Houthi Who?

A History of Unlikely Alliances in an Uncertain Yemen

Houthi fighters ride a patrol truck in Sana'a March 25, 2015. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

The Houthi tribal movement, supported by Iranian finances and weaponry, has captured Yemen’s capital city of Sana'a, forcing the resignation of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In the streets of Sana'a, fighters chant, “Death to America, death to Israel, curses to the Jews, and victory to Islam.” The great irony of this slogan, of which members of the Houthi family are likely unaware, is that the Houthis were receiving weapons and support from Israel decades before receiving military aid from Iran. The Houthi movement and their loyal tribes have long been opportunistic recipients of international support, the origin of which seldom figured in the domestic nature of their political struggles.


The last imam of Yemen, Muhammad al-Badr, was overthrown by Abdullah al-Sallal, founder of the Yemeni republic on September 26, 1962. For the next six years, Badr and his alliance of northern tribesmen fought a bloody guerrilla war in the mountainous highlands against 70,000 Egyptian soldiers who had arrived in Yemen in support of the republic. Throughout the conflict, one of Badr’s greatest obstacles was getting his hands on weapons and supplies. Help would arrive to him from a very unlikely source.

On the evening of May 26, 1964, Badr gathered the leaders of his northern tribal alliance, including the elder Sheik Hassan al-Houthi, for a khat chew and a strategic planning session. Badr promised the group that he would demonstrate for them a solution to the supply problems that had been plaguing their tribal militias. At approximately midnight, the group heard the roar of a plane engine and noticed the silhouettes of 14 parachutes appearing out of the darkness. According to the personal papers of British Lieutenant Colonel Neil McLean, one of the sheiks declared in disbelief, “Look, even God is helping the imam.” The aircraft, flown by members of the Israeli Air Force’s International Squadron, had been carrying packages containing munitions, medical supplies, and money for the imam’s war against the Yemeni republic and the Egyptian army.

Between 1964

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