If one adopts the currently fashionable socio-economic explanation for Islamist radicalism, then Yemen’s current problems are explained by its poverty and lack of effective government. It has few natural resources (water and oil are both in short supply) and is a made-up country plastered over a tribal reality. It provided the setting for Al Qaeda Classic to bomb the U.S.S Cole in 2000; it provided the haven from which Anwar al-Awliki ran his propaganda operations from 2004 to 2011; and “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” set up shop in 2009.
Most Yemenis are Sunni Muslims, but a minority are Shi’a Muslims. Among the latter are the Zaydis of northern Yemen. The Zaydis, in turn, are led by the al-Houthi family. It has been simpler for Westerners to describe the group as “Houthis.” Back in the 1990s, the al Houthi family, like many other people, fell out with the one-time ruler of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. This led to a low level insurgency among the Houthis during the first decade of the 21st Century. It is entirely possible that Shi’ite Iran has been providing some aid to the Houthis in the same way that they provide aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to the Assad government in Syria.
On top of this, in 2002 the United States opened a Yemen front in its Global War on Terror. It sent Special Forces troops to train the army of Yemen. About 100 drone strikes have killed perhaps 900 militants, but also a bunch of civilians. This has created something of a problem in logic for the Houthis. On the one hand, the Houthis hate Al Qaeda because they’re Sunnis. On the other hand, the Houthis hate the United States because Americans are infidels and they also blow up things in Yemen. A problem in logic is not always a problem in reality. The Houthis adopted an eclectic “a plague on both your houses” approach.
Then came the “Arab Spring” in 2011. The Houthis joined a bunch of Sunnis tribes in the south to force Saleh out of power. Saleh’s “vice president,” Abed Hadi, took over as “president.” Saleh may have hoped to return to power once things quieted down: his son commanded the Republican Guard and could topple Hadi at any time. Hadi solved this problem by disbanding the Republican Guard. Then fighting between the houthis, the Sunni tribes and the government soon started up again. In early 2015, the Houthis seized the capital city, Sana’a.
It will be difficult to do anything about this mess. Education and economic development sound good in speeches, but take time and local co-operation. As Homer Simpson said when told of a 48 hour waiting period to buy a gun, “But I’m angry now.” Saleh may have been scheming with the Houthis in hopes of getting back into power. Old Middle-East hands are probably muttering “so what else is new?” Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is roping-up support for intervention in Yemen to toss the Houthis out on their ear. Until they do, the local al Qaeda franchise is portraying itself as the only effective Sunni response to the Shi’ite power grab. Finally, there is the ISIS dimension. Since the end of 2014 ISIS has been making connections with Islamist groups in Libya, where the chaotic situation differs little from that in Yemen or Syria. Yemen is likely to be next on the list. Eventually, Washington may start to see merits in a return to effective tyranny in place of anarchy. Doubtless, many American allies will heave a sigh of relief.
 “Yemen’s descent into chaos,” The Week, 6 March 2015.
 You can see why the Saudis think that Iran is a real problem. Benjamin Netanyahu is a loud voice insisting on a strong stand against Iran’s nuclear program, but he likely isn’t the only—or most important—one.
 Opponents of the Saleh regime purport to believe that it identified its own political opponents to the Americans as Islamist militants in need of attack. See: Phoenix Program.
 These terms are part of the farce that Yemen is in anyway a Western-style country.
 Benoit Faucon and Matt Bradley, “Islamic State Co-Opted Radicals in Libya,” WSJ, 18 February 2015.