Threat from Houthi sleeper cells looms over state-controlled areas of Yemen

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi


Fighters loyal to Yemen's government man a position near the frontline facing the Iran-backed Houthis in the country's northeastern province of Marib, on May 13. [STR/AFP]

ADEN -- Yemen's Ministry of Interior has been warning that sleeper cells comprising members of the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) are operating in government-controlled areas of the country.

These terror cells compromise security and stability in Aden and other provinces under government control, Interior Minister Ibrahim Haydan told Hadramaut TV on May 17.

According to Haydan, the Houthis have sleeper cells in Aden, Taez, Shabwa and Hadramaut provinces.

Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces recently arrested a number of Houthi elements who were working for Iran and attempting to stymie the implementation of the Riyadh agreement, he said.


A wounded Yemeni child receives medical treatment following an attack attributed to the Houthis near a playground in Marib on April 3. [AFP]

Signed between the Yemeni government and the STC in the Saudi capital on November 5, 2019, the agreement calls for the formation of a government of technocrats, with equal representation from the north and south.

It also calls for integrating STC forces into the national security and army forces.

Cell leader's confession

Marib province's security administration on May 19 announced the arrest of a terror cell that worked for the Houthis.

The cell members had reportedly planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the international highway that passes through the city of Marib.

According to the confessions of the cell's leader, Musheir Muhammad al-Qahtani, aired by state-run al-Yaman TV, the Sanaa-based Houthis had given the cell its assignment.

The intention was to disrupt the city and highway's security, transportation and cargo transfer, he said.

In his confession, al-Qahtani said he was recruited by Ali Muhammad Toaiman, the Houthi-appointed governor of Marib.

Al-Qahtani said he was trained to plant IEDs on the Marib international highway and was promised a financial reward from the Houthis. He also was given a vehicle and money to engage in trade as a cover for the cell's mission.

According to state television, the operation leading to the cell members' arrest was the result of a co-operative effort, in which Marib tribal members and the local population also played a pivotal role.

Raids on sleeper cells

Since last year, security forces have raided the hideouts of several terror cells affiliated with the Houthis in Marib, Aden and on the western coast of Yemen.

Cell members confessed to communicating with Iranian officers in Sanaa.

After a series of investigations and citizen reports of suspicious activities, security forces conducted several successful operations against Houthi cells, political analyst Khaled Ahmed said.

He said the cells have been actively working "to sow chaos in Aden and threaten security with terrorist acts that harm economic stability, such as money laundering operations".

The presence of Houthi cells in liberated areas of Yemen "is not surprising", as the Houthis attempt to dominate more areas in the country, said Abaad Studies and Research Centre director Abdulsalam Mohammed

These cells intend to carry out the Houthis' plans "through smuggling weapons, trafficking drugs, and spreading chaos, as was the case in Marib and some southern provinces", he added.

Mohammed stressed the need for a stronger government and military presence on the ground, in terms of both security operations and social services.

Activating community security

"It is no secret that the security and intelligence services have been infiltrated, and this has clearly degraded their effectiveness and the level of their performance," said terrorism researcher Waddah al-Yaman Abdul Qadir.

"There are Houthi cells operating in government-controlled areas under the cover of commercial activities, such as real estate transactions or car sales," Abdul Qadir said.

"Some even manipulate individuals associated with the legitimate government who have common interests with the Houthis and their leaders," he added. "Their cover businesses include activities in the currency exchange market."

These individuals help the Houthis carry out money laundering operations and assassinations, he said, disrupting the security and stability of liberated areas, and relaying information to the Iran-backed group.

Abdul Qadir emphasised the need to "activate community security and make citizens part of the security system".

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