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Explained: Who Are Houthis, The Group That Hijacked An India-Bound Ship



Explained: Who Are Houthis, The Group That Hijacked An India-Bound Ship

The Houthis, historically, have had their roots in northern Yemen.

New Delhi:

A cargo ship en route to India from Turkey was hijacked by Yemen’s Houthi rebels in the Red Sea on Sunday. The vessel, carrying approximately 25 crew members from diverse nationalities, was taken hostage by the Houthis, who initially asserted it was an Israeli ship. However, Israel vehemently denied this claim, and no Indian nationals were among the crew of the “Galaxy Leader”, the name of the vessel.

Sitting nearly 2,500 km away from Israel in Sanaa, Yemen’s Houthis recently entered the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas when they fired drones and missiles at Israel. 

But who are the Houthis?


During the latter part of the 20th century, the Houthi clan, with roots in the isolated northern reaches of Yemen, initiated a religious revival movement for the Zaydi branch of Shi’ite Islam, which had once governed Yemen but had subsequently experienced economic hardship and marginalisation in its northern stronghold.

Shi’ite Muslims compose a minority in the Islamic world, and Zaydis are a minority within this minority group, differing significantly in their teachings and beliefs from the Shi’ites who predominate in Iran, Iraq, and various other regions.

For hundreds of years, the Zaydis engaged in a struggle for control of Yemen, achieving varying degrees of success. A line of Zaydi Imams governed the community, and Zaydis formed the majority of the population in the northern highlands. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, they engaged in skirmishes with the former Ottoman Empire.

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Photo Credit: Reuters

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, a Zaydi monarchy emerged in North Yemen, known as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom,  which gained international recognition as the legitimate government of North Yemen, with its capital situated in Taiz. The monarch, or imam, held dual roles as both a secular ruler and a spiritual leader.

However, with Egypt’s backing, a revolutionary military junta staged a coup in 1962, ousting the Mutawakkilite monarchy and setting up an Arab nationalist government, with its capital in Sana’a.

Radicalisation And An Iran Connect

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq had a significant impact on the Houthi movement, as it did on many other Arab populations. It marked a turning point for the group, leading them to adopt a more radical stance and embrace slogans like, “Death To America” and “Death To Israel”.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant and political group, became a mentor for the Houthis. Despite their adherence to different branches of Shi’ite Islam, the two groups were drawn together by a natural affinity. 

Founded in the early 1980s, Hezbollah holds the distinction of being Iran’s first proxy in the Middle East. The group is funded militarily and financially by the Revolutionary Guards. Hezbollah shares Tehran’s Shi’ite Islamist ideals and recruits mostly among the Lebanese Shiite Muslims. 

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Hezbollah provided the Houthis with both military and political expertise while Iran emerged as a secondary source of support, fueled in part by the Houthis’ and Iranians’ shared enmity towards Saudi Arabia. The rebels are trained in drone and missile attacks, which they have demonstrated over the years with attacks on Saudi and UAE facilities. 

The Houthis are believed to be one among several other armed militias across the Middle East that are part of Iran’s “Axis Of Resistance” – a proxy network across the region to champion Iran’s political motivations. 

The War In Yemen

The current civil war in Yemen was sparked by the Houthis’ seizure of Sana’a in late 2014, prompting Saudi Arabia, alarmed by Iran’s expanding influence nearby, to spearhead a Western-backed coalition in March 2015 to prop up the Saudi-backed ruling government.

The Houthis gained control over a substantial swathe of northern Yemen and other populous regions, prompting the internationally recognised government to establish its headquarters in the port city of Aden.

According to the United Nations, after nine years of war, Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 

“An estimated 4.5 million people-14 percent of the population-are currently displaced, most of whom have been displaced multiple times over a number of years,” the UN says.

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