Dahyan, a town in the far northwest of Yemen, is a farming settlement about two hours’ drive from the Saudi border. On its dusty, unpaved main street, a large crater is still visible near a fruit-and-vegetable stand, marked out by flimsy wooden stakes and red traffic tape. It was here that a laser-guided bomb dropped by a Saudi jet struck a school bus taking students on a field trip on the morning of Aug. 9, killing 44 children and 10 adults. Even for a population that had grown accustomed to tragedy after more than three years of war, the bus bombing was shocking. Shrapnel and tiny limbs were scattered for hundreds of yards around. The bomb that hit the bus, several local people told me, bore markings showing it was made in the United States. The site has now become something of a shrine. On a brick wall a few yards from the crater, large painted letters in both English and Arabic proclaim, “America Kills Yemeni Children.”
Not far away was a fresh graveyard where the victims were buried. At each grave, a color portrait of a victim stood over a coffin-shaped mound of dry, rocky earth. Beyond a low stone wall was the carcass of the bus, a mass of twisted and burned metal. A boy was standing silently by a grave as I arrived, staring down at the headstone. “We were all in school together,” he told me. He was 14. He might easily have been on that bus, he said, but he’d already gone on the school trip. He was on the way to the market to help his father when the bomb struck. His father wasn’t hurt, but he soon found out that most of his friends and teachers were dead. He now goes to the graveyard almost every day to visit them, he told me quietly.
For the Houthi movement, a powerful and enigmatic militia that rules most of Yemen’s people, the bus bombing was something of a turning point. Unlike most of the civilian bombings that have taken place over the years, this one made headlines around the world, prompting angry reactions from political figures, human rights groups and even the actor Jim Carrey. After I saw the site, an official took me to a crowded auditorium nearby, where ushers handed us pamphlets showing gruesome pictures of dead and bleeding children. A few locals gave angry speeches about the evils of what Yemenis call “the aggression.” There was no mention of the ballistic missiles the Houthis have lobbed at Riyadh, or of their own war crimes. A small boy who had survived the airstrike was brought onstage, where he recited a prepared text in a high, strident voice. As I listened to him, I couldn’t help thinking about another tragedy of this war: Many of those fighting it are themselves children. The boy on that stage might soon be one of them.
In March 2015, Saudi Arabia unleashed a full-scale military campaign against the Houthis, who had captured most of Yemen a few months earlier. The Saudis had assembled a coalition of nine states, and they made clear that they considered the Houthis, who are allied with Iran, a mortal threat on their southern border. The war has turned much of Yemen into a wasteland and has killed at least 10,000 civilians, mostly in errant airstrikes. The real number is probably much higher, but verifying casualties in Yemen’s remote areas is extremely difficult. Some 14 million people are facing starvation, in what the United Nations has said could soon become the worst famine seen in the world in 100 years. Disease is rampant, including the world’s worst modern outbreak of cholera.
The Houthis, who are named for their founding family, have lost much of the southern territory they once ruled, but in most ways the war has made them stronger. Battle has sharpened their skills and hardened their resolve. It appears to have deepened their hold over a population that is weary of revolt and desperate for order of any kind. Some families, I was told, keep donation boxes with the words “In the Path of God” printed on them; everyone, young and old, contributes what cash they can to the war effort. Just before I arrived, members of a northern tribe not far from Sana, the capital city, packed up several hundred vehicles with grapes, vegetables, sheep, calves, cash and weapons. The convoy drove some 170 miles, across mountains and deserts — at constant risk of Saudi airstrikes — to support Houthi fighters on the front line near the Red Sea port city of Hudaydah.
It is tempting to see a certain poetic justice in the Houthis’ vengeful rage against Saudi Arabia. Their movement was born, three decades ago, largely as a reaction to Riyadh’s reckless promotion of its own intolerant strain of Salafi Islam in the Houthi heartland of northwestern Yemen. Since then, the Saudis — with the help of Yemen’s former ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh — have done all they could to corrupt or compromise every political force strong enough to pose a threat. The Houthis are a result: a band of fearless insurgents who know how to fight but little else. They claim a divine mandate, and they have tortured, killed and imprisoned their critics, rights groups say, just as their predecessors did. They have recruited child soldiers, used starvation as a weapon and have allowed no dissenting views to be aired in the media. They have little will or capacity to run a modern state, and at times have seemed unwilling or unable to negotiate for peace. But this, too, is partly a measure of Saudi Arabia’s fatal arrogance toward its neighbor, a long-term policy of keeping Yemen weak and divided.
That policy may now be bringing the Saudis’ worst fears to life. Houthi officials say they have studied the Viet Cong’s tactics, and routinely refer to the war as the quagmire that will bring down the House of Saud. “We expect this war to be very long,” I was told by the de facto Houthi foreign minister, Hussain al-Ezzi. “It is a war of bone-breaking — they break us or we break them.”
Soon after the first round of bombs began falling in Yemen in late March 2015, a svelte, meek-looking man stepped up to a lectern in Washington. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia launched military operations in Yemen,” said Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador. For most Americans, the Saudis’ choice of Washington as the place to announce their first major war in decades held little meaning. In Yemen, people mentioned it all the time. They saw it as a deliberate signaling of sinister complicity between America and its Saudi client, or even of some larger imperialist design. Jubeir emphasized in his speech that the kingdom had consulted “very closely and very intensely with many of our allies and partners around the world, and in particular the United States,” which was providing intelligence, targeting assistance and logistics.
The truth was somewhat different. The Obama administration agreed to support what the Saudis called Operation Decisive Storm with considerable reluctance, seeing it as an unwinnable proxy war against Iran. One former administration official told me the decision was partly a measure of tensions with Riyadh over the pending Iran nuclear deal, which the Saudis viewed as a potentially dangerous act of appeasement. Refusing to back the Saudi adventure could have damaged an important relationship, the official said. The risks of supporting it seemed acceptable, at least at first. But the Houthi forces proved unexpectedly resilient. Within weeks, Pentagon officials began complaining about the clumsiness of the Saudi bombers and the absence of any clear war strategy. John Kerry, Obama’s secretary of state, tried and failed to negotiate a truce.
For more than two years, the Yemen war was mostly overshadowed by larger horrors taking place in Syria. After Trump was elected, he anointed Mohammed bin Salman, the rising Saudi regent and the war’s architect, as a favorite son. When Jared Kushner negotiated a $110 billion arms deal last year with bin Salman, there were few questions about whether those weapons would be used in Yemen. But stories about famine, cholera and bombed weddings kept trickling into the American consciousness. In March, 44 senators voted for a resolution to end American support for the war, losing by 11 votes. There were more calls for withdrawal after the school-bus bombing in August. Then, in October, the shocking dismemberment and murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — apparently at the behest of bin Salman himself — began to cast the crown prince and his Yemen war in a new light.
Yemen’s nominal president is still Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a squat 73-year-old with a boulderlike bald head. He presides over what Saudi and American officials call the “internationally recognized government,” a phrase that suggests a limping aspiration for legitimacy. Behind those words lurks the melancholy fact that Yemen no longer exists as a nation. Some people would say it never really did. There was a brief moment of optimism after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, which toppled Yemen’s long-ruling strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh, but those hopes collapsed into acrimony and civil war. Today Yemen is a shifting mosaic of fiefs, and among the warlords there, President Hadi — who fled to the safety of Riyadh in 2015 — is universally scorned as a puppet. The real powers in the areas he ostensibly controls, in Yemen’s south and east, are a fractious collection of armed groups and jihadists, including Al Qaeda, most of them sponsored by Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Their turf is the only way you can enter the country, whose skies and seas are under a strict military blockade.
I flew into Aden, the southern port city that was once Yemen’s most cosmopolitan place, the center of Britain’s former colony. Until a few years ago, Aden still had a decayed charm, with ghostly remnants of its colonial past. There was a good Chinese restaurant run by a man whose father came to Aden in the 1940s, when it was a lively entrepôt full of Indians, Chinese, Africans and Arabs. There were Shiite mosques and Christian churches, the only ones on the Arabian Peninsula. You could still have a beer on the beach, stroll past the house where the French poet Rimbaud lived in his final years or visit the faded English park with its statue of Queen Victoria, spackled in bird droppings. Aden is nominally controlled by Emirati-backed forces, but no one is really in charge. It is a collapsed city littered with bombed-out buildings. The hotels are closed. Gangs of self-appointed Muslim puritans — Salafists — roam the streets, and kidnappings and assassinations are common. My Yemeni friends warned me to stay indoors.
The Houthis, by contrast, run a police state of sorts. Our visa documents, stamped by the Houthi-run Information Ministry, got us through every checkpoint after we crossed the unmarked border into the north. I breathed more easily there. The Houthis have eradicated Al Qaeda from their areas, an achievement even their enemies grudgingly acknowledge.
I had not been to Sana in four and a half years, and the changes were striking: Shattered buildings appear at regular intervals, especially on the city’s outskirts. Airstrikes inside Sana are rare now. I witnessed only one, about a half-mile away: a trademark thumping sound followed by the whine of a jet and smoke rising in the distance. At sunset, much of the city falls into darkness; there is no power grid left, and the electricity comes mostly from gas-fueled generators. In Hadda, the wealthy district in southern Sana, the restaurants that catered to foreigners are gone. So are all the rich Yemenis I knew, the cosmopolitan men who used to welcome Westerners to their salons by pouring a glass of single-malt scotch.
The Houthis’ imprint on the capital is unmistakable. The old pictures of President Saleh are long gone, and in their place is the Houthis’ trademark slogan, known as the sarkha, or scream, painted in red, blue and green on a white background: “God is great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curses on the Jews, Victory to Islam.” The movement’s official name, Ansar Allah (partisans of God), is also printed everywhere, like a stamp of ownership. Houthi martyrs’ faces stare down from billboards on every highway, and the radio plays zawamil — patriotic battle hymns — day and night. Ragged-looking men and boys, some of them barely into their teens, stop cars at checkpoints throughout the city.
One night in Sana, I watched a troop of tiny Girl Scouts chanting, “Yemen will not submit to guardianship” as they marched in a youth parade. This theme — resistance to foreign domination — is repeated endlessly in Houthi speeches, banners and songs. Beyond that, their political program is curiously blank. They are a militia with religious roots that has inherited a country by default. Their paramount leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, is treated with a kind of religious awe, and the movement is often referred to as the “Quranic March.” But they do not appear to believe in Iranian-style clerical rule.
The Houthis have created a new executive body, the 10-member Supreme Political Council, which is said to spend much of its time dealing with military and security matters. They have left all the old government bureaucracies in place, though there isn’t much for them to do, and state workers have received little to nothing in salary since President Hadi moved the central bank to Aden in 2016. Houthi finances are something of a mystery. According to one estimate, they receive as much as $30 million a month in customs duties on port and overland trade, most of it going toward the war effort. Yemen’s oil, which once provided most of the government’s revenue, lies outside the Houthis’ area of control. The governor of Sa’ada province told me the provincial government’s annual budget is only $200,000. I heard plenty of accusations of smuggling and enrichment among the Houthi elite — there are a few new malls and restaurants in Sana — but the volume of their self-dealing is tiny compared with the kleptocracy of the Saleh regime. The Houthis are dependent on Unicef, the World Food Program and other international agencies to keep the country from falling into widespread famine.
I asked Hassan Zaid, who was close to the movement’s founders and is now the youth minister, what the Houthi wanted and if they had a political vision. He replied without hesitation that they had none. “The problem with the Houthis,” he said, “is that they are a reaction to others’ behavior.”
One morning in June 2008, I went to a courthouse in Sana to report on what was labeled a sedition case involving a group of rebels from the far north. At the time, the Houthis were an obscure group, even in Yemen. They were based in the mountains near the Saudi border, where they had been fighting an intermittent David-and-Goliath battle with the Yemeni military for four years. The entire conflict was a mystery. No one could agree on why the Yemeni state considered them such a threat, or how the Houthis had held out for so long; they were said to be only a few hundred fighters strong, a few thousand at most. “What do the Houthis want?” was a question I often heard and asked.
The Information Ministry was handing out little pamphlets about terrorism — in glossy black, with lurid red lettering on the cover — which were about Al Qaeda and the Houthis. The pamphlet echoed the government’s claims that the Houthis were Iranian puppets and received weapons from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. When I asked the American ambassador in Sana about these charges, he said there was no evidence of Iranian military support. In fact, the United States had insisted that none of the weapons it provided Yemen for its fight against Al Qaeda were to be used against the Houthis, who were not considered terrorists.
As I stood on a street corner outside the courthouse that morning with a gaggle of Yemeni journalists, an armored vehicle drove up. It had barred windows, and as the uniformed guards got out, we heard the men inside the car chanting the sarkha in unison: “God is Great! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curses on the Jews! Victory to Islam!” The men were led out in chains and brought into the courthouse, still chanting their slogan. There was something absurd and faintly comic about the scene. The one thing we all knew about the Houthis was that this slogan, with its deliberate provocation against Yemen’s post-9/11 alliance with the United States, was itself a central reason for the war. The Houthis placed a near-sacred importance on their right to chant it, and the government, instead of dismissing it as harmless propaganda, treated it as a capital offense. Even reporting on the Houthis or their sarkha was treated as a crime. On that same morning, a Yemeni journalist named Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani was arraigned on charges of supporting the Houthis, because he had visited Houthi territory and written sympathetically about them. I later got to know Khaiwani, and spent an afternoon with him. He was the first person I met who had actually spoken to a Houthi.
Khaiwani was also one of the first people who explained to me how the Houthi movement was born. The Houthi family are Sayyids, or descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, from a town near the Saudi border called Marran. For more than a thousand years, Zaydi Muslims from Sayyid backgrounds formed a kind of royal caste in northern Yemen. Their most prominent families supplied the kings who ruled for much of that time. After the monarchy, known as the Imamate, was overthrown in a 1962 revolution, the Houthis and their fellow Sayyids were cast down from their perch and reviled as a backward, antidemocratic group. They were effectively banned from participation in government.
Then, in the early 1980s, came a second blow. The Saudi leadership, shaken by the Islamic revolution in Iran, began to suspect Yemen’s Zaydis of siding with the enemy, citing Zaydism’s doctrinal affiliation with the Shiite Islam practiced in Iran. The Saudis started a campaign to aggressively promote their own hard-line Sunni religious ideas across the border, in an effort to combat Tehran’s influence. It included the creation of a Salafist school in the city of Dammaj, where a number of Qaeda figures later got their religious education. These gestures came alongside a pre-existing Saudi effort to compromise and control Yemen’s politics via regular payments to a wide range of tribal sheikhs, military officers and other elite figures across Yemen.
The Saudis, in other words, exported a toxic cocktail of sectarianism and corruption to Yemen. Until then, Zaydis — who make up about a third of Yemen’s population — never had serious quarrels with the majority Sunnis. But soon, Zaydi clerics fostered their own religious revival to combat the Saudi onslaught, and in the 1990s they founded a summer program in Sa’ada called the Believing Youth, which produced some of the first Houthi fighters. The faith they professed was a version of Zaydi Islam marinated in anger against the House of Saud and all its allies, including the United States. The most charismatic of these young Zaydi renegades was Hussein al-Houthi, who dismissed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a Western plot and delivered a speech a few months later in which he uttered the Houthi sarkha for the first time. The slogan was designed to infuriate President Saleh, who was desperate to get onto America’s good side, and he quickly declared the Houthis enemies of the state.
By the time I first heard the sarkha outside that Sana courthouse in 2008, Hussein al-Houthi was gone, killed in a confrontation with Yemeni soldiers four years earlier. But his younger brother Abdul Malik replaced him, and the movement soldiered on. It was fueled, in large part, by popular rage at the Yemeni government’s cruel policy of collective punishment. There were mass arrests in Sa’ada, which was treated at times like an enemy province. Roads were blocked and farms destroyed. Food became scarce. This state of siege erupted into open warfare six times between 2004 and 2010, with the government’s tanks and jets waging unequal battle against half-starved Houthi fighters hiding in caves. The fighters worked in small, independent cells, so that the capture of one unit would not endanger any others.
“We used to eat leaves from the trees,” I was told by Daifullah al-Shami, a core member from the earliest days, who is now writing a history of the movement. “There were no medicines for wounds. We used herbal disinfectant, and it often failed. Children died of hunger. I myself entered a house after it received tank fire, and saw women killed in the kitchen, their blood spilled over the oven.”