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Who are Yemen’s Houthis? Group that claimed attack on UAE fuel tankers that killed 2 Indians

The Houthis are an insurgent group who control most of the northern part of war-torn Yemen and largely follow the Zaydi sect of Shi'a Islam.

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New Delhi: Yemen’s Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility for two suspected drone attacks in the United Arab Emirates Monday, one of which killed three people at an oil facility, while the other caused a fire at Abu Dhabi International Airport.

Police identified two of the dead as Indian nationals and the other as Pakistani. Six others were injured. 

The Houthis are an insurgent group who control most of the northern part of war-torn Yemen and largely follow the Zaydi sect of Shi’a Islam.

While the Abu Dhabi police did not disclose any potential suspects for Monday’s attack, Yahya Sare’e, the Houthis’ military spokesman, tweeted that the group had launched a military operation “in the depth of UAE” and would announce details in the coming hours. 

The UAE has been involved in Yemen’s ongoing civil war since 2015, when it joined a Saudi-led coalition that launched an intervention after the Iranian-backed Houthis captured Sana’a and overthrew Yemen’s internationally recognised government. Although the UAE has now withdrawn most of its own troops, it maintains indirect support for anti-Houthi forces in Yemen.

The Houthis have launched several attacks in retaliation, and captured a UAE-flagged cargo ship on 3 January. 

In Monday’s attack, three petroleum storage tankers caught fire after being struck by one of the blasts at a site of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Co, some 22 kilometres from Abu Dhabi.

The other attack, described as “minor” by the police, reportedly took place at an extension of Abu Dhabi International Airport that’s still under construction, and disrupted a few flights before normal operations resumed.  


Also read: Why Saudi Arabia is reaching out to Iran


Houthis and Zaydism

The Houthis are part of a Shi’ite minority group, Zaydis, and originate from a large clan in Yemen’s northwestern Saada province. The Zaydis make up around 35 per cent of Yemen’s population

The Zaydi form of Shi’ism emerged in the aftermath of Zayd ibn Ali’s rebellion against the Ummayyad Caliphate in the 8th century. Zayd was a great-grandson of the Caliph Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, who is revered as the first Imam in Shi’a Islam. 

Unlike other Shi’ites, Zaydis believe that Zayd was the rightful Imam due to his actions in taking the initiative against unjust rule, and they do not attribute any supernatural qualities or infallibility to imams. 

Zaydi rule in Yemen was established by Al-Hadi ila’l-Haqq Yahya at the close of the 9th century, and a Zaydi monarchy survived in the northern part of the country for more than 1,000 years.

However, the Zaydi monarchy ceased to exist in 1962 after Egyptian-trained military officers inspired by the Pan-Arab nationalism of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser deposed the monarch’s last heir, Crown Prince Muhammad al-Badr, and established Yemen Arab Republic. 

South Yemen had historically been separate, part of different Arab emirates and sultanates before being taken over by the British, who in turn were expelled in 1967. A new socialist state, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, was then formed, and this merged with the northern Yemen Arab Republic in 1990 to form the modern state, the Republic of Yemen.

Zaydi republican general Ali Abdullah Saleh — who had participated in the Nasserist-inspired army coup of 1962 — came to power as the new country’s first president, from Yemeni unification on 22 May 1990 to his resignation on 25 February 2012. 

What are Houthis demanding in Yemen? 

Ever since the 1962 coup, owing to their ties to the former regime, the Zaydis have reportedly been subjected to repression, with the state-sponsored rise of Sunni reformists in the country who viewed Zaydis as ‘religious renegades’.

In the early 1980s, the government encouraged branches of Sunni Islam — Salafis and Wahhabis — to move into the heart of the Zaydis’ bastions.

In the 1990s, a group of clerics led by Sheikh Abdul Majid al Zindani founded various teaching institutes, dubbed “scientific institutes”, in the Zaydis’ heartland, and “indoctrinated students in Salafist teachings inspired by Wahhabism, the strict ideology imported from neighbouring Saudi Arabia”. In less than three decades, this trend resulted in the population of Yemeni Salafists growing large enough to compete with older groups such as the Zaydis. 

The Houthis emerged as a Zaydi revivalist theological ‘Believing Youth’ movement in the 1990s, holding schools and summer camps, before developing into an armed insurgency in the 2000s.


Also read: How the US is getting a reality check in Yemen with its Iran-backed rebels


Turning point: Killing of Hussein al-Houthi

The invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003 “deeply radicalised” the Houthi movement and the group then started calling itself “Ansar Allah”, or supporters of God, and came up with the slogan, “God is great, death to the U.S., death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam”. 

The year 2004 marked a turning point in the Houthi movement when President Saleh, with support from the Saudis, launched a series of military campaigns in Houthi-dominated Saada province, leading to the killing of insurgent leader Hussein al-Houthi and 20 of his aides in Marran province. 

Another major event took place in 2014-15 when Houthi rebels took over the government in Sana’a with the help of former president Saleh, overthrowing the rule of Saleh’s successor, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. 

Since 2015, the Houthis have gained control of most of the northern part of Yemen and have resisted the Saudi-led military intervention by launching missile and drone attacks against Saudi cities. 

President Hadi’s regime is now based out of the southern port of Aden, but even in the south, the government faces a challenge from the Southern Transitional Council, which has supported the former against the Houthis but wants an independent South Yemen once more.

Who supports the Houthis?

The Saudi-led coalition has regularly accused Iran — which supports other Shi’ite insurgent groups abroad, as in Lebanon (Hezbollah), and which is Sunni Saudi Arabia’s chief rival in the region — of supplying the Houthis with sophisticated weapons.

On 9 January, The Wall Street Journal reported that the United Nations had found that thousands of weapons recently seized in the Arabian Sea had their likely origin in an Iranian port, showing that Tehran is exporting arms to Yemen and elsewhere. 

Saudi Arabia has also accused Lebanese militant group Hezbollah of training Houthi insurgents, who are said to look up to them as “role models” for having successfully ousted the Israeli army from their country. 

Both Tehran and Hezbollah have denied these allegations time and again. 

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)


Also read: Why Iran won’t smile for long about Taliban becoming new neighbour in Afghanistan


 

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