The group, a Zaidi Shiite movement that’s been fighting Yemen’s Sunni-majority government since the early 2000s, recently launched a series of attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea which have disrupted global trade.
After weeks of attacks against commercial ships in the Red Sea, Yemen’s Houthi rebels are now at the centre of rising tensions in the Middle East which threatens to extend the Israel-Hamas war to a regional conflict.
But who are the Houthis?
The Houthis are an armed political and religious group which identifies with Yemen’s Shia Muslim minority, the Zaidis. Along with Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the group has positioned itself against Israel, the US and the West.
The group was founded in the 1990s by Hussein al-Houthi, but the first time most of the world heard about the group’s existence was in the early 2000s, when it fought against Yemen’s long-time authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
In 2011, during the Arab Spring, Saleh handed over power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. It was during Hadi’s troubled government that, in 2014, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels swept down from their northern stronghold in Yemen and seized the capital Sanaa.
In 2015, the group forced Hadi to flee abroad after seizing part of the country. This move triggered a reaction from Saudi Arabia, which feared the installment of a Houthi government that they thought would become essentially a satellite of Iran.
In the same year, a Saudi-led coalition intervened to try to restore Yemen’s exiled, internationally-recognised government to power, but the conflict eventually ended in a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The war in Yemen lasted years and ravaged the country, the world’s poorest Arab nation, killing 150,000 people including civilians and fighters and creating a humanitarian disaster. The war ended in a ceasefire more than a year ago, but permanent peace has not yet been achieved.
The current leader of the Houthis is the brother of the group’s founder, Abdul Malik al-Houthi.
What is happening now?
While the Houthis have sporadically attacked vessels in the Red Sea, the group has ramped up its assaults on commercial ships since an Israeli strike hit a hospital in Gaza on 17 October, killing and injuring many civilians.
The Houthis claim they won’t stop disrupting trade in the Red Sea until there is a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, saying they’re targeting vessels that are Israeli-flagged, owned or operated. But only a few of the ships attacked have direct links to Israel.
Iran has denied involvement in the attacks.
Last week, US and British warships and aircraft fired missiles at Houthi targets in Yemen, justifying their attacks as retaliation for the group’s relentless assaults of ships in the Red Sea despite warnings from Washington.
The US had previously avoided striking back, with President Joe Biden repeatedly saying he feared an unwanted escalation of the war in the Middle East. But on Tuesday last week the Houthis launched their largest-ever barrage of 18 one-way attack drones, anti-ship cruise missiles and an anti-ship ballistic missile at several international commercial vessels and warships in the Red Sea – forcing the US to respond militarily.
According to the Houthis, the American and British strikes killed five of their forces and wounded six. The group has refused to stand down and has pledged to retaliate.