By Brian Whitaker
Prompted by the current turmoil in Yemen, I decided to search the old WikiLeaks files for US embassy cables discussing the Houthis.
There are 284 documents with the keyword "Houthi", covering a period from August 2004 (during the first brief war between the Saleh regime and the Houthis) to February 2010 (when the sixth and last of the regime's Houthi wars ended). That's an average of around one cable a week, so the US embassy in Sana'a was clearly giving the issue some attention.
Several interesting points emerge from the documents:
- The Saleh regime made persistent efforts to draw the US into the Houthi conflict.
- In 2006, Saleh sought American help to assassinate a Houthi leader, in furtherance of his re-election campaign.
- The Saleh regime made repeated claims of Iranian involvement in Yemen, but failed to back them up with supporting evidence.
- The US believed Saleh's battles against the Houthis were ill-conceived, describing them as "dangerous and delusional".
- In 2009, the US became especially alarmed by Saudi and Emirati support for Saleh, which it feared would expand "regional and sectarian dimensions" of the Houthi conflict.
Assassination as an election stunt
IN JUNE 2006, General John Abizaid, commander of Centcom, visited Yemen for meetings with President Ali Abdullah Saleh and various government ministers. The third Houthi war had ended earlier that year but Saleh still saw unfinished business.
In September, Yemen was due for a presidential election. This was the first (and only) time during his 34 years in power that Saleh faced the electorate in a contest with candidates from other parties. There was little prospect of Saleh losing but he seems to have decided that his campaign would benefit if a leader of the Houthi movement, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, could be assassinated before polling day, and he sought American help in that.
According to the US embassy’s note of the meeting, Saleh told Abizaid he wanted “a decisive operation” against the Houthi leader “before the election”.
"I want to track his phone calls and then strike him like we did Harithi,” Saleh added, referring to Abu Ali al-Harithi, an al-Qaeda operative who had been killed in Yemen by an American drone strike in 2003.
Abd al-Malik al-Houthi:The embassy note says that Saleh asked Gen Abizaid, as a matter of urgency, “to provide imagery of 1/50,000 resolution of Saada [the Houthis’ stronghold] in order to assist the Yemeni Government's plans to ‘strike’ insurgent leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi and finish this insurgency once and for all.”
Saleh wanted to assassinate him
Saleh wanted to assassinate him
Abizaid gave a non-committal reply and pointed out that in order to provide such imagery the US would first need permission from the Yemeni government for overflights in the area.
In the event, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi survived and Saleh was re-elected president with almost 80% of the votes.
Yemeni efforts to enlist US support
JUDGING by the leaked embassy documents, Yemeni requests for American help against the Houthis were a regular occurrence. In August 2004, during the first Houthi war, the defence minister asked US ambassador Thomas Krajeski for “specific US intelligence assistance to locate elements of al-Houthi supporters in ‘other areas’ of the country by eavesdropping on their wireless and hand-held radio communications.”
The ambassador replied, again non-committally, that the US would like to assist if it could, but that several issues would first have to be addressed, including “whether we had the capability, if it was currently available in the region, and whether it would be possible to share such information”.
Rather oddly, the Yemeni defence minister then informed the ambassador “that if the requested intelligence information was not provided in the next three or so days, it would be unnecessary, as the fighting would be over”.
In fact, the fighting continued for several more weeks and in a comment at the end of his memo the ambassador wrote:
“This request for intelligence assistance suggests that the ROYG [Republic of Yemen Government] is not only shaken by its inability to defeat al-Houthi quickly, but fears the conflict may spread to other areas of the country.”Cables show the Saleh regime making persistent attempts to enlist American support, characterising the Houthis, along with al-Qaeda, as part of the country’s terrorism problem. The Americans, though eager to combat al-Qaeda in Yemen, were reluctant to view the Houthis in the same light and were attempting to keep the two issues apart. They also considered Saleh was mishandling the Houthi situation, both militarily and politically.
The Yemenis, of course, were familiar with American concerns about Iran and in their effort to secure US help against the Houthis began making claims about Iranian involvement – claims which the Americans found unpersuasive.
During his 2006 visit, Gen Abizaid was lobbied about Iran by both the interior minister, Rashad al-Alimi, and President Saleh himself.
Alimi told the Centcom chief that Iran's interference in Yemen had begun in 1983, when the Revolutionary Guard trained terrorist groups and executed operations in Yemen. A cinema was bombed, acid was thrown in women's faces, and an attempt was made to bomb the Saudi Embassy in Sana'a.
General Abizaid:Alimi added that Iran’s recent support for insurgents [the Houthis] in Yemen's Saada region was unacceptable and, along with other activities in the region, constituted proof of Tehran's desire to "re-establish the Persian empire". The memo continues:
Saleh lobbied him over Iran
Saleh lobbied him over Iran
“In 2004, Alimi continued, Shia from Iran and Saudi Arabia began supporting followers of insurgent cleric Badr al-Din al-Houthi in the northern governate of Saada. ‘Documents we seized in Saada proves this support,’ Alimi contended. The Yemeni Government rolled up a cell linked to al-Houthi in Saana that was planning to attack the [US] embassy and assassinate the ambassador. ‘This is what the Revolutionary Guards are doing in Yemen,’ Alimi concluded.”When Abizaid mentioned that Yemen also faced threats from al-Qaeda, Alimi replied that “the threat from the Revolutionary Guard is greater" – which he explained by saying that the threat from Iran was actually greater for Gulf countries than for Yemen, but that Iran's support of the al-Houthi insurgency was nonetheless dangerous, "given Saada's proximity to Shia areas of Saudi Arabia and the oil fields".
In a separate meeting on the same day, according to the memo, “President Saleh advised Gen Abizaid that Iran has destructive intentions in Iraq and Bahrain, because Tehran ‘wants to restore the Persian empire’. He said it was in the interests of all nations to work with the USG [United States Government] to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."
A comment from ambassador Krajeski at the end of the memo says:
“Saleh from time to time rails in private meetings with us about Iranian meddling in Yemen's internal affairs, but he is careful to keep a correct relationship with Tehran.”In that connection, the ambassador noted that Iran's National Security Adviser had recently visited Yemen, “but we heard nothing but statements [from the Yemeni government] that were positive and supportive of Iran”.
Dubious dossier on Iran
IN FEBRUARY 2007, three weeks after the outbreak of the fifth Houthi war, Silvestre Reyes, an American congressman newly appointed as chair of the House Intelligence Committee, visited Yemen and had “an unusually lengthy meeting” with President Saleh.
Once again, Saleh demanded US support for his military campaign against the Houthis “on an urgent basis” by providing intelligence, equipment and armoured vehicles. Once again, this was accompanied by scare stories of Iranian involvement.
Saleh probably thought he had a receptive audience since Congressman Reyes had recently linked al-Qaeda to Iran, describing it as a “predominantly probably Shi’ite” organisation.
Congressman Reyes: He thoughtThe US embassy memo about Reyes’s visit continues:
al-Qaeda was a Shia organisation
al-Qaeda was a Shia organisation
“In a separate meeting hosted by foreign minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi and [interior] minister Alimi, Political Security Organisation Director Ali al-Qamish explained, ‘We believe the al-Houthi problem comes directly from Iran.’ The Iranian regime wants influence in the region by working through groups that are ideologically sympathetic, he said, in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. Iran began culturally preparing Yemenis in Saada in the 1990s, and are now hoping to replace the Government in Saada, and perhaps all of Yemen. The al-Houthis were responsible for planning to attack the [US] embassy with rockets and assassinate the Ambassador in 2005. They take advantage of ‘emotions on the street’ by adopting the slogan, ‘Death to America, Death to Israel,’ Qamish explained.The minister then handed Congressman Reyes a file that he said substantiated Yemen's allegations of Iranian involvement. Reyes passed the document to the American embassy where it was examined and found to be lacking in evidence:
“The al-Houthis, Qamish continued, depend on Iran as their ‘main funding source,’ as well as individuals from Bahrain, Qatar and elsewhere who ‘share their belief in twelver Islam’. Because of the tension between Libya and Saudi Arabia, the Libyan President also provides funding to the al-Houthis, in order to ‘settle scores with the Saudis’.
" The government tried to solve the Saada conflict through dialogue, but the al-Houthis insist on carrying weapons against the state, Qamish explained. National Security Bureau Deputy Director Ammar Saleh, who was also in the meeting, added that Yemen needs US support to counter the spread of Iranian influence and for ‘fighting these terrorists just like we do al-Qaida’. (NOTE: Neither Qamish nor Ammar Saleh provided any intelligence to support their claims. END NOTE)
“Minister Alimi asserted that the al-Houthis ‘have plans to hit Saudi oil facilities,’ according to informants among the Shia community in Saudi Arabia, information that Alimi said has been passed to the Saudi intelligence services. ‘We warned you two and a half years ago that a Taliban-like regime was forming in Somalia, but you did not listen to us,’ Alimi stated. ‘We are warning you again about the al-Houthis, and you must act’."
“Embassy's review of the file revealed letters from an unclear source requesting equipment and training from someone in Iran, claiming that the northern tribes of Yemen were ‘ready for an Islamic revolution’.A comment in the embassy memo from ambassador Krajesk adds:
“The file also contained a number of documents related to the trial and sentencing of Judge Yahya Hussein al-Dailami and cleric Mohamed al-Muftah, who were convicted of being agents of Iran. (NOTE: Both men were pardoned and released from prison in May 2005. END NOTE)
“Also in the file were documents related to the alleged plans in 2005 for a rocket attack against the Embassy and assassination of the Ambassador. The file also included a threatening letter from a man claiming to be associated with the al-Houthis to the Jewish community in Saada.”
“For President Saleh and his senior security team, the al-Houthis' educational and religious links to Iran and Tehran's meddling in other countries in the region appear to be enough to convince them that an Iranian hand is behind the current phase of the al-Houthi insurrection, which has been going on for the past three years. Based on the information the Yemenis have provided thus far, however, embassy is not ready to make that leap of faith.”US accuses Saudis and Emiratis
THE SIXTH Houthi war began in August 2009 and this time Saudi Arabia had joined in, launching airstrikes in support of the Saleh regime. In a note to Washington, the US embassy in Sanaa expressed alarm at the way the conflict was being inflamed – not by Iran but by Yemen’s Arab neighbours:
“Ongoing, direct Saudi involvement in the Sa'ada war, which in and of itself risks expanding the regional and sectarian dimensions of the conflict, also seems to be encouraging other Sunni neighbours to provide material support to President Saleh's ill-conceived campaign to eradicate the Houthi rebellion through purely military means.The memo, written in November 2009, continues:
“The SAG [Saudi Arabian Government] itself apparently has agreed to provide $62 million in weapons, ammunition and other supplies from its own stock … and to finance additional deals with third parties.
“We urge direct and immediate engagement with governments in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and other regional capitals (Cairo and Amman come to mind) to convey clearly our view that their interest in promoting a stable and secure Yemen is being fundamentally undermined by the infusion of large amounts of weapons.”
“It is, in fact, the amount of weapons the SAG and at least one other neighbouring state, the UAE, seem intent on throwing at the Yemeni government that strikes us as a cause for serious concern. We know that the Saudis have agreed to provide the ROYG [Republic of Yemen Government] with APCs, weapons and ammunition and to assist in the purchase of helicopters for the YAF [Yemeni Air Force].The memo also criticises Saudi Arabia’s apparent acceptance of Yemeni government claims that the Houthi rebellion could be "finished" militarily – an idea which it describes as “both dangerous and delusional”:
“In addition, we understand KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] is offering to purchase weapons and ammo from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and that the UAE has agreed to broker a similar deal with Bulgaria. We believe this tidal wave of arms into Yemen, a nation already awash in weapons, will encourage President Saleh to continue to reject any suggestion that he attempt to find a negotiated solution to his government’s conflict with the Houthis, and prolong a clumsy military effort that has destroyed much of Sa'ada's infrastructure and created an IDP [internally-displaced] population in excess of 150,000 people with no evidence that he is any closer to dominating the Houthis than he was five years ago.
“In addition, it is almost certain that a large amount of the weapons now on offer will find their way into Yemen's thriving grey arms market, or be re-exported, a traditional revenue stream for the Saleh government. From there, it is anyone's guess as to where the weapons will surface.”
“It ignores willfully the fact that, after five military iterations (2004-09) and three solid months of Yemeni air strikes (commencing August 12) and ground operations, well-armed and -entrenched Houthi forces continue to bedevil ROYG armed forces, which have suffered substantial losses, both from battlefield casualties and desertions.”In a comment at the end of the note, ambassador Stephen Seche writes:
“We can all agree that the Houthis are a destabilising element in Yemen … Whether the Houthis are (as the ROYG and its Sunni neighbours claim) the instrument Iran has chosen to establish a beachhead in the Arabian Peninsula remains unclear, although the fact that after five years of conflict there is still no compelling evidence of that link must force us to view this claim with some scepticism.The same memo notes that the Yemeni government “has failed repeatedly to corroborate its charges that the Houthi rebellion is the tip of the Iranian/Hizballah spear in Yemen” and refers to “extravagant, public claims” that an Iranian ship seized in the Red Sea off the Yemeni coast a month earlier had been carrying Iranian military trainers, weapons and explosives destined for the Houthis. “In fact,” the memo says, “sensitive reporting suggests that the ship was carrying no weapons at all”.
“That said, we can think of few ways to more effectively encourage Iranian meddling in the Houthi rebellion than to have all of Yemen's Sunni neighbors line up to finance and outfit Ali Abdullah Saleh's self-described ‘Operation Scorched Earth’ against his country's Shia minority.”
The Iranian “arms ship” affair (which I discussed in two blog posts at the time) is mentioned again in another embassy memo dated November 16 which says the Yemeni government “has yet to produce evidence that Iranians were smuggling arms to the Houthis, as the ship was apparently empty when it was seized”. Unfazed by the ship’s emptiness, however, Yemen’s foreign minister informed the US embassy that this “indicated the arms had already been delivered”.