Houthis’ Propaganda Is Going Global

Houthis’ Propaganda Is Going Global

Soon after Yemen’s Houthi militia hijacked a commercial ship in the Red Sea, taking it and its 25-member crew hostage, the armed group used the vessel to record a music video.

In the slick production, called “Axis of Jihad,” a drone camera pans over the hulking ship. Then a famous Houthi poet appears on the deck — accompanied by what appears to be a cardboard cutout of Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian commander assassinated in 2020 — and begins to sing.

“Death to America and hostile Zion,” the poet, Issa al-Laith, calls out, backed by a relentless beat. “By God, we shall not be defeated!”

The Houthis — an Iran-backed militia that controls northwestern Yemen — have long been skilled producers of propaganda, crafting poetry, television shows and catchy music videos to spread their messages. But they have never had as large an audience as they do now, as the war in the Gaza Strip propels them to the center of a global battle of accounts and attracts new admirers around the world.

Over the past few months, the Houthis have vaulted to worldwide prominence by shooting missiles toward Israel and attacking ships in the Red Sea, causing limited damage but disrupting the flow of global trade. The United States and its allies have targeted the group with repeated airstrikes this month, further raising its profile, but the assaults on shipping have continued.

The Houthis have declared that a direct battle with the United States is their goal, and at recent demonstrations, their supporters have chanted a line from a famous Houthi poem: “We don’t care, we don’t care: Make it a great World War.”

Houthi leaders have portrayed their campaign as a righteous battle to force Israel to end the war in Gaza, where the Israeli military has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, according to Gazan health authorities.

Now the Houthis, capitalizing on widespread anger over Israel’s conduct in the war, are speaking not only to fellow Arabs, but also to South Asians, Europeans and Americans, many of whom know little about the group of former rebels and their bloody, repressive history in Yemen.

“Victory in the battle of awareness is more important than victory in the military battle,” a senior Houthi politician, Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, wrote on X on Tuesday, promoting a YouTube video of an interview he had done with an American writer.

On X, Mr. al-Bukhaiti has been posting almost exclusively in English in recent days, criticizing Western imperialism and the “ruling Zionist cabal” while beseeching American followers to read the work of the leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky.

“I will spread my message to the peoples of Western countries now, and I hope that the free people of the world will re-spread it on the largest scale,” he wrote.

Many people with large social media followings have been eager to share pro-Houthi messages in English, praising the group for challenging Israel and its main ally, the United States.

“This is what they’ve been working toward for years,” said Hannah Porter, an independent Yemen researcher who has studied Houthi propaganda. “They are very open about the fact that the so-called soft war, meaning psychological warfare, is just as important, if not more important, than warfare.”

The group, which calls itself “Ansar Allah,” or God’s helpers, began as a movement, led by members of the Houthi tribe, that focused on the religious and cultural revival of the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam. Its early communication strategies were decidedly low-tech, including paper leaflets and summer camps for children, Ms. Porter said.

But in the early 2000s, a charismatic leader, Hussein al-Houthi, spearheaded the group’s transformation into a rebel force fighting Yemen’s autocratic, U.S.-backed government.

It was during years of war against the government that Houthi propaganda was built, Ms. Porter said. The Houthis described themselves as an anti-imperialist force, battling against corruption and foreign influence, and adopted a slogan, shouted at rallies, that includes the phrase “Death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews.” In 2012, they expanded their narrative reach by founding Al-Masirah, an Arabic-language television channel based in Beirut.

In 2014, the Houthis formed an alliance of opportunity with Yemen’s recently deposed president — the same one they had fought for years — and swept into the capital, Sana, ousting the government. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, led an Arab military coalition into a yearslong bombing campaign in Yemen in an attempt to rout the Houthis, and hundreds of thousands of Yemenis died of fighting, hunger and disease.

Yet the Houthis not only survived that war against the Saudis, who were aided by American military assistance andweapons, but also thrived, setting up an impoverished quasi-state that they rule with an iron fist. They now present themselves as the legitimate government of Yemen, ignoring the internationally recognized government that operates largely in exile.

“They’ve managed to hijack that image and say ‘It’s only us in Yemen, we represent Yemenis,’” said Hisham Al-Omeisy, a Yemeni political analyst who was imprisoned by the Houthis in 2017. It’s partly because the Houthis are skilled at propaganda, he said, “but it’s also because the Yemeni government is really weak.”

Mr. Al-Omeisy, who lived in Sana when the Houthis took over, recalled people leaving the city but returning soon after because economic and security conditions were even worse in government-controlled areas.

Since the war in Gaza began, Houthi leaders have presented themselves as courageous underdogs: the only Arab group willing to take on Israel and the imperial might of the United States. In doing so, they have played on the sense of impotency felt by many Arabs who are desperate to stop the carnage in Gaza.

Powerful Arab states like Saudi Arabia have focused on diplomacy to try to end the war, shunning the more forceful measures that they once used to pressure Israel and its Western allies, like the 1973 oil embargo.

In that context, the Houthis have “pitched themselves as the highly moral, credible, real heroes, if you will — of not just Arabs, but humanity in general,” Mr. Al-Omeisy said.

And across the Middle East, where grief on behalf of Palestinians and fury at Israel run deep, Houthi popularity has skyrocketed.

“At least they are making an effort in a time when other countries like Egypt and the Emirates did nothing for Palestine,” said Baha’eddine Jomli, a 35-year-old Tunisian.

In Bahrain, a Persian Gulf kingdom that aided the U.S.-led coalition striking the Houthis, the Yemeni group has attracted admiration from many citizens who are frustrated with their government’s stance.

Ahmed Elmorshedy, a 30-year-old software engineer in Egypt, said that while he does not support Houthi ideology and is “very suspicious of their motives,” he finds it hard to condemn the militia’s attacks in the Red Sea.

“They seem to be a desperate attempt to exert pressure on the international community, particularly the United States, urging intervention to halt the ongoing genocide in Gaza,” he said.

A Houthi spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. But last month, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a senior member of the group, dismissed the idea that it was seeking popularity.

“We aren’t in elections,” he wrote in a post on X. “Our stance is one of duty.”

Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a Yemeni nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said Houthi narratives are often directed toward potential sympathizers on the Western left, tapping into anger over Gaza and “the fear of America getting involved in another war.”

At home, the Houthis tolerate little dissent, relying on some of the same authoritarian techniques deployed by the U.S.-allied Arab rulers whom they despise. They have shut down radio stations and detained journalists, activists and members of religious minorities — in one case sentencing four journalists to death before releasing them in a prisoner exchange.

And even as they criticize Israel for severely limiting the flow of food and water to more than two million Gazans, the Houthis have blocked water from reaching civilians in Taiz, one of Yemen’s largest cities, Human Rights Watch noted in a recent report.

The militia’s narrative success has been surreal for Yemenis who suffered under Houthi rule, Mr. Al-Omeisy said. In 2017, after he publicly criticized the Houthis, they arrested him, held him for months and accused him of being a spy. He recalled a tiny, pitch-black prison cell that made him feel like he was “being buried alive.”

“I am actually one of the lucky ones,” he said. “A lot of people didn’t make it out of there.”

Now based in the United States, he is stunned when Egyptian, Palestinian or American strangers attack him online for criticizing the Houthis.

“I’m like, What the hell, do you even understand who the Houthis are?” he said.

Reporting was contributed by Saeed Al-Batati, Nazeeha Saeed, Nada Rashwan and Ahmed Ellali.

Source link