A senior leader of Yemen’s powerful Houthi movement welcomed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s resignation on Thursday and proposed setting up a presidential council that would include Houthi-led groups, the army and some political parties.
Abu al-Malek Yousef al-Fishi, seen as the ideologue of the Houthis’ Ansarullah group, described the resignation as good news for all Yemenis and said on Twitter that the Arab country was heading towards “security, stability, tranquillity and prosperity”.
“I propose setting up a presidential council of the honorable revolutionary and political components, and in which the army, security and the popular committees will be represented, so everybody will participate in managing what remains of the transitional period,” he added in another tweet.
But Abdelmalek al-Ejri, a member of the Ansarullah politburo, suggested that comments on social media by some Houthi leaders did not represent the Shi’ite movement’s official position on the departures of Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah.
“Until this moment, no official position has been issued regarding the resignation of Hadi and Bahah,” he said on Twitter.
Senior U.S. intelligence official Michael Vickers has indicated that despite the political unrest in Yemen, the U.S. has developed an intelligence relationship with the Houthis that may allow the U.S. to continue its counterterrorism attacks against AQAP.
The undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Vickers told the Washington-based Atlantic Council that it is a “safe assumption” that the U.S. maintains these intelligence ties.
This revelation comes even as the Obama administration has suspended its counterterrorism operations in Yemen with the resignation of U.S. ally and Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Yemeni security services, which provide intelligence to U.S. drone operators for the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, reportedly have been taken over by the Houthis.
Like the U.S., the Houthis are fighting AQAP and “we’ve been able to continue some of our counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida in the past months,” Vickers said.
Vickers also indicated some counterterrorism operations, such as drone flights against AQAP targets in Yemen, could continue even with the Houthis in charge of the capital.
Vickers’ comments underscore separate reports that U.S. officials are pushing to open talks with the Houthi leaders to continue intelligence cooperation and operations against AQAP, notwithstanding the insurgent group’s ties to Iran.
Whether American policy makers will be able to continue their hunt for Al Qaeda in Yemen is an important issue, as the group’s local franchise, along with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, poses the biggest terrorist threat to the United States, and it took responsibility for the attack this month in Paris on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
The Houthis are also believed to get financing from Iran, and concern about that led Saudi Arabia last year to cut off $4 billion in funding to the Yemeni government when the Houthis became part of it. The Houthis are dominated by the Zaydis, who are members of a sect that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, the religion of Iran.
That has made the Houthis bitter opponents of Al Qaeda, who consider all Shiite Muslims to be apostates — as do many Saudis. Since most Yemenis are Sunni Muslims, Al Qaeda has been able to capitalize on the Houthi rise to win more supporters who are worried about Houthi dominance.
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The Houthis have denied that they receive any Iranian financing, and they have also taken pains to play down their country’s sectarian differences, as well as bringing in supporters who are not from the Zaydi minority.
“The Houthis are not Hezbollah,” said Charles Schmitz, an expert on the group and a professor at Towson University, referring to the Iranian-supported group that dominates Lebanon and is actively fighting on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “They are domestic, homegrown, and have very deep roots in Yemen, going back thousands of years.”
Mr. Schmitz continued: “Last year they became the dominant military and national power, and there’s no doubt that was the result of Iranian support, not through weapons, which they take from the Yemeni military, but the key thing is the funding. The Houthis have the money, and it’s got to be coming from the Iranians. Does that mean they are going to do Iranian bidding? I don’t think so.”
April Alley, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Sana, said: “Theoretically there is quite a bit of common ground in Yemen between the Houthis and the U.S., particularly when it comes to security issues and Al Qaeda. But so far it’s not been enough to overcome the obstacles. The Houthis have their own limits in which they can engage the Americans given the political narrative they have propagated.”
Israeli analysts have viewed the rise of the Houthis with concern, worrying that a pro-Iranian government in Sana could disrupt shipping lanes through the Red Sea, a vital passageway for Israel. “The fact that an ally of Iran basically now controls another Arab capital is of great concern to Israel,” said Jonathan Spyer, an Israeli international affairs analyst.
But even some Israelis had a mixed reaction to the Houthi rise. “Sometimes we’re in a position that we don’t know what works for us better,” said Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser. “Any increase of the Iranian influence is bad for Israel. On the other hand, they are fighting organizations that are associated with Al Qaeda.”
American officials had already reduced staffing at the embassy in Sana after the Houthis joined the government last year; that staffing is now going down to only a handful of diplomats, officials said. Only last Monday, for instance, an American Embassy vehicle was fired on by Houthi gunmen at a Houthi checkpoint in Sana; it was armored and no one was hurt. And as recently as Thursday, the Houthis organized a group of their militants to march through Sana, shouting their usual anti-American slogan.
Christopher Stevens, an expert on international relations at Misericordia University in Pennsylvania, said too much attention had been focused on the Houthis’ opposition to drone strikes. “Instead of condemning them, let’s work closely to try to forge a stable government to fight the common enemy,” he said. “Maybe this is the time we move in to provide them the aid to do more on the ground and let them do it. At the end of the day defeating Al Qaeda has to be done by the people of the Middle East; this Whack-a-Mole approach is not going to work anyway.”