Yemen: A Slogan and Six Wars

Khaled Fattah

Yemen, the weakest, least developed and most tribal Middle Eastern state is battling for the sixth time a Shi’ite Zaydi rebellion in the mountainous north bordering Saudi Arabia.

The violent rebellion is drawing the attention of regional and international actors to the formidable set of threats confronting the sole republic in the Arabian Peninsula. In addition to the Zaydi rebels in the north, Yemen’s central government is struggling with secessionists in the south, al-Qaeda militants in the east, and Somali pirates off the coast.

A large number of media reports on the northern rebellion have caused a political and security storm by highlighting the possibility that the Zaydi revolt is a proxy ideological war between the Saudi monarchy and the Iranian regime. The Yemeni government has deployed all its resources of coercion to quell the insurgency, and has launched an intensive campaign of accusations against Iran, Hezbollah of Lebanon and the Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr claiming that they are funneling money, weapons and moral support to the rebels.

On August 31, Yemen’s Foreign Minister Abu-Bakr al-Qirbi summoned the Iranian envoy in Sana’a to submit a formal protest against the alleged Iranian support for the rebels. As a result, the impression developing outside Yemen is that Sana’a is under an attack from a so called “Shi’ite axis” in the Middle East.

An alternative reading of the rebellion
A closer examination of the current crisis in Yemen suggests that the northern Zaydi rebellion, which has been on and off since June 2004, is neither a proxy ideological war between Riyadh and Tehran nor a sectarian war between the Sunni and Shi’ite strains of Islam.

The increasingly isolated regime in Tehran is currently not in a position to open more frontiers of confrontation, and mingling in Yemen’s political affairs carries more risks than opportunities. From a military perspective, for instance, the strong armed presence of the United States and other Western powers in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean – and the tribal context of Yemen – make it very risky for the Iranian regime to make use of the rebellion as a step towards any ambitious plan of achieving control over the Red Sea shipping lanes.

On August 21, the Yemeni government announced that it had discovered six weapons caches in Sa’dah and Amran provinces containing some Iranian-made missiles, explosives and machine guns. These findings have been considered by some media outlets as evidence of Tehran’s direct support for the Zaydi rebels. However, observers of Yemen are well aware of the fact that due to state weakness, civil wars, topography and strong tribal culture, Yemen is one of the most heavily armed countries in the world, with an extensive underground arms market where heavy machine guns and rocket launchers are sold.

Iran’s accusations of intervention by Saudi Arabia in the conflict are also out of context. The extensive, multi-dimensional support of Riyadh to successive Yemen political administrations and tribal leaders was a well-known fact long before the birth of the Zaydi rebellion. Since the 1962 revolution in Yemen, which brought an end to the 10-century-old stagnant theocratic imamate (office of an imam) system, the Saudis have always been very influential players in Yemen’s domestic socio-political arena due to vital geopolitical and national security interests. Riyadh has always acted, and will continue to act, against any serious threat emerging from Yemen.

The current military confrontations are taking place along the largely unpopulated and poorly defined Yemen-Saudi border. It is normal business, therefore, for the two countries to co-operate to prevent the infiltration of al-Qaeda militants, and the smuggling of arms into the kingdom. The recent attempt to assassinate the top Saudi anti-terrorist official, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, was carried out by a wanted Saudi militant who had previously resided in a Yemeni town close to the Saudi border. The incident made it clear that following the vigorous Saudi counter-terrorism campaign, the al-Qaeda network is exploiting worsening instability in Yemen to pose a threat to the Saudi national security.

It is also important to remember that President Ali Abdullah Saleh himself is a Shi’ite Zaydi, and Zaydis – who make up more than one-third of the population – are very well represented at all levels across state institutions, including the security apparatus and the military. Furthermore, a number of Shi’ite Zaydi tribes and clans are fighting alongside government forces against the radical northern rebels. In short, the Iranian-Saudi rivalry cannot be played out in Yemen as it did in Lebanon.

In light of the sparse evidence of a direct Iranian intervention in the conflict, and the clearly false accusation of state-sponsored suppression of Shi’ite’s community in Yemen, the current escalating violence can be better understood not through the prisms of sectarian or regional power struggle, but rather through the broader prism of the turbulent political and security climate that was created by the US-led “war on terror”.

In many parts of the Arab Middle East, particularly in countries with pro-Washington regimes, the consequences of the “war on terror” resulted in further de-legitimization of the ruling elites, further radicalization of opposition groups, and the surfacing of decades-old accumulated feelings of frustration and anger. These feelings are biproducts of political disempowerment, socio-cultural alienation, economic marginalization and a deeply-seated collective sense of subordination and humiliation at the hands of the Western world.

The slogan that energizes the Zaydi northern rebels of Yemen: “God is the Greatest … Death to America and Israel … Victory for Islam and Muslims” is illustrative of how the ramifications of the US and Israeli actions in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza can be extremely wide-ranging. If slogans are effective tools of persuasion that appeal to particular needs, why do these rebels use an anti-US slogan to express their concerns about local problems and concerns such as, for instance, the growing influence of Salafism in Sa’dah province?

How can a mountainous revolt in a remote tribal area in the northern part of Yemen gain much of its appeal from anti-US sloganeering? What is the link between the rebellion in Sa’dah and the consequences of the “war on terror”? To suggest some answers, here is a retrospective view of the international setting that generated the Zaydi rebellion and sustained the mobilization of the rebels during the last five years.

The rebellion’s collective action phase
The current northern Zaydi rebellion has its ideological roots in the activities of a Zaydi group that called itself al-Shabab al-Mum’en (the Believing or Faithful Youth). The establishment and organization of the group passed through two evolutionary phases: collective action and militant response. The collective action phase started in 1990, as an outcome of party pluralism and the lifting of restrictions on association and expression, which were the cornerstones of Yemen’s north-south unification project.

The choice of the province of Sa’dah, 240 kilometers north of the capital Sana’a, as the power base of the group is obvious. Sa’dah is the ancient learning and political seat of the Zaydi school of thought. Zaydism is one of Yemen’s three main branches of Shi’ism, together with Twelver Shi’ism and the Isma’ili branch. It is distinguished from the other two branches by being confined to Yemen and closer to Sunni Islam than other strands of Shi’ism. Zaydism is so close to the Sunni strand that some Shi’ite groups refer to it as the fifth school of Sunni jurisprudence. It shares, however, one of the important aspects of the Shi’ite belief: an imamate vested in descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

During the collective action phase, activities of the group were concentrated inside summer centers, where religious lectures, debates, theater performances, and sport events were held on a daily basis. In the absence of job opportunities and a lack of government facilities for the youth during the summer holidays, these centers became popular destinations for students not only from Sa’dah but also from other governorates and towns that are historically known to have a traditional sense of Zaydi belonging, for example, Hajah and Amran.

Within a few years, 24 of these centers were established in Sa’dah and 43 in nine other governorates. According to a number of reports, these centers co-opted between 15,000 to 18,000 students in Sa’dah province alone. The centers were administered by a board of management, comprised of six members.

The success of al-Shabab al-Mum’en in the collective action phase is attributed to the zealous reaction of Zaydi youth to the ideological and identity challenge posed by the Salafist movement in Sa’dah – the heart and mind of Zaydism. Such a challenge was crystallized since the establishment of the so-called Dammaj center for conventional Salafis.

The Salafi center was under the management of Sheikh Moqbil Hadi Al-Wade’i, the founder of Salafism in Yemen. The late sheikh, who died in 2002, was a very strong critic of all shades of Shi’ite doctrine. In his sermons, books and cassettes, he often accused the Shi’ites of being heretics who propagate non-Islamic superstitious beliefs and practices.

In the early 1990s, the Zaydi-Salafi ideological clash in Sa’dah reached a dramatic level when Salafis attempted to take over the mosque of Razih – the major mosque of al-Shabab al-Mum’en. The Salafi-Zaydi confrontations intensified and were described by some authors as “the clash of fundamentalism”. In the collective action phase, the Zaydi movement in the northern part of Yemen took the form of a defensive social movement, which had the Salafists as the challenging group and Sa’dah province as its constituency. Despite its massive success, however, the movement did not grow into a powerful grassroots Islamic organization such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

The militant phase
In 1999, the Zaydi summer religious centers began to be classified into moderate and conservative ones. The latter were headed by Hussein Badraddin al-Houthi, the founder of the radical Houthi group, the son of an influential Zaydi cleric, and a former member of the Yemeni parliament in 1993-97.

In some cases, the moderate-conservative typology took place even inside the same center. One year later, a formal split between the centers took place, and the board of management was no longer capable of administering the centers. The split of the centers highlighted the division within the Zaydi Shi’a elite in Yemen.

Armed with his rebellious and charismatic personality, and inspired by the revolutionary ideas of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the organizational strategies of Hassan Nasrallah, al-Houthi began to radicalize a growing number of Zaydi youth.

In 2003, Yemen’s central authority was alarmed by Al-Houthi activities when his followers began to shout “Death to America” inside and outside the capital city’s grand mosque after Friday prayers. In Sa’dah, al-Houthi followers wrote their anti-US slogan on the walls of buildings, including government offices, and distributed leaflets, which contained accusations directed at the governor of Sa’dah of him being a Central Intelligence Agency agent, and at the government of Sana’a of being an ally to the US in the “war on terror” against the Muslim world.

President Saleh was placed in a quandary after the September 11, 2001, attacks by Washington’s language of “for or against”, and the Pentagon’s perception of Yemen as possibly another Afghanistan that might have to be invaded. To save his country and regime, Saleh had to offer his cooperation, despite the widespread anti-US sentiment that has intensified in Yemen since the launching of the “war on terror”. In the capital city and in the Sa’dah governorate, the authorities began arresting hundreds of al-Houthi’s anti-US slogan chanters.

According to Hassan Zaid, secretary-general of the Zaydi opposition party, al-Haq, Yemen’s security agencies thought that if today the followers of al Houthi chanted “Death to America”, tomorrow they could be chanting “Death to the president of Yemen”. After Sa’dah, al-Houthi began to mobilize the northern population with the objective of de-legitimizing the central authority. In his speeches, al-Houthi encouraged the population to stop paying all sorts of taxes to the central authority. Saleh’s government attempted a number of times, through the use of peaceful traditional mediation techniques, to diffuse the tension. Its attempts, however, were unsuccessful.

The Houthi defiance to Sana’a escalated to the extent that his followers blocked the vital highway to the capital city, occupied local government offices, took over strategic positions on several mountain tops, and started adopting guerilla and militia tactics.

Sana’a had to react. On June 18, 2004, clashes between al-Houthi militia forces and the Yemeni army ensued. The military operation against al-Houthi, however, did not go as quickly as expected. The few hundred rebels showed a fierce resistance, and tens of troops were reported dead. Although government troops succeeded in killing Hussein al-Houthi, the violent insurgency did not come to an end.

During the past five years, since the first round of confrontations, there have been five fierce armed clashes with an increasing number of al-Houthi recruits, led by Abdel Malik, the younger brother of the deceased Hussien al-Houthi. With every new round of confrontation, clashes increase in their intensity, scope and repercussions, and new grievances are provoked, thereby multiplying the points of conflict.

The six confrontations resulted in thousands of casualties and tens of thousands of displaced civilians. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the current clashes, which began on the August 12, have displaced an estimated 50,000 people. This brings the total number of internally displaced persons in the northern governorates since the first round of confrontations in 2004 to 150,000.

The destructive power of a slogan
Slogans are headlines crowded with meaning. The more correctly the slogan expresses the dissatisfaction and suffering of the people, the more effective it will be in mobilizing latent emotions. Observers of the Houthi rebellion are puzzled by the centrality of the anti-US slogan in the hearts and minds of the rebels.

Some reports describe how al-Houthi followers in prison refuse to pledge to the authority to stop chanting the slogan in return for their release from prison. History of this stubborn insistence on chanting the slogan dates back to the January 17, 2002, when the slain Hussein al-Houthi began chanting it in one of his sermons that took place in al-Imam al-Hadi school in Ma’ran, Sa’dah province. In the sermon, he appealed to the people to do something in the face of what he called “the massive American arrogance”.

“For how long more should we keep doing nothing in response to the American arrogance,” al-Houthi asked his followers. In answering the question, he made the following statement which ignited the followers: “I say to you, my brothers, shout! Don’t you have the ability to shout: God is the Greatest … Death to America and Israel …Victory for Islam and Muslims? Don’t you think that it is possible for every one of you to make this shout? This shout is a great honor for us to have, right here in this school.

“By making this shout now, we will be the first who made the shout, which, is sure, will be made not only in this hall but also in other places. With God’s will, you shall find those who will make the shout with you in other places. Make this shout with me: Death to America and Israel.”

Since this sermon, the anti-US shout has turned into a holy slogan for al-Houthi followers, and it has become an integral part of their educational and religious ceremonies, including at Friday’ prayer.

Abdel Malik al-Houthi, who currently assumes operational leadership of the rebellion, said in a May 9, 2005, interview that the slogan is the direct reason behind all the successive events that took place. He justified the continuation of chanting the slogan, arguing that it is the least he and his followers can do in confronting “the American crusade against the Muslim world”.

What do we learn?
Conflicts generate junctures from which we can learn. The complex and multi-layered conflict in the northern governorates of Yemen teaches us how anti-US and anti-Israeli sentiments in the region are serving as an umbrella for sheltering local demands, and as a catalyst for mobilizing local communities against their own central governments.

The conflict teaches us, also, that the actions of the United States in the post-9/11 world have contributed significantly in mobilizing insurgencies, and not only in Iraq. Although al-Houthis are fierce opponents of radical and militant Sunni groups such as al-Qaeda, they both share a fierce hostility to US policies in the Middle East. Visitors to remote areas in Yemen will be quizzed by average tribespeople on US and Israeli actions in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.

In the 21st century, Arab satellite television brought to tribesmen of Yemen the images of tortured and sexually abused Iraqi prisoners, brutal destruction of south Lebanon and besieged Palestinian families sitting in front of their bombarded or bull-dozed homes. The restructuring of the current international and regional order in the Middle East has become very essential for diffusing local conflicts, even if such conflicts are taking place in a remote tribal area in the mountainous north of Yemen.

Khaled Fattah is a researcher at the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews, United Kingdom. This article was first published on Asia Times and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and should not be regarded as reflecting the views of Conflicts Forum.


  1. Edward Smith wrote:

    What a great in-depth analysis of the Zaydi rebellion in Yemen. The article of Khaled Fattah made me understand many of the unclear aspects of the current violence in Yemen.

  2. Kathleen Barnett wrote:

    Very informative, well-written and thought-provoking article. Thanks!

  3. Kristine Fred wrote:

    This article is an illuminative and creative piece of work. Before reading Dr. Fattah’ article, I was unable, like many other observers of the Shiite rebellion in Yemen, to trace and fully understand the roots and dynamics of the rebellion. A Slogan and Six Wars opened a big window to me. Many thanks for publishing it.

  4. Rolf G. wrote:

    Excellent article!The external factor in mobilizing conflicts in the Middle East is often downplayed. The analysis of Dr. Khaled Fattah illustrates in a talented way the relation between the war on terror and insurgencies in the region.

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