A giant poster featuring Yemeni rebel leader Abdel Malek al-Houthi was hung on the ancient Walls of Constantinople in Istanbul last week, just days after his organization was designated a terror group by the United States.
“We are all Yemenis,” read the text in Turkish.
Once seen in the Middle East as a menacing Iranian proxy that wreaked havoc in the Arab world’s poorest country by overthrowing the internationally recognized government and prompting a brutal Saudi-led military intervention, the Houthi group’s fortunes have changed since Israel launched its devastating war on Gaza.
Israel’s war came after Palestinian militant group Hamas launched an October 7 attack on the Jewish state, killing 1,200 people and kidnapping more than 250 others, according to Israeli authorities. The war in Gaza has so far killed almost 27,000 people in the enclave, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in the territory.
The Shiite-Muslim Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, are now seen in parts of the largely-Sunni Muslim world and beyond as champions of the Palestinian cause, defending the people of Gaza against Israel and even taking on the Jewish state’s superpower ally in the fight.
Since mid-November the rebels have been attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea and the Strait of Bab al-Mandab. The Red Sea is a vital waterway that connects to the Suez Canal, through which 10% to 15% of world trade passes. The group’s activities have effectively closed the trade route to most container ships as vessels steer clear of the waterway amid the attacks.
There were signs this week that Iran is trying to rein in its proxies as Kataib Hezbollah, a militia in Iraq, said it was suspending operations against US targets following a strike that killed three American military personnel in Jordan. But Iran appears to have less control over the Houthis, as the Yemeni rebel group continued to target ships.
On Tuesday night, a cruise missile launched by the Houthis into the Red Sea came within a mile of a US destroyer before it was shot down, the closest a Houthi attack has come to a US warship. The episode underscored the threat the rebels continue to pose to US naval assets and commercial shipping despite multiple US and British strikes on Houthi infrastructure inside Yemen. Early on Thursday, the US carried out its latest round of airstrikes in Yemen, against a Houthi drone ground control station in Yemen and 10 Houthi drones.
The attacks in the Red Sea, Houthis say, are intended to pressure Israel and its allies to stop the war in Gaza. The group has repeatedly said that its operations in the Red Sea will cease once Israel stops the war and lifts its siege on the territory.
But experts say that while the Palestinian cause has always been central to Houthi ideology, their actions in the Red Sea come with other benefits.
In its fight, the Houthi group has distracted from Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, shored up domestic and international support, and made its name known among those who knew little to nothing about the movement, they say.
“Solidarity with Gaza is only one of the drivers behind Houthi strikes in the Red Sea,” said Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and former analyst with Canada’s Department of National Defense.
While anti-Israel and anti-American positions are at the heart of the group’s ideology, “the Gaza war should be seen more as a pretext for the Houthis,” Juneau said, as it “allows them to mobilize strong pro-Palestinian feelings” and “project their power outside of the country.”
The Houthis, having taken control of most of northern Yemen – including the capital Sanaa – present themselves as the legitimate rulers of the country. The rebel group has framed its operations in the Red Sea as being conducted by the “Yemeni Armed Forces”. That narrative has taken hold among those who oppose the Gaza war the world over. The internationally recognized government meanwhile sits some 230 miles away in the southern city of Aden and is seen as weak.
‘A way out’
Their attacks have been condemned by the US, the European Union, NATO and 44 other allied countries, who in a joint statement called the Houthi-led seizure of one cargo ship on November 19 “appalling.” A month later, the US formed a multinational coalition meant to safeguard commerce in the Red Sea. The US and United Kingdom have since been conducting airstrikes on the Houthis.
The Yemeni group has shown no signs of backing down, which experts say is helping them secure reputational victories abroad as well as outside their traditional support base at home.
“Locally, their popularity has increased in some areas,” said Ahmed Nagi, a senior Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, adding that resentment remains with what is perceived as the sidelining of Yemen’s domestic issues. For some Yemenis, the Houthis’ attacks have also rekindled memories of the group’s own violence at home amid the near decade-long civil war, he said.
Yemen’s civil war began in 2014, when Houthi forces stormed the capital Sanaa and toppled the internationally recognized, Saudi-backed government. The conflict spiraled into a wider war in 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened in an attempt to expel the Houthis. That attempt failed, leaving the country in ruins. Iran increased its support for the Houthis during that war as its proxy conflict with Saudi Arabia escalated.
After nearly eight years of war, a ceasefire between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition was signed in April 2022. While it lapsed just six months later, warring parties have not returned to full-scale conflict and the pause in fighting has largely held.
Juneau said there is no military or political rival that can challenge the Houthis domestically, but their rule in Yemen has been repressive and economically inefficient.
“Mobilizing strong pro-Palestinian feelings is therefore a very useful tactic to distract form their own domestic challenges,” he said.
Today, more than 24 million people in Yemen – over 80% of the population – are in need of humanitarian aid and protection, according to the UN. The conflict has also left the country’s infrastructure in tatters, exacerbated economic collapse and led to widespread displacement.
Asked in an interview with BBC Arabic why the rebel group is reacting to a foreign conflict amid Yemen’s own domestic troubles, a top Houthi official countered that Western countries are doing the same by supporting Israel.
“Is Biden a neighbor to Netanyahu? Do they live in one apartment? Does the French president also live on the same floor, with the British prime minister living in the same building?” Mohamed Ali al-Houthi, member of the Supreme Political Council, told BBC Arabic last month, boasting about drawing the US into the conflict.
During Yemen’s civil war, the Houthis would blame the country’s problems on the conflict, Nagi said.
Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi has denied that his group is seeking popularity with the Red Sea strikes, telling BBC Arabic the campaign comes from “a standpoint of (duty to) faith and Islam.”
Houthis want to send a message
Along with opposition to the US and Israel, the Palestinian cause has always been central to the group’s ideology. When Houthis rose to power, their slogan was: “God Is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.”
“Houthis wanted to send a message: We are the group that is most committed to Gaza, not just in words but in action,” Nagi said.
Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, said that it is possible that the rebels want to draw the US into a direct war.
“The Houthis are banking on US conflict aversion,” she said, adding that after their eight-year war with the US-backed Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, they “emerged more confident” and “forced the Saudis to come to them desperate for an exit.”
While a war with the US is unlikely to unite Yemenis behind the Houthis, as a conflict of that scale would be devastating to an already suffering population, “sustained US airstrikes could provide the Houthis with a pretext to compel (more Yemeni) people to join or contribute to their self-proclaimed ‘war effort’,” Dawsari said.
Despite the potential repercussions on Yemenis at home, the Houthis have welcomed conflict with the US and its allies.
“The US and the UK must understand that we are in a time of retaliation, and that our people do not know surrender,” Mohamed Ali al-Houthi posted last week on X. “If you carry weapons, then the Yemeni people carry weapons as well, and if you have strength, then we are stronger with God.”
The official also brushed off the risk of Israeli retaliation, saying the Jewish state has created a false image of being “a monster with a big army.”
“The Houthis are feeling hubristic, having not only survived years of bombing by Saudi Arabia, but emerged much stronger,” Juneau said. “They therefore likely believe that they can also survive US strikes, and use them to benefit politically.”