Yemen 2021: Islah, the Houthis & Jihadis
Islamism has influenced politics in Yemen since 1962, when a military coup ended a millennium of dynastic rule. The then-new Yemeni republic encouraged a moderate Islamist ideology to create distance from the strict adherence to Zaydi Islam practiced by the deposed monarchy. Zaydism is a sect of Shiite Islam found almost exclusively in southern Arabia. Smaller Islamist parties remained a relatively minor player in Yemen’s political opposition since the 1960s.
Since the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, the unraveling of the Yemeni state has allowed Islamist groups that were previously on the fringes of Yemeni political and social life to reassert themselves in local and national governance. In early 2021, Yemeni Islamists fell into three categories:
- Political Islamists, such as the Islah party, many of whom went into exile with the Yemeni government in 2014,
- Zaydi Islamists, notably including the Houthis and other northern tribal families, who ousted the government in 2015,
- And militant Islamists—including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Ansar al Sharia—who sought to impose to their strict interpretation of Sunni Islam through violence.
Yemen’s principal Islamist political party, known as al Islah, or the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, was founded in 1990. It was closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. As of early 2021, it remained an important political player in Yemen’s government-in-exile, which has been based in Riyadh since 2015. Major General Ali Muhsin al Ahmar, the vice president-in-exile, has long been associated with Islah, even though he declared membership in the General People’s Congress, the party of Mansur Hadi, the president now in exile. Members of Islah have not, however, uniformly supported the Yemeni state or Ali Muhsin (as he’s popularly known). Not all members of Islah went into exile. Those who remained in Yemen have adapted to the tumultuous political and military situation. One Islah leader, Sheikh Mohammed Ali al Khuzaie even joined the Houthi movement in 2020.
The Houthi movement—led by a Zaydi tribe from northern Yemen—is a non-Sunni Islamist group. Its slogan is “God is great, death to the U.S., death to Israel, curse the Jews, victory for Islam.” For four decades after the overthrow of Yemen’s last imam in 1962, Zaydi tribes were marginalized political, economically and socially. In the 1990s, their resentment of the government in Sanaa spawned a religious revival movement and six wars (between 2004 and 2010). In 2014, the Houthis, led by Abdul Malik al Houthi, seized power militarily and gained control of most of north Yemen by 2016. Since 2015, the Houthis have espoused a government and education system partly based on the tenets of Zaydi Islam, albeit without an imam. Its militia has targeted Sunni educational institutions that teach Salafi ideals. Its leaders have claimed, however, they want to create a democratic republic.
Militant groups like AQAP and its affiliate Ansar al Sharia have emerged in areas outside of the central government’s control since 2011. AQAP expanded the territory under its control until the United States began mounting counterterrorism operations, which were concentrated in eastern Hadramawt in 2015-2016. The resurgence of militant factions was partly a reaction to the Houthi’s growing military expansion, which unified and militarized otherwise apolitical Salafi groups. Some Salafi figures, such as Hani Bin Breik, joined the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which advocates political autonomy or even full secession from North Yemen. In 2017, Bin Breik was named vice president of the STC.
But political allegiances in Yemen have long been fluid. An Islamist one day may become a socialist the next with the right political or economic incentives. Islamist groups have exploited Yemen’s political fragmentation; some opportunists have joined the secessionist movement in the south, while others have charted independent political paths. Without a central government capable of unifying the country, even splinter Islamist groups retain the ability to influence either the domestic or regional balance of power.