Sectarian Violence Hikes Yemen’s Instability

Amid the chaos of Yemen’s civil war between the Houthi rebels and Saudi-backed forces of President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi, a third faction that had disappeared from the media landscape is now making a comeback. On August 22nd, Yemeni officials admitted that while the Yemeni civil war is raging, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is making significant gains in the strategic port city of Aden.[1] After disappearing off the Yemeni political stage, the group’s return demonstrates the perils that Yemen still held and the worsening situation there. The Yemeni Civil War is the latest in a series of disasters for the poorest Arab country. The emergence of the Houthis and Al-Qaeda is only the most visible part of the sectarian division that is threatening to tear the country apart.

The Houthi movement is a Zaidi-Shia movement that arose in the mountains of northern Yemen.[2] The movement is named after its former leader, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi. Al-Houthi is presumed killed in 2004 after Yemeni forces set fire to his cave.[3] Initial actions promoted by the Houthis included anti-American and anti-Jewish slogans at mosques following the Invasion of Iraq in 2003, before eventually escalating into open warfare.[4] After a decade of fighting government forces, backed by the loyalists of ousted former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was deposed in the Arab Spring in 2011, and who ironically had been fighting the Houthis when he was in office, the Houthis swept out of the mountains in 2014 claiming to fight corruption and alienation policy the Yemeni government had enacted on their homeland.[5] The 2014 Houthi offensive drove the Yemeni government into exile. The Saudi government, whose country bordered Yemen, accused its regional rival Iran of supporting their Shia co-religiouists.[6] Soon afterwards, Saudi Arabia cobbled together a Sunni coalition and launched air-strikes against the Houthis, in support of forces loyal to the exiled Yemeni government in re-taking the country.

As a Sunni fundamentalist organization, Al-Qaeda is decidedly against the Shiite Houthis and their possible Iranian backers. During the civil war, Al-Qaeda had been launching attacks against both the government loyalists and the Houthis.[7] Using strong rhetoric and supporting Yemeni Sunni tribes fighting the Shiite Houthis,[8] Al-Qaeda is deepening sectarian divisions in the country. The emergence of an Islamic State offshoot in Yemen is set to further add to the chaos. As order breaks down in Yemen, the regional and tribal divisions of the country are rising to the surface, threatening to fragment Yemen and create more instability and violence.

Since the start of the civil war over 4300 people have been killed.[9] Yemen, the poorest Arab country, is set to become even more desperate in need of aid. Airstrikes have devastated the country’s infrastructure, especially its port facilities that are used for imports.[10] The UN has warned that the country is on the verge of famine and starvation as food supplies are either destroyed or chocked off. Around 1.3 million people are internally displaced in Yemen.[11] Unless the situation changes dramatically, humanitarian disaster will occur in Yemen, which will only further instability and undermine any possibility of peace in the region.





[1] Ahmed Al-Haj, “Al Qaeda Militants Seize Control of Key Areas in Yemen Port City,” CTV News, sec. world, 2015.

[2]Yemen Crisis: Saudi-Led Air Raids ‘Kill 65’ in Taiz.” British Broadcast Corporation, sec. Middle East, 2015b.

[3] Safa Al-Ahmad, “Meeting the Houthis – and their Enemies,” British Broadcast Corporation, 2015, .

[4] Jack Freeman, “The Al Houthi Insurgency in the North of Yemen: An Analysis of the Shabab Al Moumineen,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 32, no. 11 (November 2009, 2009), 1008-1019.

[5]Yemen Crisis: Saudi-Led Air Raids ‘Kill 65’ in Taiz.” , Vol. Middle East, 2015b).

[6] Eric Schmitt and Robert F. Worth, “With Arms for Yemen Rebels, Iran Seeks Wider Mideast Role,” New York Times, sec. 15, 2012.

[7] Al-Ahmad, Meeting the Houthis – and their Enemies, 2015).

[8] Safa Al-Ahmad, “Meeting the Houthis – and their Enemies,” British Broadcast Corporation, 2015, .

[9] Mohammed Mukhashaf, “Deadly Blasts Hit Yemen’s Aden and Hadramout, EU Criticizes Port Attacks,” Reuters, sec. World, 2015.

[10]Yemen a Looming Humanitarian Crisis After Airstrike on Port, U.S. Says.” Canadian Broadcast Corporation, sec. Radio, 2015a.

[11] Hebo Saleh, “Conflict-Hit Yemen on Edge of Famine, Warns UN,” Financial Times, sec. Politics & Society, 2015.

Hanyu Huang