Tribal militias compete with extremist groups for young recruits to resist advance of Shia Houthis who have taken power in Sana’a, and now Taiz.
In a hollow in the sands of eastern Yemen, a line of pickup trucks carrying tribal fighters idled. A squat man with a shock of black hair, dressed in an overflowing dusty dishdasha, walked around slowly, inspecting the men and the vehicles, loaded with heavy machine guns and light artillery.
“The Houthis are behind that hill,” he shouted, pointing at a rocky outcrop sheltering the imaginary foe – northern Yemenis who overthrew the government last autumn, and seized the country’s third largest city on Sunday, according to security and military officials. “We will start by shelling their positions, and then you will storm the hill by cars and finally climb the hill on foot.”
His men call him the Biss – the Cat. After a rather desultory attempt to overrun the supposed adversary, they discovered that he had claws. “If the Houthis were actually there, they could have ended you all with one shell,” the Cat spat.
It’s a forlorn landscape, but one that contains compelling clues as to the shifting balance of power in the Middle East, and the new faultlines.
In Yemen there is little history of sectarian strife. The two main sects, Shia Zaidi and Sunni Shafi, have traditionally been seen as moderate with minimal differences.
But this changed when the Houthis, followers of an obscure Shia tradition who are accused of serving Iranian interests in Yemen, stormed the capital, stormed the capital, Sana’a, in September, forcing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to the southern port city of Aden.
Their advance had a galvanising effect in the country’s Sunni-dominated south, where al-Qaida is particularly strong and the jihadis of Islamic State are just starting to secure a toehold. A volley of suicide bombs has shaken the capital, most recently on Friday, when more than 142 people were killed in a series of coordinated attacks on mosques during Friday prayers.
This is the part of the world that has hatched numerous international terror plots, from the Christmas 2009 underpants bomb plot to the Charlie Hebdo attacks this year.
The fear is that the Houthi advance will drive a fresh wave of militarisation and radicalisation in the Sunni-majority Yemeni heartland, acting as a recruiter for jihadis. Western intelligence already considers the local al-Qaida faction – al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) – the world’s most potent franchise, a growing threat seeking to exploit regional turmoil to widen its scope. On Saturday, US officials confirmed that Washington had evacuated its remaining personnel from Yemen because of the deteriorating security situation.
When the Houthi militiamen began to advance down the mountain passes that connect northern Yemen to the south-east, the Sunni tribes responded with fierce resistance.
With backing from wealthy businessmen and neighbouring Saudi Arabia, they raised about 10,000 men and set up a string of military encampments such as the one where the Cat was training his fighters. These are known as Matareh and extend over 100 miles.
“When Sana’a fell, the tribes saw the danger and decided to join the fight. The more the Houthis became a threat, the more tribes gathered around the camps,” said an official in the government of Marib province.
“The core of the resistance to the Houthis was religious, led at first by the Muslim Brotherhood and a few sympathetic tribesman who had fought them in Amran Jawf and finally here on the borders of Marib,” he added.