The news that the Obama administration had approved the extra-judicial killing of an American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki has extended Yemen's fifteen minutes of fame. Awlaki was accused of assisting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and helping inspire the Ford Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, and recruiting the failed Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. This widely publicized incident has overshadowed a far more significant and worrisome story coming out of Yemen in the past week, one that could further hamper Yemen's efforts in combating AQAP. The two-month truce between the Yemeni government and the so-called Houthi rebels in Yemen's north has started to deteriorate. Last Wednesday it was reported that a member of the Houthis murdered a school security guard. The next day, according to Yemeni officials, the Houthis shot unsuccessfully at a military plane. Security officials announced this past Saturday that a Houthi member killed a Yemeni soldier.
Houthi representatives have denied the latter two claims, but it might not matter. While it is nearly impossible to verify either claim since there is no independent media in Sa'ada, the Yemeni government has started to view these events as a breach of the cease-fire agreement. Brian O'Neil, a former writer and editor for the Yemen Observer, explains: "The truth here doesn't actually matter. What matters is the willingness of the parties to believe the stories. That is how wars start, or start again." If the war resumes, it could jeopardize the tentative gains of recent months, complicating American efforts to support the Yemeni government's campaign against AQAP, and spark another humanitarian and political disaster for Yemen's people.
The Houthis trace their origins back to a Zaydi Shi'ite revivalist movement, "al- Shabab al-Mu'mineen" (the Believing Youth), which was responding to Wahhabist proselytization efforts in the northern Yemen province of Sa'ada. Hussein Badr ad-Din al-Houthi, the original leader of the Houthi rebellion whose death ended the first battle in September 2004, complained of marginalization and claimed that Yemeni President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh had not focused on building institutions or investing in public services in Sa'ada. Hussein became more outspoken and critical of President Saleh following 9/11, arguing that Saleh used the War on Terror as justification for targeting the group and arresting its members. The conflict came to a head on June 18, 2004, when the Yemeni police arrested 640 protesters in front of Sana'a Grand Mosque. Two days later, Yemen's security apparatus tried to arrest Hussein in Marran district in Sa'ada leading to clashes between Yemeni soldiers and the Houthis. What was originally seen as a police operation quickly turned into a full-fledged battle in which Hussein was killed.
The conflict between the Houthis, now led by ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, and the Yemeni government has witnessed a familiar pattern of clashes, ceasefires, and then renewed fighting. In previous rounds of battle, similar low-level confrontations and accusations of each side breaking agreements led to a renewal of major conflict. For instance, the second battle began in March, 2005 when Yemeni security forces killed three members of the Houthis because of their alleged failure to disarm. Clashes broke out between the two sides, leading to twenty-one deaths and the start of the third installment of fighting in late November, 2005. The fourth battle began in January, 2007 when Houthi militants attacked security strongholds, leaving six people dead. Major fighting was initiated again in May, 2008 when a motorcycle rigged with explosives blew up outside of a Mosque in Sa'ada, sparking the fifth round of fighting. Lastly, the sixth and most recent battle began in August, 2009 because the Houthis took control of a stretch of highway that linked Sana'a to the Saudi border. In light of these past events, it would hardly be surprising if these minor incidents over the past week lead to an outbreak of a seventh round of fighting.
Another outbreak of war would be damaging to American counterterrorism efforts against AQAP. Yemen's assistance in combating AQAP would be hampered since President Saleh views AQAP as less of a threat to his power in contrast to the Houthis and the Southern Movement attempting to secede in the south. Therefore, much of the government's security apparatus would be allocated again to the north, and there would be increased risks of it diverting aid intended to be used against AQAP to its struggle in the North.
More importantly, it would be harmful to Yemen and its citizens. A new outbreak of fighting would further embed war spending in Yemen's economy, from which both sides and intermediaries have benefited. In the past it has also allowed the Yemeni government to expand its military budget. What's more, because of a lack of governmental oversight, military officials have taken to trafficking weapons, some of which ironically have ended up in the hands of the Houthis. This has exacerbated the militarization of the government, which has become far more tyrannical when handling the protests led by the southern movement. Although southern movement leaders have rejected AQAP, it could potentially lead southerners to look to AQAP since its leader Nasser al-Wahayshi has endorsed their cause. Furthermore, the effects of another war in the north will further exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, which has left more than 250,000 Yemenis internally displaced.
If the United States wants full cooperation from President Saleh in denying AQAP a safe haven, the conflict in the north must be resolved. Rather than helping Yemen defeat the Houthi insurgency, the U.S. should support efforts to maintain the ceasefire and find a political solution to the ongoing conflict. It is in the United States' interest to convince the Yemeni government to be patient with alleged violations of the recent cease-fire agreement since the Houthis are willing to look into the provocations from the past week. Moreover, the beginning of a new round of fighting would erase all the positive, yet limited progress that has been established over the past two months. The United States and Yemen's citizens can only hope that renewed fighting does not take place, for if it does, the consequences could be very detrimental.
Aaron Y. Zelin is an M.A. candidate at Brandeis University, researching the intellectual origins of al Qaeda's ideology.