The Houthis’ grand military complex – A movement defined in battles

If the Houthis movement was initially structured as a conduit for positive social advancement in the Highlands as well as a mean to reaffirm Yemen’s very own religious idiosyncrasy: Zaidism, the past two decades have transformed this once aspirational outfit into a veritable military apparatus, one capable of wielding the most deadly of weapons and acquire high grade military technology.

In less than two decades the Houthis managed to rise themselves a military power capable of challenging not one army but a coalition of armies made up of several superpowers – beyond that, and because the movement is not constrained by those diplomatic and political ties which force nations to play according to well-established rules, its leadership has been freed to act out guerilla-type operations against its designated enemies. 

2018 marked a decisive change in direction as the Houthis moved away from a typical resistance set-up, confined within the borders of Yemen nation-state, to redefine their war efforts in direct retaliation. Rather than push against Saudi Arabia’s military coalition, the Houthis chose to bring on their homeground, war was brought to the Kingdom by way of drone attacks and ballistic missiles. 

And though many of the attacks have been choppy and ill-directed, the Houthis are honing their skills, making them terrifying enemies indeed, if anything by virtue of their learning curve.

  • On January 5, 2018, Saudi state-owned media confirmed the kingdom’s defence forces intercepted a Houthi missile over the Najran province, on the southern border with Yemen, before it could hit its intended target. Keen to advertise their new reach the Houthis took to Twitter, saying its military arm had a “successful launch of a short range ballistic missile at a military target in Saudi Arabia”.
  • On March 31, 2018, Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile fired by the Houthis targeting the southern city of Najran.
  • On June 24, 2018, Saudi Arabia confirmed its air defence forces intercepted and destroyed two Houthi ballistic missiles over Riyadh.
  • On July 25, 2018, The Houthis  attacked a Saudi oil tanker in the Red Sea, causing slight damage, according to the Saudi-UAE-led coalition.
  • On August 9, 2018, Saudi Arabia intercepted two missiles fired by the Houthis at its southern Jizan province, the official Saudi Press Agency quoted a military spokesman as saying. Al Masirah TV reported that the Houthis had fired a number of ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia, targeting the border provinces of Jizan and Asir.
  • On April 3, 2019, the Saudi Arabia war coalition said it intercepted two drones launched by the Houthis towards the city of Khamis Mushait. Spokesman Colonel Turki Al Maliki said debris caused by the interception of the two drones wounded five civilians in the city.
  • On May 14, 2019, Saudi Arabia confirmed armed drones struck two of its oil-pumping stations west of Riyadh. The Aramco East-West pipeline, stretching across the country to the port and oil terminal at Yanbu, was damaged in two places.
  • On May 20, 2019, the Saudi military said it shot down two ballistic missiles reportedly heading towards the cities of Jeddah and Mecca. The Houthis denied their missiles were targeting Mecca, a pilgrimage site some 70km (43.5 miles) from Jeddah and 50km (31 miles) from Taif. 
  • On June 12, 2019, the Houthis fired a missile at Abha airport in southern Saudi Arabia, wounding 26 civilians in the building’s arrivals hall, according to the Saudi-UAE-led coalition. The coalition says a projectile hit the arrivals hall at Abha airport, causing material damage. Three women and two children were among the wounded, it adds, noting that they were of Saudi, Yemeni and Indian nationalities.
  • On June 17, 2019, the Houthis launched a drone attack targeting Abha airport, the group’s Al Masirah TV says. There is no immediate Saudi confirmation of the attack.
  • On June 20, 2019,  the Houthis hit a power station in Jizan province with a cruise missile Al Masirah TV said. The coalition confirmed shortly after that a desalination plant in al-Shuqaiq city had suffered an attack but that no damage had been recorded.
  • On July 2, 2019, a new Houthi attack on Abha airport wounded nine civilians.
  • On August 1, 2019, the Houthis fired a long-range missile at the port city of Dammam in Saudi Arabia, hundreds of kilometres away from Yemen.
  • On August 5, 2019, the Houthis launched several drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid Airbase and Abha and Najran airports.
  • On August 17, 2019, a drone attack claimed by the Houthis sparked a fire in a remote oil and gas field in eastern Saudi Arabia. A Houthi military spokesman noted at the time that the group targeted the Shaybah oilfield with 10 drones, calling it the “biggest attack in the depths” of the kingdom. Saudi Aramco said the attack caused no casualties or disruption to production.
  • On August 25, 2019, the Houthis said they fired 10 Badr-1 ballistic missiles at Jizan airport, killing and wounding dozens. The coalition said it intercepted and destroyed at least six ballistic missiles fired by the group targeting civilians in Jizan, in the southwest of the kingdom. It gives no details about casualties or damage.
  • On August 26, 2019, Houthi militants claimed to have attacked a military target in Riyadh. According to a spokesman for the rebels, the attack was carried out with an armed drone. Saudi Arabia denies there was an attack by the Houthis.
  • On September 10, 2019, the coalition forces intercepted a drone over Yemen’s Saada province, Saudi Press Agency reports.
  • On September 14, 2019, drone attacks claimed by the Houthis caused fires at two major oil facilities run by Saudi Aramco. Citing a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, the official Saudi Press Agency said the blazes at the facilities in Abqaiq – home to the company’s largest oil processing plant – and Khurais were under control.

For all intents and purposes the Houthis, outside of their self-declared political mandate in Yemen have long outgrown the title of ‘rebel force’ or ‘militia’ we continue to assign them … by virtue of its reach and the weaponry the group has acquired since it first defined its agenda in armed struggle (2004) Ansarallah has become a de facto potent military power.

In a report published in the Washington Institute on September 2018, Michael Knight noted: “The Houthi rebels have been at war with the Yemeni government almost constantly since 2004. In the first six years, the Houthis fought an increasingly effective guerrilla war in their mountainous home provinces, but after 2010, they metamorphosed into the most powerful military entity in the country, capturing the three largest cities in Yemen. The Houthis quickly fielded advanced weapons they had never before controlled, including many of Iranian origin. The story of how they moved from small-arms ambushes to medium-range ballistic missiles in half a decade provides a case study of how an ambitious militant group can capture and use a state’s arsenals and benefit from Iran’s support.”

If we consider the Houthis’ growth span and the speed with which the group has manifested its power over North Yemen – often it needs to be said for a lack of clear opposition and/or resistance, it is evident that the Ansarallah movement has become an unparalleled contender in this race for absolute power over Yemen’s institutions.

Marieke Brandt summarised the Houthis’ key to success best when she writes in 2013: “The Houthis rebellion works through carefully developed plans and brilliant moves on the chessboard. They rely on alliances, both secret and openly visible … The Houthis strategy is based on a precise knowledge of the local tribes and on widespread social presence in their areas; they set up a tight network of checkpoints and patrol in the hamlets in operations that local sources describe as Houthis operations to feel the tribe’s pulse.”

If the Gulf coalition imagined it would have quickly dislodged the Houthis and thus restore Yemen’s First Republic, it greatly underestimated its adversary’s ability to adapt, transform, and absorb state resources to sustain its advances. Since becoming a state-level actor with powerful international allies for example, the Houthis have been effective in recruiting, motivating, and training forces to fight in its military. As for the remaining resources of northern Yementaxes, printing of currency, and manipulation of fuel market – they have been poured into sustaining Ansarallah’s military and political efforts.

Beyond that, the Houthis have sustained support to their ‘cause’ through indoctrination, often targeting the young and those made most vulnerable to both replenish and reinforce the movement’s base. According to Amnesty International, Ansarallah imposes recruiting quotas in the areas it controls and will discipline clans who default. 

A formidable machine the Houthis have become all what North Yemen know and operate under.

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