By Ben Anderson
I somehow managed to walk into the small money changer’s kiosk in Sa’dah, the main city the northern Yemeni province of the same name, without noticing the dozen or so arms dealers slouching on the sidewalk outside. Sa’dah, which is controlled by the Houthis, a militant Shia movement that fought the government in a series of wars between 2004 and 2010 is a truly alien place, sealed off from the rest of the world for much of the past decade. It can be overwhelming at first—so much so that you can easily miss things, even arms dealers you almost trip over.
The dealers all had small rugs or wooden boxes in front of them, displaying AKs, pistols, knives, magazines, and even small rockets. “This one we call Ameri,” said one, holding up a hand grenade, his cheek, like everyone in Sa’dah’s, bulging with khat, the vaguely narcotic leaf Yemeni men chew daily, from the early afternoon onwards. He said the grenades weren’t expensive and could be mine for $12 or $13 apiece. Another man offered a machine gun taken from soldiers from neighboring Saudi Arabia, whom the Houthis had repelled during fighting in 2009, turning the tables and even taking over several villages just across the border. (This made the Houthis the only group ever to have successfully invaded modern Saudi Arabia.)
The men on the sidewalk were just street sellers, as common in Sa’dah as portrait artists in Central Park, and their trade just as casual. Serious buyers head out of town to Souk al Tal’h, probably the largest weapons bazaar in the Middle East. There, it is easy to pick up RPGs, modern American, German, Russian, and Chinese assault rifles, heavy machine guns, and all kinds of artillery. “All smuggled,” I was told.
It was at al Tal’h that al Qaeda operatives bought the Semtex they used to blow a hole in the side of the USS Cole in the south of Yemen in October 2000. Even taking into account the khat haze they had chewed themselves into, the dealers seemed relaxed about my wandering around the market with a cameraman. Eyeing the large containers behind the stalls, I asked if they had anything bigger than the guns and grenades on display. Within minutes I was inside a Portakabin holding up a seven-foot-long 14.5 mm heavy machine gun. It could have been mine, or anyone’s, for $30,000.
The Houthis and Souk al Tal’h are just two things among the many that you ought to know about Yemen. There are many more. Yet apart from the odd US drone strike, the country remains one of the least reported-on in the world. For those who believe this is the information age, Yemen provides a solid thumb in the eye.
It’s home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), arguably the most dangerous wing of the movement. They’re the ones responsible for the Christmas Day “underwear” bombing attempt, and are right at the top of the CIA’s most wanted list. AQAP controls entire villages and towns here, even providing some form of much-needed governance in some areas (last December, using the same tactics other al Qaeda affiliates used to attack the Taj Hotel in Mumbai and the Westgate mall in Nairobi—but garnering almost no attention—they killed at least 52 doctors, nurses, and patients in a hospital in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. See the VICE’s film on that attack).
Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president of 33 years, stepped aside during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, but is said to be pulling the strings from inside his huge, heavily defended block-wide mansion in the capital, Sana’a. And al Qaeda isn’t the only group troubling the country’s near-bankrupt central government: There is a growing southern secession movement. And in Washington, it’s a widely held belief that the Houthi rebellion has become yet another front in the larger war between Sunni and Shiite, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
But like most issues in Yemen, the conflict in Sa’dah isn’t as clear-cut as that. The Houthis are a much-neglected minority Shiite sect whose founder, Hussein Badreddin al Houthi, started making increasingly radical anti-government speeches in 2003, laying out many of the issues—corruption, a lack of development, marginalisation of minority groups, and the Saleh regime’s alignment with the US on the war on terror—that drove the 2011 protest movement. He left Sana’a after the Saleh regime threatened to arrest him, and they pursued him into the rugged northern territory of Sa’dah.
The confrontation became violent, and in September 2004, security forces laid siege to a cave where al Houthi was hiding. He was killed, but his death ignited the movement rather than extinguishing it. The Houthis seemed to be vanquished by the time a second war was launched in 2005, but four years later, in 2009, the government was still making increasingly desperate attempts to crush the Houthis. When the “sixth war” started, Saudi Arabia joined the Yemeni government, which had adopted a “scorched-earth policy,” flattening entire towns and villages. I was driven for hours through areas where almost no house, mosque, or school was left standing. Remarkably, using classic guerrilla tactics and knowledge of their terrain, the Houthis came out on top, forcing a ceasefire in 2010.
The good news is that, while repelling the government and Saudi assaults, the Houthis also banished al Qaeda from the increasing areas they controlled. The bad news is that their motto, which you hear or see on almost every corner, and which is sung by thousands at huge Hezbollah-style rallies, is “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, damn the Jews, victory for Allah.”
There is no evidence to suggest the motto would ever become the Houthis’ foreign policy, or that they would support attacks against the West. But the fact that such a group can control a huge area of Yemen, where almost any weapon can be bought by anyone for any purpose, has caused alarm bells to ring in Washington, where many have long believed that Yemen could be the next failed state, like Afghanistan or Somalia, and that we ignore it our peril.
The Houthis, like reports of another scorched-earth campaign against alleged al Qaeda positions in the south, of Western journalists being deported without reason, or of CIA officers gunning down would-be kidnappers in Sana’a barbershops, rarely make the front pages. But they serve to remind us that we can only ignore Yemen for so long.