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What drove a small sect to take control of Yemen?

April 7, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT
The U.S. will speed up delivery of arms and intelligence to Saudi Arabia for the fight against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, according to the State Department. How did the Houthis rise to stage a government coup? Gwen Ifill learns more from journalist Safa al-Ahmad, who offers a rare inside look in a new documentary on Frontline.

GWEN IFILL: In Saudi Arabia today, Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced the U.S. will accelerate delivery of arms and intelligence, to boost the Saudis’ 13-day-old bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen.

Yemen’s slide towards humanitarian disaster has seen airports and sea trade cut off and a government coup. Iran’s supreme leader, who is said to back the Houthis, said today foreign interference must stop.

Journalist Safa Al Ahmad gets a rare inside look inside an unstable nation and into the lives and aspirations of Houthi fighters in tonight’s “Frontline” documentary, “The Fight for Yemen.”

SAFA AL AHMAD, Journalist: For the moment, the Saudi border may be the limit of Houthi control, but their ambitions go way beyond it.

MAN (through interpreter): The Houthis are part of the Muslim world. We can’t be defined by a sect or confined by borders. Our borders are the holy Koran and the Islamic and Arab world. We will help oppressed people all over the world.

SAFA AL AHMAD: So, this barbed wire here means nothing to you?

MAN (through interpreter): It means nothing. It represents nothing.

MAN (through interpreter): If the relationship between the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian people is strengthened, then it will ease the fall of the House of al Saud.

Yes, it will be a painful surgical procedure, but in the end, there will be healing from the sickness.

SAFA AL AHMAD: The Saudis see them as a potent threat and accuse the Houthis of collusion with their regional archrival, Iran. It has been widely reported that Iran gives the group weapons, money and training.

MAN (through interpreter): This is not true. These accusations have been made for a long time.

SAFA AL AHMAD (through interpreter): No financial, military or moral support?

MAN (through interpreter): No financial or military. If there is moral support, we support Chavez in Venezuela. Why this insistence that we receive support from Iran, other than wanting to turn the struggle in this country and the region into a sectarian one, based on the American and Zionist agenda?

SAFA AL AHMAD: But the struggle against the Houthis inside Yemen is fierce. For years, powerful Yemeni tribes received money from Saudi Arabia. Now the Saudis back the Sunni tribes opposed to the Houthis with cash and arms. And then there is al-Qaida.

GWEN IFILL: I spoke to journalist Safa Al Ahmad a short time ago.

Safa Al Ahmad, thank you for joining us.

You spent some time on the border, as we just saw, going places most people don’t get to go in Yemen and talking to people most people don’t get to talk. So, but what is the attitude on the ground? What is the sense of this kind of irrevocable slide we’re seeing in Yemen?

SAFA AL AHMAD: Yes. I mean, when I was there, I could see the beginning of that schism within the Yemeni society between those who are pro- and anti-Houthi.

And it was juxtaposed with the reality on the ground of them used to suffering through a lot of corrupt political groups. And so for a lot of people, they saw the Houthis as hope that there would actually be an honest government finally. But, unfortunately, that wasn’t true. So, the victim, who were the Houthis for over a decade, now have been the victimizer.

GWEN IFILL: You were there before the Saudis started their airstrikes that began 13 days ago. Tell us a little bit about what the Houthis, how they came to be where they came to be now, as you described.


In the beginning, it was an ideology. Hussein al-Houthi, the founder of the Houthi movement — and this is where the name came from — started off as a Zaidi revivalist, which is a very specific sect that falls under the umbrella of the general Shia sect, but have very different beliefs than, for example, Iranian Shia.

And he had very strong anti-imperialist ideas as well. He was quite affected by September 11. And he saw the wars on Iraq and the war on Afghanistan as a pretext by the Americans and the West to occupy Muslim land.

And so, beginning with that, Ali Saleh, who used to be the president of Yemen at the time, was really worried about that ideology. And he waged six wars against the Houthis. So, he’s the one who effectively transformed them from an ideology, from just a group of people having religious discussions in the mountains of Sa’ada in the north of Yemen, into a fully fledged rebel movement.

And one of the things that came out of that is that they no longer wanted to be marginalized. They wanted to be at the table of power. And this is why they ended up taking control of Sanaa and large parts of Yemen.

GWEN IFILL: You describe in your piece at the end that we showed that we showed — then there came al-Qaida.

Is there a connection, any comparison that can be made, especially in ideology, between the Houthis and al-Qaida?


Well, I mean, the ironic factor that is between the Houthis and al-Qaida, that is, they both have very strong anti-American sentiment. So, for example, the slogan of the Houthis is death to America and death to Israel and God curse the Jews and victory to Islam.

And besides that, there is very little in common between al-Qaida and the Houthis as far as ideology goes, but they do see themselves as having a common enemy, which is America. And so America is in an interesting situation, where the Houthis are fighting al-Qaida quite viciously on the ground, yet now the Americans are allied with Saudi Arabia in strikes against the Houthis.

It just shows you how complex Yemen is, really, and the whole region at the moment.

GWEN IFILL: And what is Iran’s role here?

SAFA AL AHMAD: Well, I don’t know. It depends how much you buy into that the Iranians are actually fully backing the Houthis.

I think what is happening is that Houthis and the Iranians have common interests, but there’s very little good journalism that’s been done to uncover the true extent of that relationship between the Houthis and Iran. But, obviously, I do think that they — they benefit from the rhetoric of the Houthis on the ground.

But, also, they do have a connection, but not to the extent that is being covered in the media at the moment by describing them as a Shia militia backed by Iran. I think that’s an overstatement.

GWEN IFILL: Safa Al Ahmad, your documentary tonight inside Yemen airs on most PBS stations on “Frontline.”

Thank you very much for joining us.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Thank you for your time.