How Al Qaeda’s biggest enemy took over Yemen

February 5, 2015
Houthi fighters

Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, his prime minister and entire cabinet resigned en masse on January 23, just 24 hours after Houthi rebels occupied the presidential compound in Sana'a. The resignations give unprecedented power to the Houthis, a Shi'ite minority from the country’s isolated northern highlands.

The political crisis also opens the door to an all-out war over control of the Yemeni capital, involving Sunni political factions and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The conflict could also draw in Saudi Arabia, the United States and Iran.

The streets in Yemen’s capital are now a maze of checkpoints, a few still guarded by government forces wearing military uniforms, but most these days are controlled by Houthis. Unlike government forces, the Houthis are typically dressed in tribal garb — a shawl wrapped around their face and a skirt known as a ma’awaz.

Armed with AK-47s, the Houthis are primarily looking for members of AQAP.

The Houthis, however, are quickly proving that the old adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” is not always true. While they are bitter enemies of AQAP, the Houthis manning the checkpoints often adorn their AK-47s with stickers bearing the group’s motto: “Death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.”

For the West, this labyrinth of Yemeni politics underscores the complexity of trying to find a reliable ally to fight Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate, which claimed credit for the deadly attack earlier this month against the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. While the US government had continued to back Hadi as a close partner in the war on terror, it’s the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, who have been battling AQAP on the streets of Sana'a.

AQAP launched a series of car bomb and suicide attacks against the Houthis starting in late September. At checkpoints around Sana'a, the Houthis are mostly searching for AQAP members trying to smuggle bombs and bomb-making materials into the city. It’s often a losing battle, since smuggling explosives can be as simple as placing a Houthi placard — which have the same motto as the stickers on the AK-47s–on a car dashboard to slip through checkpoints.

In a recent AQAP video, which The Intercept translated from Arabic to English, Nasser bin Ali al Ansi, a senior AQAP official, said the group was making steady progress against the Houthis and asserted that AQAP was working on “expanding the geographical area” of its attacks against the Houthis. The AQAP official said that group depends on “booty” it seizes from its enemies, because it lacks sufficient funds to effectively take on the Houthis. He also called on “Muslims to support those Jihadists” fighting the Houthis.

But the Houthis oppose American involvement in Yemen — even to fight al Qaeda — and this helps explain why the Obama administration is unlikely to embrace the new power structure anytime soon. Another reason is that they are seen as aligned with Iran.

For years, the Yemeni government attempted to inflate Iran’s influence over the Houthis in the hopes of winning US permission to use counterterrorism funds and assistance to fight the Houthis. According to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, senior Bush administration officials consistently rebuffed such requests from the Yemeni government, saying the US government saw the battle against the Houthis as a domestic issue.

The Obama administration has shied away from taking a clear stance on Iran’s support for the Houthis.

“We’ve remained troubled by the history of work between the Houthis and the Iranians,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said on January 22. “Now we don’t assess that there is … new cooperation on that front.”

Saudi Arabia has also portrayed the Houthis as an Iranian proxy, and the kingdom has carried out a number of airstrikes against the movement’s strongholds.

One clear source of support for the Houthis come from former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is from the same Shi'ite sect. Saleh is long suspected of playing a direct role in the Houthis’ stunning seizure of the capital. This week, several Arab TV networks aired a purported recording of a phone call between Saleh and a senior Houthi leader, with the former president advising on the group’s military and political operations.

During his time in power, Saleh often shifted his alliances. He waged six wars against the Houthis from 2004-2010, but at times used the Houthis to crush political opponents. Given that history, many doubt the new power structure, dominated by the Houthi-Saleh alliance, will last.

Saleh and the Houthis “are in love,” said Asham, a student at Sana'a University, who asked that his last name not be used because of the political situation. “But their marriage will end in divorce. They can’t live together forever because they both want the same thing — power.”

While the US State Department initially resisted calling this week’s events in Yemen a coup, the power shift had already tilted to the Houthis. The rebel group’s control was cemented earlier this month, when Hadi quietly signed presidential decrees handing over the security apparatus, which has traditionally functioned as a source of government salaries for leaders’ families, friends and tribesmen.

After signing a power-sharing agreement on January 21, Hadi had effectively handed over power to the Houthis, who launched a coup earlier this week that culminated in a shootout between presidential guards and Houthi militia. The agreement was expected to make official the Houthis’ de facto control over the capital, and today’s mass resignation all but ensures the group’s takeover.

An AQAP spokesperson welcomed the fall of the government, telling The Intercept: “we operate better in such circumstances.”

“I believe that both Houthis and Saleh are picking their posts,” said Fernando Carvajal, a Yemen specialist and a long-time consultant to non-governmental organisations in the country. “By taking over the police now Houthis and Saleh can recruit militias.”

Shortly after taking over the security posts, the Houthi police chiefs used their new powers to arrest a close aide to Hadi. The government called the arrest a kidnapping.

Hadi’s government, in the meantime, was already in a state of retreat. Houthis this week secured control of Yemen state media.

Many see this week’s coup as the final culmination of a series of events that started to unfold in January 2014, when Hadi initiated a ceasefire to the months-long battle between Houthis and Sunni Salafists outside the city of Sa’dah, the provincial capital of the Houthi movement. Hadi’s mediation resulted in the eviction of about 15,000 Salafist students from Sa’dah Province — a victory for the Houthis.

The Houthis began their takeover of Sana'a in September and started filling newly vacant leadership positions at police headquarters. That was followed by this week’s coup, and what now appears to be a near total seizure of power.

While Sana'a has experienced a series of ground-shaking artillery shells, explosions, and semi-automatic gunfire in the past week, businesses outside the immediate fighting areas have remained open, and Yemenis have greeted this latest power play with equanimity. Hisham Al-Omeisy, an information and communications consultant in Sana'a, says that most Yemenis had simply lost faith in government rhetoric.

“When speaking of current status quo nowadays in Yemen we say [it’s like] the blind trying to apply mascara to the unstable and agitated crazy.”

[Reprinted from The Intercept.]

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