The Terrorism Combating Center at West Point military college in the US published an important study last month on Houthi links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. More countries are now mulling listing the IRGC and the Houthis as terrorist organizations, Hezbollah having been already designated as such by most nations. This study should help in making these decisions, as it documents how the three groups have worked closely to keep Yemen, the region and the world at bay by igniting wars and stoking violence throughout the Middle East.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Sunday that Germany and the EU were examining “how we can list the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization,” reiterating what she said the previous week about launching another sanctions package. The IRGC is implicated in suppressing protests in Iran, where hundreds of civilians have died over the past eight weeks, and it is also active throughout the region, including in Yemen.
The meticulously documented 70-page study, titled “The Houthi Jihad Council: Command and Control in ‘the Other Hezbollah,’” leaves no doubt about the organic ties between the three entities and warns of their growing cooperation. It demonstrates how the Houthis have moved toward becoming a “very close clone of the IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah military and security systems, with the birth of a Basij-type mobilization and internal security system.” The risk that a “southern Hezbollah” might emerge is arguably now a fact on the ground, the authors conclude.
By refusing to renew the truce that expired on Oct. 2, the Houthis have managed to halt progress toward a negotiated settlement or a permanent ceasefire in Yemen. Last month, they threatened to attack oil companies operating in Yemen, followed by attacks on oil shipping facilities near the government-controlled port of Mukalla on the Arabian Sea. They have thus remained a threat to the stability of Yemen and to regional security. The stability of Red Sea shipping lanes and the security of international energy supplies are also in jeopardy due to Houthi threats.
The authors demonstrate in detail how the Houthis morphed from a heterogeneous, decentralized and non-cohesive group to a centralized and coercive organization with a “totalitarian mindset,” using violence and oppression to dominate the northern tribes and enlist them in the Houthi fight to control Yemen, bolstered by over a decade of support from the IRGC and Hezbollah.
The study draws parallels between Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanese politics and the Houthi coup of 2014, including some documented exchanges between the two groups on military strategy.
The study also documents the growing role of the IRGC’s Quds Force and Hezbollah during the years in which the Houthi movement became an effective fighting force on the battlefield, from the fourth Sa’da war in 2007 to the present day. Houthi commanders drew heavily on the IRGC and Hezbollah’s politico-military models. For example, the Houthi Jihad Council is set up according to the Hezbollah template. Appointing “jihad assistants,” which has become an organic part of Houthi military strategy, follows the Quds Force modus operandi, adopting the same mentoring model as Iraqi terrorist group Kata’ib Hezbollah.
The Houthi military has adopted many features of its IRGC and Hezbollah counterparts, including their top-level command and control architecture, preventive security arrangements, information operations, training, covert procurement, military industrialization, drone and missile forces, and guerrilla naval operations, to name just a few.
The authors also study the political influence of the IRGC and Hezbollah over Houthi decision-making and conclude that the very close “alignment of ideology and goals” between the two external groups and the Houthi leaders makes it easy to influence Houthi decisions without the need for coercion or pressure. These relationships are not driven by mere necessity or taken to unintended levels by the war in Yemen, but rather were highly intentional relationships of choice from the outset, based on a commonality of goals and ideology.
The relationships are “exceedingly strong and stable,” according to the authors. Iran considers the Houthis as an important asset and a developing clone of Hezbollah, which serves as the main regional operational arm of the Quds Force. Tehran appears to hold them in higher regard than similar Iran-allied militias in Iraq because it considers them to be “more capable, cohesive and disciplined.” Similarly, Hezbollah favors the Houthis over those militias.
If the facts are so clear and reliably documented, why are the organic Houthi-IRGC and Houthi-Hezbollah relationships not widely known to Houthi supporters? The answer is that the group’s leaders are keen on hiding the extent of these connections and have kept their contacts strictly hidden. They are carried out exclusively through leader Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi and the Jihad Council of very close advisers. Houthi leaders are interested in keeping “plausible deniability” about these links for as long as they can for reputational reasons and to protect themselves against accusations of dual loyalty. That veneer of independence, however, is wearing thin.
The authors find it probable that Iran has built up “sufficient goodwill and credit with the Houthi leadership” that it can selectively call on the Houthis to serve Iranian interests in ways that may incur new costs or difficulties for the Houthis. Tight secrecy surrounding the Houthi-Iran relationship and the “centralized totalitarian” structure of the group have been used to hide direct, Iranian-dictated strategic or tactical decisions made by the Houthis.
Some have argued that the Houthis’ relationship with Iran is not that of a proxy, but regardless of the label the authors argue that theirs is “a strong, deep-rooted alliance that is underpinned by tight ideological affinity and geopolitical alignment.” Close enough, especially if you consider the direct links between the Houthis and Hezbollah, which does not deny its proxy links with Iran and the IRGC.
These relationships were highly intentional relationships of choice from the outset, based on a commonality of goals and ideology.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
The authors also argue that even if a key Houthi supporter of close relations with Iran and Hezbollah, such as Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi, were to disappear from the scene, there is now a “broad-based set of leaders whose whole ideological and political upbringing will predispose them to continue this beneficial and warm relationship.”
This timely study should make it easy to make the necessary decisions to list the Houthis as a terrorist group. In January of this year, the UN Security Council condemned “in the strongest terms the heinous terrorist attacks in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on 17 January 2022, as well as in other sites in Saudi Arabia, that were claimed and committed by the Houthis.” In February, UNSC Resolution 2624 described the Houthis as a “terrorist group.” This resolution was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, making it binding on all nations. It is thus surprising that some countries and international organizations still find it difficult or inconvenient to act on this information and the UNSC mandate to take proper action against the Houthis.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg