The Fight for Yemen

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Safa Al Ahmad

SAFA AL AHMAD: [voice-over]I came to Yemen to try and understand what is driving the groups now fighting for control of the country. In particular, I wanted to meet the Houthi rebels. The Houthis had mobilized thousands of fighters, and by last fall, they had begun pushing south from their northern stronghold close to the Saudi border.

Yemen’s government was weak, its army fractured. The Houthis saw an opportunity. When I first arrived several months ago, the Houthis had already pushed into the capital, Sana’a.

The Houthis are mostly Zaidi Muslims, from the Shia branch of Islam. Their slogan is now seen everywhere. It’s a political chant from the days of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian revolution.

[wall poster] It reads, “God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. God curse the Jews. Victory to Islam.”

I stayed with the family of my close friend, Radiya, a human rights activist. Her father, Dr. Mohamed al Mutwakil, is a prominent independent local politician. I asked Radiya to take me on a drive around Sana’a to show me how the city has changed since the Houthi takeover.

RADIYA: Let’s pretend we are driving. Beep! [laughs]

SAFA AL AHMAD: You grew up on this street?

RADIYA: Yes. I spent my whole life on this street.

SAFA AL AHMAD: The Houthi slogan is everywhere.

RADIYA: The slogan is new to the street. It’s a very strange situation. The Houthis are here and in control of the capital, Sana’a. The government is here, in parallel to them, but the Houthis have the upper hand.

This fragile government is all we have. It’s fragile, but all we have. Honestly, I think this is the worst phase Yemen has ever gone through. The increasing weakness of the state parallels the rise of the armed political groups.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [voice-over] The Houthis had set up checkpoints all over the city, but at the time, they had left the Yemeni government bureaucracy functioning. Their control was still tentative.

Abdulillah is a member of the so-called Revolutionary Committee, which the Houthis have established to impose their control on the government. They are a secretive movement. They won’t even tell me how many of them are in the city. After weeks of negotiations, they finally let me follow them in action.

GUARD: You want to come in?


GUARD: Are you an employee?

ABDULILLAH: I am from the Revolutionary Legal Committee.

SAFA AL AHMAD: This is an unannounced visit to the Ministry of Finance. The Houthis have put their own guards inside the ministries.

ABDULILLAH: These are revolutionary committees, of course.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [on camera] The ones who are wearing army uniforms?


SAFA AL AHMAD: Why are they wearing army uniforms?

ABDULILLAH: We asked them to. It looks better than civilian clothing.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Why? For their security?

ABDULILLAH: No, it’s not about safety. It’s a better look.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [voice-over] Abdu Rabu al Mortha is also a member of the Revolutionary Committee. Together with Abdulillah, they had come to confront the deputy minister about billions of Yemeni riyals of government funds they said were missing.

They walked right into the office of Deputy Minister Jamal al Maliki.

ABDULILLAH: Sir, we would like to talk to you for five minutes.

DEPUTY MINISTER: Let me finish my meeting with these people, but without media.

ABDU RABU AL MORTHA: No, the media is necessary. There is a revolution, and there must be transparency.

DEPUTY MINISTER: We will sit with you without media.

ABDU RABU AL MORTHA: You can’t tell us what to do. The days of dictatorship are over.

DEPUTY MINISTER: This is not a dictatorship.

ABDU RABU AL MORTHA: The people are monitoring and following what is happening. The people want to monitor you!

DEPUTY MINISTER: First we meet, and then you can say what you want.

ABDU RABU AL MORTHA: The people are monitoring, and they must be informed of all that is happening.

DEPUTY MINISTER: We meet first, then we talk.

ABDU RABU AL MORTHA: No, this language no longer works. I don’t want this or that. We crushed it with our shoes. It’s over. People don’t realize the new reality we are in. The revolution brought me here.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [voice-over] The Revolutionary Committee refused to leave until the deputy minister signed a document ordering an investigation into the missing funds.

The Houthi anti-corruption agenda helped them gain popular support, but their grab for power has also made them enemies. They have largely driven out the previously dominant Muslim Brotherhood forces, but they also face fierce opposition from al Qaeda, which for years has been maintaining a stronghold in Yemen.

Three weeks after they took control, a huge bomb devastated a Houthi rally. The bombing in Tahrir Square was the bloodiest in Sana’a for years, killing more than 60 people.

I arrived on the scene soon after the attack. It was only my first week in Yemen.

YOUNG MAN: We were on our way to the rally. I was there and we heard an explosion. The power of the explosion threw people in the air. A body flew towards us. So many people died. I saw around 32 bodies.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [on-camera] Who do you think is responsible?

SECURITY GUARD: Who else? Takfiri. [Al Qaeda]

SAFA AL AHMAD: [voice-over] Al Qaeda are fiercely opposed to the Houthis. Their Sunni extremist beliefs mean they consider the Houthis heretics. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the bombing. The Houthi leadership quickly arranged a large state funeral for the victims and even bigger rallies in the following days.

I want to understand how this mountain militia managed to seize the capital of Yemen. So I traveled north, to the mountains of Sa’ada and the birthplace of the Houthis.

They are a movement born of war. The Yemeni government, fearing the spread of their ideology, launched six wars against the Houthis in the last decade.

Their leader and namesake was a Zaidi, Hussein al Houthi. The Zaidis ruled north Yemen for more than a thousand years and make up roughly a quarter of Yemen’s population. At the heart of the Zaidi faith is the principle of rebellion against unjust rulers.

Following the attacks on the twin towers in September 2001 and the invasion of Iraq, Hussein al Houthi developed a radical theory that combined Zaidi revivalism with an anti-imperialist, anti-U.S. agenda.

Dhayf Allah al Shami, a senior Houthi, was my guide in Sa’ada.

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: [subtitles] This is the house of the Sayid Hussein al Houthi, a very modest house. He didn’t even have a sitting room for people to meet in.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Hussein al Houthi believed 911 was an American and Zionist conspiracy to occupy Muslim lands.

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: [subtitles] After the September 11th attacks, we were euphoric and proud of this stand against America. But al Houthi had a different opinion. He said it was actually an American and Zionist ploy to attack Islam, and he launched the slogan that still resonates and shakes the Americans and the Israelis.

SAFA AL AHMAD: In 2004, Hussein al Houthi and his men came under heavy attack by the Yemeni army. They hid in a cave in the mountains of Sa’ada. It’s now become a shrine for his followers.

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: [subtitles] This is the entrance to the cave. It’s a little smaller because some rocks have fallen. Let’s go in.

These martyrs are still under the rubble. Three are still buried here. This was the operations room. He would meet the mujahideen fighters here.

SAFA AL AHMAD: According to the Houthis, the Yemeni Army poured petrol into the cave, then set it on fire. Many of al Houthi’s family were killed.

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: [subtitles] This is what’s left of their blankets and mattresses after they were set on fire with gasoline. It was a great crime.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Hussein al Houthi was allegedly captured by the army and later killed. He became a martyr whose ideas still resonate today with his followers. They compare his death to the martyrdom of one of the founders of Shia Islam, also called Hussein.

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: [subtitles] This is a new Karbala, another Karbala. This is Karbala. And this is the Hussein of Karbala. We’ve given the blood of innocents from the sons of Hussein and the likes of Hussein.

SAFA AL AHMAD: By 2009, concerned about the Houthis on their border, Saudi Arabia joined the Yemeni army’s attacks on Sa’ada.

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: [subtitles] This is only a sample of the remnants of war from the Saudi and Yemeni planes. This comes from Saudi. We downed about six Yemeni MiG fighters. This ammunition only comes from them. All methods of war were used.

SAFA AL AHMAD: The old city of Sa’ada still bears the scars of the sixth and last war.

CHILDREN: [subtitles] God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! God curse the Jews! Victory to Islam!

SAFA AL AHMAD: The government maintained an almost complete media blackout during their wars. Until recently, very few in the West had ever heard of the Houthis. The effects on the people of Sa’ada have been devastating.

Um Zayd was one of the few women who stayed during the conflict.

UM ZAYD: [subtitles] We had surrendered to death, waiting for it to come at any moment. We were besieged. They had besieged us for seven to eight months here in Sa’ada. No one demanded the siege should be lifted. All this injustice that’s fallen on Sa’ada. We’d done nothing to deserve it.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Um Zayd’s backyard became a cemetery after shelling killed three children.

UM ZAYD: [subtitles] When we got to them, they were in shreds. This child’s mother arrived, but she couldn’t find his face, just the remains of his ear, brain and a bit of his skull. We put it in a plastic bag and she tucked it in her pocket. She was never the same after that.

What will they tell God, those people? What have these children done to anybody?

SAFA AL AHMAD: These wars helped turn a small group of Houthi ideologues into a fully-fledged rebel movement.

Dhayf Allah offers to take me to the Saudi border. The Houthis had just taken over the Yemeni government’s checkpoints. After years of sporadic fighting between the Houthis and Saudi forces, this part of the border is now no-man’s-land.

VILLAGER: Can I help you?


VILLAGER: I am fine, thank God.

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: Are there any Saudi soldiers here?

VILLAGER: No, there aren’t.

SAFA AL AHMAD: We met a local man who lived on the Yemeni side of the border. On the Saudi side, we could see a deserted village, emptied by the Saudi authorities during the 2009 war against the Houthis.

[on camera] Is this the village?

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: This is the Saudi village.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Are there people still living there?

LOCAL MAN: No, there aren’t.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [voice-over] The Saudis attempted to establish a border, but the villagers have found a way around it.

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: Where’s the fence?

VILLAGER: The fence is over there, under the bushes. We use a little bit of acid. It opens up the fence and you can go through.

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: So acid melts steel?

VILLAGER: Yes, it breaks up just like a string of beads. You know what it looks like, it breaks.

SAFA AL AHMAD: It is dangerous for Yemenis to attempt to cross the border. The Saudis are on guard.

VILLAGER: A man got himself killed running towards the border. He was shot in the kidney.


VILLAGER: No, the day before. He was running towards the fence and was shot. He was hit in the kidney and died near the fence.

SAFA AL AHMAD: As part of their push for power, the Houthis hope to seize territory across the Saudi border, claiming land they say is rightfully Yemen’s.

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: We will get them back, God willing.

VILLAGER: From Saudi Arabia?


VILLAGER: You won’t be able to get them back.

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: Yes, we will get them back, God willing.

VILLAGER: God willing, anything can happen.

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: We have removed their hands from Yemen.

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

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: [subtitles] 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 Quran and the Islamic and Arab world. We will help oppressed people all over the world.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [subtitles] So this barbed wire here means nothing to you?

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: [subtitles] It means nothing. It represents nothing. 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: [voice-over] 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.

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: [subtitles] This is not true. These accusations have been made for a long time.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [subtitles] No financial, military or moral support?

DHAYF ALLAH AL SHAMI: [subtitles] No financial or military. If there is moral support, well, 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 Qaeda. I first saw al Qaeda’s grip on Yemen three years ago, while filming for FRONTLINE.

I went to Ja’ar, a town al Qaeda had taken control of in 2011 with little resistance from the army. The Yemeni government had been receiving arms, training and intelligence from the United States to help fight al Qaeda growing in Yemen.

Ja’ar is in the south, not far from the Gulf of Aden. As we reached the edge of town, the flag of al Qaeda, a clear sign I had entered their territory.

MAN IN STREET: [subtitles] Welcome, welcome.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Our contact was a fighter and a political officer who called himself Fouad. He was a member of Ansar al Sharia, the local affiliate of al Qaeda. The United States considers this branch of al Qaeda among the most dangerous in the world. It has been behind plots to attack the United States. Fouad says U.S. drones and the Yemeni air force often attacked them.

FOUAD: [subtitles] They bomb people’s homes to prove to Washington they are truly fighting terrorism, but they’ve failed to reach Ansar al Sharia.

SAFA AL AHMAD: He agreed to take us on a tour of Ja’ar. He wanted to show us how al Qaeda effectively governed an entire city. Back then, three years ago, attacks from American and Yemeni forces made the locals fear for their lives.

FOUAD: [subtitles] These days, a lot of people have been displaced. You see the streets are empty. The schools have shut down.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Surprisingly, we found al Qaeda allowed national newspapers to be sold. This headline said a government air strike had killed many local fighters.

FOUAD: [subtitles] They talk about the air force. They are too embarrassed to say it’s actually the American drones. We are at war with America and its allies. Just like Bush once said, if you’re not with us, you’re against us.

SAFA AL AHMAD: To show their strength, al Qaeda summoned locals to the town theater, where they were shown this video of al Qaeda fighters attacking a major army base close to Ja’ar. Almost 200 Yemeni soldiers were reportedly killed.

Dozens were taken prisoner and believed to be held near Ja’ar. The regional al Qaeda commander at the time, Jalal al Marqashi, was filmed visiting the prisoners.

JALAL AL MARQASHI: [subtitles] Why did you come to fight us? Did we not implement Sharia? Don’t you want to follow Sharia law?

PRISONERS: [subtitles] We want Sharia law.

JALAL AL MARQASHI: [subtitles] Today, we are occupied. The U.S. and Saudi air force has attacked us all.

SAFA AL AHMAD: We were taken to see some of those prisoners. They were being held in a series of small rooms. While the camera was rolling, they pleaded for the government to agree to demands for a prisoner exchange.

PRISONER: [subtitles] We are now prisoners of Ansar al Sharia. They will not release us until the government releases its prisoners.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Back then, al Qaeda’s target was the whole Yemeni army because they were seen as agents of the United States.

PRISONER: [subtitles] We fought down to the last bullet, and then we surrendered. What is our crime?

SAFA AL AHMAD: By the time we got back to Ja’ar, it was evening. Families were on the street. Stores were open, but most of the shopkeepers weren’t inside. Al Qaeda has its own way of policing. We were told three thieves recently had their hands cut off by al Qaeda.

It was time for evening prayers. Everyone had to go to the mosque and pray. We asked what would happen if they didn’t attend. We were told they would be locked up.

As night approached, we decided it was too dangerous to stay. Just the day before we arrived, a U.S. drone struck the town. Drone missions have been a key part of American counterterrorism policy in Yemen, including the attack which killed American-born cleric Anwar al Awlaki in 2011.

Three years after that trip, I was back, traveling once again into al Qaeda territory, into al Bayda province. But this time, the Houthi rebels had managed to extend their control into the al Qaeda heartland.

I’m on one of the most dangerous roads in Yemen, notorious for bandits and thieves. Only a few months ago, it would have been impossible for me get here. Now there are regular Houthi checkpoints.

CHECKPOINT GUARD: [subtitles] Can I help you with anything?

SAFA AL AHMAD: An armed escort took us to Rada’a. This is the Houthi front line against Al Qaeda. Three weeks before we arrived, they had fought an intense battle to take the city.

Walid, a Houthi fighter, shows us around.

WALID: [subtitles] Look here. This spot was the beginning of the battle for Rada’a, from this area and this area, here and here. Many people were killed here. The battles are now behind these mountains in Khubza.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Al Qaeda ruled the city for four years with hardly any reaction from the weak Yemeni government. This mosque was one of their headquarters.

Tariq al Thahab, a powerful tribal leader, brought al Qaeda into the region and tried to declare it an Islamic Emirate.

WALID: [subtitles] This was the room of the leader of al Qaeda, Tariq al Thahab. The people of Rada’a would come to this place to commit themselves in the house of God to shed the blood of other Muslims. It was an allegiance for killing.

SAFA AL AHMAD: The Amriya mosque was built in the 16th century as a center for Islamic learning and religious study. Here, and throughout Yemen, there was no tradition of sectarian hatred. But according to Walid, al Qaeda preached a creed of division.

WALID: [subtitles] This is al Amriya. Al Qaeda made this into a barracks, a fortress. They opened it in the name of Islam. But they spread the culture of sectarianism between Sunnis and Shia, Zaidi and Salafi. We’d never had this in Rada’a, or even in Yemen before.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Walid has also accused al Qaeda of breaking tribal traditions and targeting civilians.

WALID: [subtitles] In this place here, right here, the people of the town met with members of al Qaeda. They came under the protection of the tribes. We had lunch together in this place. We broke bread together in this place. And the next day, they fired on our homes with heavy weapons and snipers.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Walid wanted me to meet orphans whose families he says were killed by al Qaeda.

CHILDREN: [pointing at dead fathers’ pictures] My dad. Dad. My dad. Daddy!

SAFA AL AHMAD: What happened?

BOY: They exploded us.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Why did they explode you?

BOY: My grandfather and I were leaving the mosque, and they blew us up.

MAN AT CHECKPOINT: [subtitles] Welcome.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [voice-over] Despite the Houthi presence, the city was still vulnerable. Several weeks before, a suicide bomber from al Qaeda managed to reach the outskirts of Rada’a. The Houthis say a young child was put in the front seat to try to sneak the bomb past a checkpoint.

HOUTHI MAN: [subtitles] They had put a child in the car, a small child to trick us, and they came to this place here. But there was a checkpoint. He had no choice. He wanted to drive and destroy all these houses and kill the families, but the car exploded here and resulted in this. Children were killed.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Many of the locals I talked to were afraid of a Houthi retreat, fearing that al Qaeda would seek revenge on the town. But the Houthis seem determined to stay.

HOUTHI FIGHTER: [subtitles] I have a message for those extremists, those who betrayed the faith, who are not men enough to face us in battle. We will chase them into every cave, every neighborhood, until we destroy every last corrupt mercenary traitor.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Walid wanted to prove to me that al Qaeda will not be allowed to return.

WALID: [subtitles] This is the house of an extremist from Rada’a. He used to kidnap people from Rada’a and bring them to this house to torture them, then send them to an al Qaeda center in Manasseh. He was one of the leaders in Rada’a who terrorized the whole town.

CAMERA CREW MEMBER: [subtitles] What’s the reason for this?

WALID: [subtitles] To make an example out of him, because it was a prison. OK. We are done. One is enough. Otherwise, they will say we destroyed all the houses in Rada’a.

SAFA AL AHMAD: After months following the Houthis, I wanted to meet those who oppose them and hear what they have to say. Kidnapping is a high risk in these areas, but after careful negotiations with a tribal leader, my camera crew was allowed to cross to the other side of the front line without me.

In the mountains beyond Rada’a are the Sunni militias fighting the Houthis. As the team arrived, an argument broke out over whether they would be allowed to film.

1st FIGHTER: Why is he filming me? He must stop filming me.

2nd FIGHTER: He is filming us, not you.

1st FIGHTER: Leave! Just leave.

2nd FIGHTER: We want our cause to be known. Don’t worry. Ignore him.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Many of the Sunni tribes in al Bayda province are allied to al Qaeda, but not all. However, they are united in their fight against the Houthis.

1st TRIBAL FIGHTER: They destroyed and burned our houses. We are now homeless. I call on the Sunni people, and the Yemenis, to fight to help us!

2nd TRIBAL FIGHTER: I am against all those Shia dogs.

1st TRIBAL FIGHTER: We didn’t go to the Houthis, they came to us. They attacked our homes, they uprooted us and our farms!

SAFA AL AHMAD: Abdullah al Khubzi was a commander under the al Qaeda leader Tariq al Thahab. Now he leads several hundred men against the Houthis.

ABDULLAH AL KHUBZI: [subtitles] There were clashes for 10 days. After that, we had to withdraw from the town because we ran out of ammunition. Now we have incursions from time to time.

They question our faith, but they are the real enemy and danger to Islam. We entered into many agreements with them, but they would break them the next day.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Opposition to the Houthi advance is spreading across the southern Bayda province. The fractious Sunni tribes of the region have come together. Thousands of fighters have joined this new alliance.

The head of that alliance, Ziyad al Majdali, says he is not al Qaeda, but he is unequivocal that he has a religious duty to fight the Houthis.

ZIYAD AL MAJDALI, Head of al Bayda Tribal Alliance: [subtitles] I cannot accept. As a tribal man from Bayda, it is my religious responsibility as a Sunni, as a southerner. As a Sunni southerner, I can never accept the Houthis.

Among their wrong and deadly policies, they blow up mosques and schools, and then scream “Death to America, death to Israel.” So do those mosques, where the words “God is great” are said, belong to America or Israel?

Let me be honest. Even if al Qaeda and I have disagreements, if we’re fighting in the same trenches against the Houthis, he becomes my brother, my brother in arms.

SAFA AL AHMAD: But in other parts of Bayda province some people feel al Qaeda hasn’t gone far enough. Ahmad Khamis, a prominent local jihadi, says he respects the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

AHMAD KHAMIS: [subtitles] I am among those who love al Baghdadi, and love ISIS, and ask God to make them victorious. Why? Because you see their victories with your own eyes. We used to put a lot of faith in democracy and nonviolence, but what has that done for us? This is our hope, to be ruled by Islam and freed from occupation, from the Shia.

ISIS is a reality, and they control land. They take over districts and will engage in direct battle. They won’t retreat from battle, except tactically as part of their operations, just like in Iraq.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Back in Sana’a, the capital, just a few weeks after the Houthi takeover, the mood has changed. Their slogans are crossed out everywhere. There were rumors the Houthis are forming alliances with several tribes and political groups, including the powerful ex-president, Ali Saleh, still one of Yemen’s most powerful men.

They are trying to consolidate their control, and that includes the media. I join a press trip organized by the Houthis. They say they have uncovered an al Qaeda bomb factory in Arhab, a village outside Sana’a.

HOUTHI PRESS GUIDE: [subtitles] Look at these explosives. Look how they make explosives to stick under the cars.

SAFA AL AHMAD: It’s clear that the Houthis want to control the message the press is putting out.

HOUTHI PRESS GUIDE: [subtitles] This is to booby trap cars, like the ones used in Tahrir Square. This is an explosive belt for children. Look, here it is, for children.

SAFA AL AHMAD: The Houthi media were also on hand to broadcast the official version.

HOUTHI NEWSCASTER: [subtitles] Based on what was revealed today of the factories of death run by members of the CIA and documented by our cameras, the community should be grateful to the Houthis.

SAFA AL AHMAD: The Houthis say they’ve arrested these three men for running the bomb factory.

[on camera] They accuse you of making bombs in that place.

PRISONER: I have nothing to do with them. It’s not our house, and I don’t know them. I have nothing to do with it.

SAFA AL AHMAD: What will happen to them now?

AHMAD KHAMIS: They will be taken for interrogation. Why are you asking me?

SAFA AL AHMAD: You are the one who brought me here to film them.

AHMAD KHAMIS: Come, come.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [voice-over] As we leave Arhab, we pass through the village of Yahis. Two boys stop our car. They want us to film a house they say was demolished by the Houthis.

BOY: Film this!

AHMAD KHAMIS: Don’t film. Don’t film.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Whose house is this?

BOY: The house of Sheikh Mohamed Jabr.

SAFA AL AHMAD: And why was it blown up?

BOY: They claimed he was from al Qaeda and a terrorist, and I don’t know what, and that he was from ISIS. Did you hear them say we were ISIS?

SAFA AL AHMAD: Did he have women and children in the house?

BOY: Yes! The women were crying and they kicked them out. Film this! We are already famous! [laughter]

SAFA AL AHMAD: [voice-over] The boys weren’t sure why the Houthis had targeted their village.

BOYS: [subtitles] What’s in Yahis? It has no diesel or fish or electricity or Jerusalem. Yahis is poorer than all other villages.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [voice-over] Meanwhile, in the capital, there is evidence the Houthis are taking over several Sunni mosques and changing their imams. Outside a mosque in the Saba neighborhood, I hear the call to prayer. It’s been changed from the Sunni to the Zaidi one.

Inside the mosque, gunmen were guarding the new Houthi imam, but he was preaching tolerance.

IMAM: [subtitles] Anyone can come and pray and preach. We have no objection. But we do object to those who want to continue divisions and hateful sectarianism.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Some local residents told me the new Imam wasn’t as popular.

We went in search of the ousted Sunni imam, Nabil Iskandar. He says the Houthis told him to leave the mosque, and his home of 14 years.

NABIL ISKANDAR: [subtitles] If this isn’t a sectarian-inspired project, why are our mosques attacked? Why are our rituals being changed, rituals that belong to the Sunni sect?

They don’t have the right to take over our mosques. How can I stay in a place surrounded by gunmen? They used to say they were victims of injustice and marginalization, but they are now practicing what was done to them.

SAFA AL AHMAD: I also wanted to talk to the caretaker of the mosque to see how he felt about the change of imam. But the Houthi gunmen didn’t want us to film.

[on camera] [subtitles] We have permission from yesterday. You’re delaying our work.

[voice-over] We tried to interview the caretaker outside the mosque instead.

CREW MEMBER: [subtitles] We’re rolling, Safa.

SAFA AL AHMAD: But the Houthi gunmen followed us and tried to take our footage.

[on camera] [subtitles] You are standing here with your guns terrorizing us, demanding that we erase our footage. This is not right. Leave the camera. Please let go of the camera. Take your hand off! Take your hand off!

[voice-over] We were detained by the Houthis for four hours. They erased some of our footage.

Local human rights groups say they are becoming more oppressive. They accuse them of assassinating and torturing opponents. I went looking for the family of Wathah al Hitari, a pharmacist who was shot and killed by a man with known links to the Houthis.

I asked the people in his neighborhood what they thought about him.

[on camera] Who knows Wathah?

CHILDREN: I know him. I know him. He used to pray at dawn here. This is his house, there, in that building.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Was he a nice man?

CHILD: He used to pray here in the last days of Ramadan. That’s all he did.

MAN: He used to live in this shop here. He kept to himself. The situation we are in now, we are threatened by both the Houthis and the terrorists.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [voice-over] Yassir is Wathah’s cousin. He was one of the first to hear of his death.

YASSIR: [subtitles] Someone in the pharmacy called and said Wathah was killed. I was shocked and hurried over. I asked how he was killed. They said one of the Houthis suspected him of being a terrorist and killed him. They thought he was from al Qaeda because of his beard.

SAFA AL AHMAD: The Houthis have denied responsibility for the murder of Wathah, but they have offered his family what they consider blood money in compensation.

YASSIR: [subtitles] For three days, I’ve been trying to take it to court. Even if the Houthis refuse to give up the killer, we just wanted to bury Wathah, and God will be their judge. But to take blood money would be a great injustice.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Wathah’s mother refused to accept the money.

MOTHER: I would be eating the flesh of my son by accepting their blood money.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [on camera] So you consider their money dirty?

MOTHER: Yes. Where do they get their money from? They steal from people, don’t they? May God curse them and take revenge from the seventh heaven. May they burn like they burned me with the loss of my son.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [voice-over] Then I receive some terrible news. There’s been another assassination in Sana’a, but this one is different. The old man is well known.

[on camera] [subtitles] Dr. Mohamed Abdulmalik al Mutawakil was killed on Sunday. I have been living in his house for over a month now. This was a shock to everyone. The doctor was one of the few men in Yemen who most would agree was a great and honest politician.

[voice-over] Dr. Mutawakil was on good terms with most political groups, but al Qaeda are suspected of killing him. No one has claimed responsibility.

I had wanted to film with him at the end my visit, to help make sense of events I’ve seen unravel in Yemen. But instead, I’m filming his funeral.

I asked his daughter, Radiya, how she felt about her father’s death.

RADIYA: My consolation is that he died quickly. He didn’t suffer. He died still clutching his prayer beads. My brother Raidan took them from his hand.

I will not be angry, just on a personal level, for my father’s death. It is the same anger that I feel for all families of victims, so it can’t just be for my father.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [on camera] Are you not willing to give yourself the chance to be angry?

RADIYA: Who can I be angry with if the killer is unknown? If I am to be angry, it’s because it’s an assassination. Even if I got angry, I can only direct my anger at the general situation in the country. There is no one to be angry with directly.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [voice-over] I had watched divisions grow in Yemen. Before leaving, I wanted to see the few areas left outside Houthi control. So I headed south.

I arrive in the largest city in the South, Aden. For years, there’s been a popular movement calling for separation from the north, which the government has tried to crush. There is strong anti-Houthi sentiment everywhere.

[graffiti, “Death to Houthis]

Abdulrahman Wajeeh al Deen is in a dangerous situation. He’s one of the few Houthi journalists operating in the south. His life is at risk from opponents of the Houthis and al Qaeda.

ABDULRAHMAN WAJEEH AL DEEN: The situation in Aden is that al Qaeda, after they lost in the north, tried to declare an emirate in the Lahj region close to Aden. And now here in Aden, they have spread to many neighborhoods.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [on camera] Are you afraid they will assassinate you?

ABDULRAHMAN WAJEEH AL DEEN: No. I’m confident I will kill them before I die. I don’t leave my house without my weapon.

SAFA AL AHMAD: You are armed? Show me.

[voice-over] He reveals to me that for months, the Houthis have been infiltrating the south.

ABDULRAHMAN WAJEEH AL DEEN: [subtitles] We have friends here. We have Houthis from the military side, soldiers and officers and government employees, northerners and southerners.

RALLY LEADER: Do you want unity with the North?


RALLY LEADER: Do you want unity with the North?


SAFA AL AHMAD: An enormous rally in support of secession is taking place.

SPEAKER: Southerner, raise your voice!

CROWD: Independence or death!

PROTESTER: We are tired of this! The south demands its freedom and independence!

CROWD: Lift your head up high! You are an independent southerner!

SAFA AL AHMAD: I have never seen so much anger here. The rally turns into a march. Abdulrahman and I follow the crowds as they spill out through the city.

It seems clear to me that across Yemen, the political system is collapsing.


ABDULRAHMAN WAJEEH AL DEEN: [subtitles] We’re not living at all in Yemen. There’s a revolution in the north and a revolution in the south. There are reasons for this. The Yemeni people are strangers in their own country.

SAFA AL AHMAD: As the sun sets over the streets of Aden, we hear the sound of gunfire. Government forces are shooting at the protesters.

PROTESTERS: [subtitles] No more peace after today! Shame, shame, shooting on peaceful protesters! Film this! Film this!

Get down! Get down!

ABDULRAHMAN WAJEEH AL DEEN: [subtitles] The protesters reached the governor’s building and were shot at with tear gas and live bullets, over their heads.

SAFA AL AHMAD: I had come to Yemen to understand the rise of the Houthis. Since my journey, they have gone on to seize control of most of Yemen’s major cities. They reached Aden, where the president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, had taken refuge. He later fled to Saudi Arabia.

A Saudi-led coalition has conducted air strikes against Yemen, targeting the Houthis. And al Qaeda and ISIS are getting stronger. The country is being torn apart.

This conflict will not just bring violence and misery to Yemen, it is a threat to U.S. and Western security and to the stability of the whole region.

[In late March, ISIS claimed credit for suicide bombing two mosques in Sana’a, reportedly killing 137 people. As Saudi-led air strikes continue, the death toll in the past two weeks has reached more than 500.]

1h 54m
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