Houthis' infighting escalates as deaths mount

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden


Supporters of the Iran-backed Houthis take part in a rally to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Houthi takeover of Sanaa on September 21st. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

Infighting among the Houthis (Ansarallah) is at its highest level in years, and recently cost a number of the militia's leaders their lives, Yemen experts said.

Internal conflicts among the leaders of the Iran-backed militia have been rising to the surface despite the Houthis' attempts to conceal them, they said.

On August 9th, Ibrahim Badreddine al-Houthi was killed in Sanaa, with some reports saying he was assassinated by a rival faction within the militia.

He had been a prominent Houthi leader, and was the brother of the militia's leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi.

Ibrahim Badreddine al-Houthi's alleged assassination is a sign that internal conflicts have been escalating, political analyst Faisal Ahmed told Al-Mashareq.

Trouble began to brew when the president of the Houthis' so-called supreme political council, Mahdi al-Mashat, on July 31st issued a decree appointing the militia's most prominent leader, Mohammed al-Houthi, to the Shura council.

Mohammed al-Houthi -- who had led the Houthis' 2014 coup -- rejected the ruling, which removed him from the militia's more powerful political council.

Ibrahim al-Houthi and his brothers had endorsed al-Mashat's decision to appoint Mohammed al-Houthi to the Shura Council because it is far less important than the political council, which is the militia's top authority, Ahmed said.

The clear intention of the decree was to "curb Mohammed al-Houthi’s growing influence", Ahmed added, noting that the ensuing political struggle "is the most likely reason for Ibrahim's killing".

Regional and familial conflict

Internal conflicts and power struggles among the Houthis emerged even before the militia achieves its objective of seizing full control over its targeted areas, said political analyst Waddah al-Jalil.

"The reality is that the group is facing powerful enemies from within and from the outside, in addition to public rejection," he told Al-Mashareq.

Within the militia, he noted, leaders who belong to Hashemite or Houthi families based in Saada province have been given preferential treatment, and therefore enjoy a higher status than those from other provinces.

Houthi families are clashing in their efforts to monopolise control, al-Jalil said.

The militia has been trying to cover up the infighting, he said, but recent appointments and the killing of a number of tribal and community leaders reveal "the escalating intensity of the conflict between the first-line leaders".

Al-Jalil said the conflict between Houthi leaders is also regional, explaining that "group leaders who hail from Saada believe that they have the exclusive right to rule and control because they have fought wars".

The Saada conflict, which erupted in 2004 in the north of the country when the Yemeni government tried to arrest the Houthis’ religious leader, Hussein Badreddine al-Houthi, pitted the Houthis against the Yemeni forces.

"Houthi leaders from Sanaa and Dhamar were not involved in these wars," al-Jalil said, noting that Sanaa and Dhamar families now feel they are being marginalised, which is exacerbating tensions inside the group.

In June, he said, Houthi elements in Ibb province who were loyal to Abdul Hafeeth al-Saqqaf killed Ismail Abdul Qader al-Sufiani during a conflict over the revenues of local institutions in the province.

Al-Saqqaf did not face retribution from the militia, because he has the support of its leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, al-Jalil said.

Houthi leaders from Saada province are at the top of the militia's hierarchy, enjoying a higher status than leaders from Hashemite families in Sanaa and Dhamar, said lawyer and human rights activist Abdul Rahman Barman.

"Leaders from Saada cofounded the militia and fought various wars, all the way to Sanaa," he told Al-Mashareq.

Inside the group, Houthi leaders from Sanaa and Dhamar feel persecuted and resentful, he added, as they also contributed to the Houthis' takeover of institutions and power centres in these and neighbouring provinces.

"Consequently, the discrimination in favour of Houthi leaders from Saada province is intensifying the internal conflict, because it is a struggle for influence and control," Barman said.

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