The U.S. recently admitted that it tried and failed to kill an Iranian commander in Yemen, sparking both fear and mobilization among Yemen’s Houthis.
As tensions in the Middle East continue to rise, there are indications that Donald Trump’s administration is planning to carry out assassination operations against high-ranking Houthi officials inside of Yemen similar to the U.S. assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard General, Qassem Soleimani, a move likely to open the door for further escalation in the region.
On Thursday, a high ranking Houthi official in Sana’a told MintPress News on condition of anonymity that the Houthis would not hesitate to target U.S. troops in the region if the Trump administration targets its personnel inside Yemen.
The statement comes in the wake of an announcement by United States officials that the U.S. military tried, but failed, to kill another senior Iranian commander on the same day a U.S. drone strike killed Soleimani.
According to reports, a U.S. military air attack targeted Abdul Reza Shahlai, a high-ranking commander in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) while he was in Yemen, but the mission was not successful. The U.S. Department of the Treasury claimed that Shahlai was based in Yemen and accused him of having “a long history of targeting Americans and US allies globally.”
Meanwhile, Yemeni activists and media pundits are expressing concerns over what they consider serious threats from Trump administration, pointing out that news of the unsuccessful assassination in Yemen should not be underestimated. Others have called on U.S. Congress to prevent any attacks on Yemeni soil and to keep U.S. soldiers in the region out of harm’s way.
The pretexts for U.S. attacks in Yemen are not without precedent. On October 13, 2016, the U.S. military announced that it had struck three coastal radar sites in Hodeida, an area of Yemen controlled by Houthi forces, in retaliation for an alleged failed missile attack on the USS Mason, a U.S. Navy destroyer. The Houthis maintain that they were not involved in any missile attacks against the Mason.
For their part, the Houthis (Ansar Allah) were clear in their warning to U.S. leaders in the wake of U.S. assassinations in Iraq, promising that U.S. troops in the Arabian Gulf or the Red Sea would be targeted without hesitation if the Trump administration attempts to target Houthi leaders in Yemen.
The Yemeni army, which is loyal to Ansar Allah, is already preparing for anticipated U.S. attacks. Ansar Allah’s leadership has reaffirmed that their anti-U.S. position is based on a principled and ideological commitment, but historically, Ansar Allah has not directly targeted the United States or its interests in the region.
During a televised speech broadcast live on January 8 during Yemen’s martyr’s week commemoration, Abdulmalik Badr al-Din al Houthi, the leader of Ansar Allah, said that “We will no longer acquiesce to Trump’s equation in killing us and interfering in our affairs and to do nothing is no longer acceptable.” He went on to say that the Houthis’ dealings with the “carelessness of the United States which targets the nation’s leaders will be different.”
The Ansar Allah leader pointed out that if there was no U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, the war against Yemen would not have occurred, adding that the role of the United States in the war against his country includes supervision, management, political protection, destruction, and the supply of weapons.
He also warned Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from continuing their military campaign in Yemen, saying that “developments in the region are not in their interests.” Implying that the escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Iran could be used against both the United States and Saudi Arabia in some way.
The threats of Ansar Allah, a group known to strike sensitive targets without hesitation, should not be underestimated. On September 14, Yemen hit two of Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in a retaliatory attack that the United States blamed on Iran. Now, they have developed their arsenal of ballistic missiles and drones even further and experts say are likely capable of hitting U.S. troops in the region.
According to Houthi officials in Sana’a, the Trump administration appears to be using allegations of an Iranian troop presence in Yemen, an allegation that Houthis deny, as a pretext for further military action in the country, despite no evidence to back the claim.
Furthermore, the contrast between the Houthi reaction to that of Iran’s allies in the region after the U.S. assassinated Soleimani further suggests that Iran has no significant measure of influence over the Houthi’s decision-making process.
In fact, the Houthis fiercely rejected any and all foreign attempts to influence their decisions after the assassination of Soleimani. The group, thus far, has not promised to retaliate against U.S. troops as revenge for the murder of Soleimani as Iran’s allies in the region did in near unanimity. Moreover, they treated the incident with caution and decided not to be drawn into an escalation despite angry demonstrations that took place in many of Yemen’s cities over the assassination.
However, the Houthis have signed a military cooperation deal with Iran as a result of the continued war and blockade against their country and may work with Iran to take action against U.S. troops in the region should the U.S. target Houthi leaders in Yemen. According to some strategic decision-makers in Sana’a, retaliatory attacks could take place if even a single case of a U.S. attack in Yemen were to take place.
A legacy of targeted killings
In the wake of the U.S. killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi military leader Abu Majd al- Muhandis, many Yemeni politicians fear the Trump administration could carry out similar operations against high-ranking leaders in Yemen. The Saudi-backed assassinations of former presidents Saleh al- Sammad and Ibrahim al-Hamdi, both popular figures among Yemenis, are cemented in the country’s collective memory.
On November 6, 2017, Saudi Arabia released a list of 40 names of Houthis leaders and senior figures that the Kingdom wanted dead or alive. The list was issued by the Saudi Ministry of Interior, which offered rewards of between $5 to $30 million. On April 19, 2018, former president of the SPC, Saleh al-Samad, was assassinated by Saudi airstrikes in Hodeida while preparing for a protest to statements made by the American ambassador that the Houthi-controlled city of Hodeida will fall.
Almost two years after al-Sammad’s assassination, a criminal court in Hodeida has begun the trial of U.S. President Trump along with 61 Yemenis and foreigners, all believed to be involved in the assassination of the former head of the SPC. After finding ten suspects guilty, the court held its first hearing, trying Trump and the remaining 51 foreign and Yemeni defendants in absentia in late October.
The trial, which has drawn national media attention, may only be symbolic, but it sends a clear message to the U.S. that its operations in Yemen and its ongoing complicity in the worst man-made humanitarian crisis in the world is unacceptable and will undermine U.S. foreign policy in the region.
Before his assassination, Al-Sammad was attempting to carry out a plan to rebuild Yemen into a modern, stable and democratic state by 2030. He penned the National Vision, a manifesto of 175 goals focused on independence, freedom and non-submission to foreign influence.
Yemenis’ concerns about .U.S and Saudi intentions towards their national leaders were reinforced when the Yemeni Defense Ministry revealed that both U.S intelligence and Saudi princes’ were involved in the 1977 assassination of popular Yemeni president Ibrahim al-Hamdi after he refused Washington and Riyadh’s interference in Yemen’s internal affairs.
At a press conference, Brigadier Abdullah bin Amer, a senior official at the Yemeni Defense Ministry, released important documents related to the assassination of President al-Hamdi, including the names of those involved in his murder.
Before his death, al-Hamdi was attempting to pivot Yemen away from the Saudi kingdom and the United States and build Yemen’s independence by developing it’s oil reserves and its strategic location on the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. Now, according to senior Houthi officials, Sana’a is in possession of evidence that confirms the role of President Carter’s administration and the Saudi regime in the assassination, including planning, supervising and covering up the crime, according to Brigadier bin Amer.
MintPress was shown documents allegedly exchanged between U.S. and Saudi intelligence that indicated the involvement of the United States and former Saudi Kings Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Fahd bin Abdulaziz and their brother Sultan in the assassination, but was unable to independently verify their authenticity.
According to the documents as well as witness testimony, al-Hamdi was invited to lunch at the residence of Ahmad al-Qashmi, who was the Army chief of staff under his command. During his stay there, Ali Abdullah Saleh, then a brigade commander, and one of his bodyguards entered the house. Moments after they entered, al-Hamdi was killed in a hail of bullets.
Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, according to the documents, was in direct contact with Saleh al-Hadyan, the Saudi military attaché in Northern Yemen’s capital Sana’a at the time of the targeted killing. Riyadh allegedly dispatched three Saudi intelligence operatives to Sana’a hours before the assassination who then left Yemen three hours after the operation concluded.
“Saudi Arabia killed al-Hamdi under the supervision of Saudi military attaché, Saleh al-Hadyan because he was an opponent of Saudi Arabia and did not comply with its instructions and interventions in Yemen,” The late Abdullah Saleh said in a 2016 interview with RT Arabic in which he claimed that he had “evidence of the involvement of Saudi Arabia.”
When al-Hamdi came to power in 1974, North Yemen lacked even the most basic services and infrastructure. Moreover, the country was on the brink of collapse and tribesmen held significant power and influence. Al-Hamdi, much like Al-Sammad, created a development plan supervised by a number of committees which encouraged local communities to contribute to road construction, school buildings, and water networks.
Under al-Hamdi’s direction, North Yemen underwent a period of rapid economic growth. The country’s GDP rose from 21.5 percent in 1974 to 56.1 percent in 1977 and per capita income rose by 300 percent. Al-Hamdi, according to WikiLeaks documents, was also working to “prepare the groundwork for eventual elections” in North Yemen.
Given the fate shared by those willing to risk charting a path free of foreign intervention in Yemen, it is unlikely that the Houthis, nor their fellow countrymen, will take attempts by foreign countries to assassinate Yemeni leaders lightly.
Feature photo | Yemenis hold posters of Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani during a protest against a U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed them both, in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 6, 2020. Hani Mohammed | AP
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.