good way to throw the group off-balance, and it would avoid unnecessary harm to low-level conscripts, some of whom have been forced into the militia in order to ensure their families have access to international humanitarian assistance, others of whom have been brain-washed for years and then hooked on drugs like captagon to ensure their loyalty.

Yet the immediate response from the U.S. and its allies cannot focus on Houthi targets alone. To deter the attacks, they would need to use force against IRGC targets in Yemen—and Iran. IRGC commanders stationed in Yemen should be hit, most especially Abdolreza Shahlai, the senior commander responsible for Yemen. And so should the IRGC’s spy ship, Behshad, which provides crucial intelligence to the Houthis that enables their maritime attacks. The Behshad has strategically stationed itself near the port of Djibouti in the vicinity of a Chinese military base, which makes the attack a bit tricky, but it’s nothing the U.S. can’t handle. Meanwhile, ports in Iran from which arms flow to the Houthis should be aggressively pursued, as should sites in Iran where the Houthis train, like the Khamenei Academy of Naval Sciences and Technology and the Kashan Air Base, where Houthis have been trained to use advanced drones.

So much for the short term. Over the long term, even after the current spate of Red Sea attacks is over, the Houthi threat will continue to grow so long as the group is in power and supported by Iran. The U.S. thus has an interest in undermining the Houthis internally as well externally to protect international trade, its regional allies, and the Yemeni people.

This means the U.S. and its allies should seek to empower anti-Houthi forces in and around Yemen. That means bolstering Gulf states’ defenses and helping them stand up to the group’s attacks, supporting UAE- and Saudi-backed members of the anti-Houthi coalition within Yemen, including the Southern Transitional Council and the National Resistance Council, and pressuring regional states to expel any Houthi representatives or the families of Houthi officials who are residing in or doing business there. The effort, led by former Obama administration officials in particular, to kneecap U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen helped sow the seeds for Houthi advances on the ground and the lethal threat they pose today in the region.

Since the Yemeni people are both the primary victims of the Houthis and the only people who are capable of replacing them, the U.S. and its allies should seek to break the information bubble and political monopoly that the Houthis have created. They should support organizations or groups that challenge the Houthi regime. They should sanction those individuals in the regime most responsible for terrorizing the Yemeni public, including Abdelqader al-Murtada, who personally oversees the ruthless torture that happens in Houthi prisons. Murtada is just one of many Houthi leaders widely known to be responsible for crimes of unbelievable cruelty, primarily but not exclusively against Yemenis, but who have yet to be held publicly accountable.

The Houthi threat can neither be resolved quickly; nor can it be responsibly ignored. The American-allied world has strong commercial, political, and humanitarian interests in dealing with it, but doing so effectively will require a clear strategy and a long attention span. A solution that temporarily restores quiet but fails to degrade the group and its capabilities is not a solution at all.