Abdul Malik al-Houthi: Hardliner or Hero? — Explaining the Civil War in Yemen

Whether one views him as a war criminal, politician, revolutionary leader, or tyrant, there is no dispute that in the past 15 years, the controversial Abdul Malik al-Houthi has risen to prominence in Yemen.

Whether one views him as a war criminal, politician, revolutionary leader, or tyrant, there is no dispute that in the past 15 years, the controversial Abdul Malik al-Houthi has risen to prominence in Yemen.

In September 2004, Yemeni army forces killed Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, the founder of the Houthi movement and the brother of Abdul Malik al-Houthi. Two years later, their father encouraged Abdul Malik to lead the group, thrusting him to the forefront of political conflict brewing in Yemen.

Abdul Malik al-Houthi was born in 1982, to  a religious family in the town of Dahyan, in the northern province of Saada. He received his education from his father, Badr al-Din al-Houthi, a prominent Zaidi cleric who took the role of spiritual leader of the Houthi movement between the reigns of his sons. Abdul Malik, the youngest of his siblings, left his hometown in the mid-1990s to live in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. His older brother Hussein, who assumed a leadership role in 2006, was educated in Iran and later co-founded the al-Haqq political party in 1990. Soon after, Hussein served as representative of al-Haqq in the Yemeni parliament from 1993-1997.  

Unlike Hussein, Abdul Malik did not enroll in formal educational institutions and received no degree. The al-Houthi family belongs to the Zaidi school of Islam, a branch of Shiism adjacent to Sunnism. The sect was founded based on two principles: the duty to rise up against unjust rulers and a conception of the imamate based on allegiance, not heredity.

After Abdul Malik al-Houthi took over the movement in 2006, his leadership role was challenged by one of the movement’s top leaders, Abdullah al-Razamy. The tension was ultimately resolved in Abdul Malik’s favor, with the support of his father.

Abdul Malik’s name began circulating widely in the media after the first Saada war in 2004, in which the Houthis began their insurgency. Since then, he has been a key figure in the subsequent series of wars with the Yemeni central government.

After the beginning of the 2011 Arab Spring in Yemen, the Houthis announced their support for the anti-regime protests and began to expand their influence, relying on the revolutionary momentum and the collapse of state institutions.

Under the banner of “revolution,” the Houthis announced the taking of the group’s stronghold, Saada, from the Yemeni government “by the people.” They appointed a Yemeni arms dealer, Fares Manna, as its governor.

Following the resignation of President Abdullah Saleh in 2012, Abdul Malik al-Houthi named his group Ansar Allah (“Supporters of God”) and participated in the National Dialogue Conference. At the same time, the group was engaged in conflicts with elements of the Sunni Yemeni Congregation for Reform in provinces far from the capital, with the aim of gaining control of more territory. Abdul Malik escalated his criticism of the government’s corruption as well as of his revolutionary partners and the ideological enemies of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform. In mid-2014, he surprised his opponents with the significant military prowess of the Houthis by taking over the cities of Omran and Sanaa.

Many parties accused President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi of facilitating the Houthis’ entry to Sanaa. The Islah Party and others also accused the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh of allying with the Houthis to invade Sanaa.

In August 2014, Abdul Malik called for the dismissal of the government and the cancellation of the decision to lift subsidies on oil derivatives, and urged his supporters to hold a sit-in strike in the capital Sanaa. He presented himself as a religious and revolutionary “leader of the Qur’anic march,” calling for civil disobedience. After weeks of conflict and negotiations, the Houthis tightened their control over Sanaa after a battle in which 200 people were killed.

On September 23, 2014, Abdul Malik al-Houthi appeared on television describing “a historical victory for the revolution.” Led by Abdul Malik, the Houthis dominated the country, issuing a Constitutional Declaration on February 6, 2015, under which the parliament was dissolved. Abdul Malik then established a Provisional National Assembly and formed a Presidential Council.

On April 14, 2015, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Abdul Malik “for threatening peace in Yemen.” Meanwhile, new political developments pushed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to resign. The Houthis laid siege to his house, however, before he managed to flee to Aden on February 20, 2015. He then retracted his resignation in a letter to the House of Representatives, according to France24, and called on the Houthis to withdraw from Sanaa.

Since March 25, 2015, the U.S.-supported coalition led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and President Hadi’s forces have been waging a war against the Houthis. The coalition’s operations and airstrikes over the last three years have been devastating. Thousands have been killed, including civilians who were deliberately targeted, women and children; however, Abdul Malik retains control over the capital and a number of other provinces. In a U.N. report released Tuesday, both sides in the conflict — the coalition forces and the Houthi forces — were accused of intentionally committing war crimes.