The following article is part of MEI’s special series, “The Houthis: Iran’s Most Distant Ally,” which analyzes the dynamics behind the Iranian-Houthi relationship, identifies the interests and challenges faced by both sides in maintaining their cooperation, charts their impact on regional security, and offers policy recommendations for how the US and other governments should respond.
The Houthis’ attacks in the Red Sea are a manifestation of their ideology, rooted in Islamic fundamentalism. Today, aligned with Iran’s “Axis of Resistance,” this ideology aims to expel the United States from the Middle East, destroy Israel, and institute a worldwide Islamic Caliphate with Jerusalem at its core. Notably, a state of perpetual conflict is perceived as a necessary condition to realize these ideological objectives. The following analysis delves into the ideological framework that propels the Houthis’ actions in the Red Sea and its broader implications.
Houthis are Jaroudi Zaydis
The Houthis’ political ambitions are deeply rooted in Zaydism, a school of thought within Shi’a Islam, whose central tenet is that the spiritual leader of Muslims should be a Hashemite or descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Referred to as the Imam, this figure should not only hold a spiritual role but also serve as the leader of the state. The first Zaydi theocratic state was established by the religious and political leader Yehya bin al-Husayn in 983 CE, on the territory of what is today Saada Governorate. Husayn came to Yemen from Hijaz (modern-day Saudi Arabia) and became widely known as al-Hadi al-Haqq (“the Guide to the Truth”) because he was on a mission to guide Yemenis to the right path of Islam.
The Zaydi imams ruled north Yemen with an iron fist for hundreds of years, isolated the country from the rest of the world, and prevented the provision of modern education and basic services. In September 1962, Yemeni revolutionary forces led by army officers overthrew the Imamate and established a republican system based on equal citizenship, bringing a more modern and centralized form of government. The revolution itself did not target Zaydis, who continued to dominate the country. It did, however, end the Hashemite monopoly on power, although, to this day, many Hashemites continue to hold senior military and government positions. Nonetheless, for hardcore religious Zaydis, the right to return to power remained a goal.
The Houthi group itself is an offshoot of the Zaydi revivalist movement that emerged in the early 1990s. The Houthis’ original head, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, led a rebellion against the government in 2004 and was killed in the same year. After his death, his brother and the current leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, took his position. Their father, Badr al-Din al-Houthi, was a prominent Zaydi scholar and influential figure. All three men have followed the Jaroudi school, a stricter sect of the Zaydi branch of Islam. While traditional Zaydism prefers, but does not stipulate, the imam to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandsons (a concept commonly known as the Imamate), Jaroudism makes descendance from the Prophet’s bloodline a strict precondition. Jaroudis believe that their divine right to rule is not limited to Yemen, but the entire universe. Moreover, Jaroudis elevate imams to the status of prophet, believing they are chosen by God and that humans have no business in selecting or resisting such a ruler. Disagreement between the Jaroudis led by Badr al-Din al-Houthi and his son Hussein and the rest of the Zaydi scholars over the Imamate led to a split within the Zaydi revivalist movement in the mid-1990s. In the late 1990s, Hussein al-Houthi hijacked, radicalized, and militarized the movement, and his violent tendencies prompted some of its key founders to distance themselves from him. Most recently, many Zaydi scholars critical of the Houthis have been sent to secret prisons.
Iran’s influence on the Houthis’ ideology
The Houthis are also strongly inspired by Wilayat al-Faqih (“the Guardianship of the Jurist”), the system of governance established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 in which ultimate political and religious authority lies in the hands of a supreme clerical leader. Badr al-Din studied in Qom, Iran, in the mid-1980s, while Hussein and his brother Abdul Malik spent time in Iran and southern Lebanon during the 1980s and 1990s.
Although Iran does not fully control the Houthis, the rebels owe the Islamic Republic the success of their transformation into a transnational force to be reckoned with. Hussein al-Houthi was strongly inspired by the Iranian Revolution and devoted to importing it to Yemen. He believed that Iran, with its anti-imperialist agenda, could lead the Arabs toward glory. His lectures, which constitute the bulk of the curriculum that the Houthis use to indoctrinate their followers and Yemenis at large, are centered around prioritizing jihad against America and Israel.
To consolidate their authority, the Houthis established a theocratic police state. The group venerates their founder as the “Talking Qur’an,” and their current leader as the head of the "Qur’anic March," a term denoting their political and religious platform. Their founding document states that God has chosen Ahl al-Bayt, referring to the Prophet Muhammad’s decedents in general and to the group leader specifically, to lead the Muslim Ummah (nation) and safeguard the Qur’an. Their current leader is referred to as Alam al-Huda, or the “Icon of Guidance.” All of these elements underscore the sacred stature of Abdul Malik al-Houthi, who merits absolute obedience from his subjects.
The Houthis’ ability to defeat their rivals during the Yemeni civil war confirmed their belief that God is on their side. And now, their Red Sea attacks against Israel are part of the Holy War the group has been meticulously preparing for on behalf of the Muslim nation for decades. “We’ve been waiting for 20 years for the moment of [military] engagement with America and Israel. Praise God, who helped us fight the Lords of Blasphemy and Tyranny,” tweeted Naser al-Din Amer, the head of the Houthis’ main news agency and social media center, when the US announced it was forming Operation Prosperity Guardian in December of last year.
Preparing for the end times
Behind the Houthis’ confidence is a religious prophecy that all Islamic groups, Sunni and Shi’a alike, believe in. Namely, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have told his companions of a figure from his bloodline, one he called al-Mahdi, who would appear before Judgment Day. Through conviction and war, the Mahdi would receive an oath of allegiance in Mecca and then lead his army to conquer Jerusalem, where he would establish an Islamic Caliphate and prepare for Jesus’ return. Credible Islamic scholars have cited the Prophet Muhammad in saying that the Mahdi will then “fill the Earth with equity and justice where [previously] it was filled with oppression and injustice.” Shi’a scholars posit that, in Yemen, a leader will emerge by the name of al-Yamani, who will be decried as the holder of the “most righteous banner” and who will rally support for the Mahdi and help him liberate Jerusalem and conquer Constantinople and Rome — which some scholars today interpret as a reference to Europe. The most prominent events that precede the emergence of the Mahdi will, according to the prophecy, include revolutions; and in this vein, some Shi’a scholars already point to the Iranian Revolution and the al-Yamani revolution in Yemen that started in Sanaa.
The war in Gaza as the Trojan Horse
The war in Gaza, the Houthis believe, brought them still closer to fulfilling this prophecy. The group had spent the past several decades preparing for a war with Israel and the West — since Oct. 7, 2023, the Houthis graduated 45,000 fighters as part of their “Al-Aqsa Flood Forces,” trained for this purpose. Moreover, under the banner of “Learning and Jihad,” the Houthis aimed to recruit 1.5 million children into their summer camps during 2023. They have expanded their recruitment throughout northwestern Yemen for the “Battle of Promised Conquest and Holy Jihad,” as Abdul Malik al-Houthi and the group’s leaders declared in a recent speech. His commander-in-chief, Mahdi al-Mashat, described the Houthi fighters as the “men of Allah and the knights of Jerusalem.”
The Houthis’ anti-imperialist agenda earned them growing support in the Muslim world as well as among far-leftist groups in the West, but their underlying goal is to establish their version of Islamist imperialism in coordination with Iran and its Axis of Resistance. “We are struggling to establish justice on Earth,” said a member of the Houthis’ political Bureau, Muhammad al-Bukhaiti. The current US-UK airstrikes are, thus, unlikely to deter the Houthis, who are implementing a long-term strategy to build an army for their future wars. “Our dear nation won’t shy away from confrontation with any enemy no matter what their capabilities are. We are a nation that relies on Allah,” Abdul Malik al-Houthi said in a recent televised speech.
Earlier this month, Houthi Supreme Council member Mohammed al-Houthi challenged America’s warning to the group against continued targeting of ships in the Red Sea. “We fight you and prioritize Islam. Islam is the religion of the entire world. We have the legitimacy to move to the end of the earth, just like you,” he posted on X. The Houthis dismissed the US designation of the group as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT), stating that it won’t affect or even bother them. Their leader, quoting his brother who initiated the rebellion against the Yemeni government over 20 years ago in the remote mountains of norther Yemen, referred to America as a mere “straw of hay.” In a speech delivered a day after the designation, he expressed unwavering confidence in the “divine promise,” stating that “all tyrants in the world, including America and Britain, are nothing when facing Allah.”
The Houthis’ confidence, strategic patience, and tendency to escalate, in contrast to the West’s inclination toward quick fixes and short attention span, position the rebel group many steps ahead of their now international rivals.
Nadwa Al-Dawsari is a researcher and conflict practitioner with over 20 years of field experience in Yemen, where she worked with tribes, civil society, local authorities, security actors, and non-state armed groups. She is a Non-Resident Scholar with the Middle East Institute and a fellow at the Center on Armed Groups.
Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images
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