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Cablegate: Who Are the Houthis, Part Two: How Are They

VZCZCXYZ0001
RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHYN #2186/01 3431329
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
R 091329Z DEC 09
FM AMEMBASSY SANAA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 3355
INFO RUEHLB/AMEMBASSY BEIRUT 0191
RUEHRL/AMEMBASSY BERLIN 0122
RUEHRH/AMEMBASSY RIYADH 1718
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RUEKDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC

S E C R E T SANAA 002186

NOFORN
SIPDIS

FOR NEA/ARP AMACDONALD AND INR JYAPHE

E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/09/2019
TAGS: PGOV PHUM PTER PREL SA YM
SUBJECT: WHO ARE THE HOUTHIS, PART TWO: HOW ARE THEY
FIGHTING?

REF: A. SANAA 2155
B. SANAA 2185

Classified By: Ambassador Stephen Seche for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (S/NF) SUMMARY. Little is clear about the Houthi
leadership, aside from the fact that Abdulmalik al-Houthi is
the rebel group's current leader. Houthi field commanders do
not seem to agree on key ideological and religious
principles. The Houthis' numbers range from the hundreds to
the thousands, though it is difficult to determine how many
of these adhere to Houthi ideology and how many are tribesmen
who have joined the Houthis' fight for other reasons.
Numerous organizations have documented the Houthis' use of
child soldiers, as well as violations of international
humanitarian law such as looting, forced evacuations, and
executions. Contrary to ROYG claims that Iran is arming the
Houthis, most analysts report that the Houthis obtain their
weapons from the Yemeni black market and even from the ROYG
military itself. END SUMMARY.

LEADERSHIP AND ORGANIZATION
---------------------------

2. (C) Abdulmalik al-Houthi, brother of Houthi movement
founder Hussein al-Houthi, is the current leader of the
Houthi rebellion in the northern Yemeni governorate of
Sa'ada. AP correspondent Ahmed al-Haj told PolOff on October
27 that Abdulmalik al-Houthi is a "political-military leader
rather than a religious one, more of a politician than an
ideologue." Christoph Wilcke, a researcher for Human Rights
Watch (HRW) who visited Hajja governorate on a fact-finding
mission, told PolOffs on October 26 that Houthi foot-soldiers
usually do not fight in the areas where they are from, and as
a result may not know the name of the local commander, but do
identify their top leader as Abdulmalik al-Houthi. Beyond
that, according to Wilcke, "it's not clear where the
leadership sits or how it's structured." According to the
International Crisis Group (ICG), there is no evidence that
the rebels possess a centralized command-and-control
structure, coherent ideology, or political program.

3. (C) While AP's Haj believes the Houthis are a
well-organized group, to some observers the Houthis are a
rag-tag, decentralized guerrilla army. The number of
fighters is estimated to be between several hundred and
several thousand, though it is difficult to know how many
adhere to Houthi ideology and how many are tribal fighters
who joined the cause out of anti-government sentiments.
There are substantial differences in ideology, strategy, and
tactics among field commanders in different parts of Sa'ada.
World Food Program (WFP) Representative Gian Carlo Cirri, who
speaks with Houthis to negotiate passage of food aid, told
PolOff on November 4 that "there is no such thing as a united
Houthi command. The field commanders have a great deal of
authority. They don't agree on key ideological and religious
principles."

4. (C) One example of differences among Houthi field
commanders is their attitudes toward international relief
agencies. Cirri noted that Houthi field commanders "do not
perceive UN and WFP assistance in the same way." For
instance, the field commander in Saqayn, west of Sa'ada City,
allowed relief agencies to access the area in order to
distribute aid to IDPs, while the commander in the Dhahian
area between Sa'ada City and Baqim is adamantly "opposed to
internationals." (Note: As of early November, WFP had lost
all contact with the Houthis because their main contact )-
Abu Ali, the Saqayn field commander -- had died. Ali was
reportedly very close to Abdulmalik al-Houthi and was number
three in the Houthi organization. End Note.) The main
Houthi leadership, however, does seem inclined to accept a UN
or foreign role in mediation. According to UNHCR
Representative Claire Bourgeois, after the October visit of
UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes, the Houthis said
they would agree to a humanitarian corridor if it were
enforced by the UN. Houthi mediator Hassan Zaid told PolOff
on December 2 that the Houthis would welcome the
participation of foreign governments or multilateral
organizations in negotiating a settlement to the conflict
(ref a).

SYMPATHIZERS AND SUPPORTERS
---------------------------

5. (C) AP's Haj said that many Sa'ada residents support the
Houthis because of ROYG injustices, abuses by local sheikhs,
and the brutality of the war. During two visits to Sa'ada in
the fall of 2009, however, NewsYemen's Soufi found little
support for either the Houthis or the ROYG, as the residents
blame both parties for the suffering caused by the war. He
said that some residents take a pragmatic approach, hedging
their bets by supporting the ROYG during the day and the
Houthis at night. He was struck by how isolated the people
in Sa'ada are. They refer to Sana'a as "Yemen," saying "I
have never been to Yemen" when referring to the capital,
according to Soufi.

6. (S/NF) Colonel Akram al-Qassmi of the National Security
Bureau (NSB) estimates that there are thousands of men
fighting for the Houthis, but not all of them share the
Houthi ideology. They "jumped on the wave" to fight for
their tribe, or against the government, or against a powerful
sheikh. According to WFP's Cirri, the tribes who support the
Houthis have "no real loyalty" to them; they switch sides
based on "direct, immediate private interests." He believes
the conflict is extremely localized: families and tribes
decide to support the Houthis based on specific grievances
)- including the lack of payment of blood money -- that they
have against the government or more powerful tribal leaders.
NewsYemen's Soufi thinks that many of the rank-and-file are
thugs who are taking advantage of the conflict to gain power
and resources.

HOUTHI GOVERNANCE
-----------------

7. (C) Many analysts report that the Houthis establish their
own system of governance in the areas they control.
According to Mohammed Azzan, presidential advisor for Sa'ada
affairs, the Houthis are trying to create a "state within a
state." Mohammed al-Qadhi, correspondent for Dubai-based The
National, reported that in Haydan district, the Houthis have
established courts and prisons. Soufi reported that the
Houthis in Harf Sufyan have established Islamic courts,
impose their own laws on local residents, demand protection
money, and dispense rough justice by ordering executions.
AP's Haj argues that the Houthis are winning hearts and minds
by providing security in areas long neglected by the ROYG.
According to Haj, the Houthis limit the arbitrary and abusive
power of influential sheikhs. According to Abdulmajid
al-Fahd, Executive Director of the Civic Democratic
Foundation, Houthis help resolve conflicts between tribes and
reduce the number of revenge killings in areas they control.
(Comment: While claims that Houthis are establishing a
parallel state seem far-fetched, it is likely that the
Houthis are attempting to arbitrate local disputes. End
Comment.)

HOUTHI ABUSES: CHILD SOLDIERS AND ALLEGATIONS OF "SHIELDING"
--------------------------------------------- ---

8. (C) Numerous organizations, including Save the Children,
UNICEF, and Islamic Relief, have documented the Houthis' use
of child soldiers. HRW's Wilcke reported that Houthis use
boys as young as 13 as guards; older teenagers are used as
fighters. According to UNHCR interviews with IDPs, "Their
reasons for leaving their places of origin include ... forced
enrollment of children as young as 14 in guerrilla forces,"
as well as forced taxes, destruction of properties, and heavy
weapon shelling by both sides. Judith Evans, a Times of
London reporter who visited the Mazraq IDP camp (Hajja
governorate), told PolOff on October 12 that she heard many
accounts of atrocities against civilians by the Houthis. She
said, "The refugees we spoke to were terrified of the
government bombing raids, but it seems the Houthis take
things a step further and deliberately target civilians,
including children, for instance, shooting them in their
houses as an act of revenge for siding with the government."
Saba, the government news agency, reported on December 6 that
the Houthis killed an 11-year-old boy in retaliation for his
father's refusal to join them.

9. (C) While the ROYG repeatedly accuses the Houthis of
using civilians as human shields, Wilcke noted that
"shielding" has a very specific definition in international
human rights law, requiring intent to expose civilians to
danger in order to fend off a military advance. HRW does not
have enough evidence to conclude that the Houthis are
intentionally using civilians as human shields, he said,


though Wilcke admitted there may be cases they have not been
able to document. However, HRW has documented a number of
other Houthi violations of international humanitarian law,
such as looting and forced evacuation (in which civilians are
told to fight with the Houthis or flee). He said HRW also
documented assassinations, which, depending on the
circumstances, could be regular crimes or rise to the level
of war crimes.

10. (C) With respect to humanitarian aid, WFP's Cirri said
that the Houthis have never stopped any WFP food convoys;
they once stopped an ADRA convoy in Al Jawf but allowed it to
pass. Rather, it is often tribes demanding aid or government
concessions who hold aid convoys hostage. In addition, one
joint WFP-UNHCR convoy was stopped for three weeks by the
government.

TACTICS AND STRATEGY
---------------------

11. (S) According to journalist Qadhi, the Houthis have
gained experience from each round of fighting, as shown by
their use of more sophisticated tactics. HRW's Wilcke said
that the Houthis now dig trenches around towns so that the
artillery shells, which explode upwards, do not hit them.
The British DATT believes that the Houthis' advances in
tactics and strategy indicate that they have received outside
training, though he did not say by whom. Early in the sixth
war, he said, the Houthis focused on collecting and capturing
weapons and resources. He told PolOff on November 21 that
unlike previous rounds of fighting, in the sixth war there
have been some set piece battles, including an attempted
takeover of the Republican Palace in Sa'ada City involving
hundreds of Houthi fighters. Such large battles are unusual,
however. Murad Zafir, Deputy Director of the National
Democratic Institute, said that Houthi fighters generally
attack in groups of three to five people, including one
sniper. That way they minimize their own losses while
driving up the costs of the army, which is using big bombs on
small groups of fighters. Col. Mansour al-Azi, a senior
military intelligence officer, told PolOff on November 24
that the Houthis fight with religious fervor, yelling "God is
Great" when running into battle, unafraid of dying because
they believe that if they do, they will go directly to
paradise.

WEAPONS SUPPLY
--------------

12. (S/NF) Contrary to ROYG claims that Iran is arming the
Houthis, most local political analysts report that the
Houthis obtain their weapons from the Yemeni black market and
even from the ROYG military itself. According to a British
diplomat, there are numerous credible reports that ROYG
military commanders were selling weapons to the Houthis in
the run-up to the Sixth War. An ICG report on the Sa'ada
conflict from May 2009 quoted NSB director Ali Mohammed
al-Ansi saying, "Iranians are not arming the Houthis. The
weapons they use are Yemeni. Most actually come from
fighters who fought against the socialists during the 1994
war and then sold them." Mohammed Azzan, presidential
advisor for Sa'ada affairs, told PolOff on August 16 that the
Houthis easily obtain weapons inside Yemen, either from
battlefield captures or by buying them from corrupt military
commanders and soldiers. Azzan said that the military
"covers up its failure" by saying the weapons come from Iran.
According to Jamal Abdullah al-Shami of the Democracy
School, there is little external oversight of the military's
large and increasing budget, so it is easy for members of the
military to illegally sell weapons.

13. (S/NF) ROYG officials assert that the Houthis'
possession and use of Katyusha rockets is evidence of support
from Iran and Hizballah, arguing that these rockets are not
available in Yemeni arms markets nor ROYG stockpiles.
(Comment: Given Yemen's robust arms markets, especially in
Sa'ada, it is possible that Katyushas are available on the
black market even if they are not in ROYG stockpiles.
According to sensitive reporting, there is at least one
instance of Somali extremists purchasing Katyusha rockets in
Yemen in 2007. End Comment.) However, according to
sensitive reporting, it may have been the ROYG military who
aided the Houthis in obtaining a shipment of 200 Katyusha
rockets in late November 2009.
SECHE

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