Sana’a: It was Waddah Al Hitari’s beard that killed him. Militiamen on the streets of Yemen’s capital shot him dead one Friday because he looked like a terrorist, colleagues of the young doctor said.
Al Hitari was killed by a member of Al Houthis, an armed faction whose fighters had swept down from the north and stunningly captured Sana’a from the army about a month earlier.
Their arrival following anti-government protests threatens to further destabilise Yemen, already wracked by political turmoil since the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011.
Al Houthis are fighting Al Qaida, two commanders have been sanctioned by the United States, and the group is viewed as Iran’s ally in its proxy war with Saudi Arabia, which has suspended aid to Yemen since Al Houthis arrived.
While Al Houthis have stamped their authority on the capital, they are by no means universally popular and were understandably jumpy when they spotted Dr Al Hitari that Friday in October.
A day earlier, a suicide bomber had blown up a Al Houthi checkpoint in Sana’a, killing 47 people in an attack claimed by Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
“They said he looked like a terrorist. We told them he was a doctor,” said Mustafa Al Nadish, a colleague of Al Hitari, referring to the doctor’s beard.
Al Nadish said the shooter thought Al Hitari may have been armed.
Afterwards, the Al Houthis negotiated a blood money deal with Al Hitari’s father.
As judge, jury and executioner, the Al Houthis have left no doubt they are the new power players in Yemen, leaving the West and neighbouring Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, with a new problem in an already turbulent region.
Yemen, like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, is now at the heart of a battle for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
And despite persistent US drone strikes and millions of dollars poured into training Yemen’s counter terrorism forces, AQAP remains a determined enemy, as highlighted by their killing last week of American hostage Luke Somers.
The Al Houthi takeover has meant AQAP, who regard Shiites as heretics, has attracted new recruits. Al Houthis belong to the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam.
Widely seen as a failed state, Yemen remains one of the gravest threats to stability in the Gulf and beyond, playing host to an Al Qaida militancy determined to launch spectacular attacks against the West.
While some Yemenis admire the Al Houthis’ stance against corruption, the group’s heavy-handed tactics have angered many.
Since taking over on September 21, Al Houthis have penetrated key state institutions.
How they managed to move in so quickly is not clear. One theory was that some army units were not loyal to President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
A senior official in Yemen’s defence ministry said: “The units that were on the front line received verbal orders not to engage in confrontation.” Now, Al Houthi checkpoints seem to be everywhere in Sana’a.
Young men with AK-47s peer at cars passing through checkpoints where captured military vehicles carry signs saying: “Death to America, Death to Israel”.
“They have a representative in the finance department who sits on the side and looks over all cheques before they are processed,” the defence official said. If he’s not convinced, he confiscates the cheque and throws it into a plastic bag.
“They have also started to appoint Al Houthi deputies as the heads of important departments in the defence ministry,” he said.
Jane Marriott, Britain’s ambassador to Yemen, said the UK was also “picking up reports of Al Houthis running illegal detention facilities and setting up their own court system”.
A senior US official said the Al Houthis’ expansion to the south was a major concern but there were also signs the group was starting to be incorporated into the country’s political process.
Sana’a residents however dislike Al Houthi security measures.
“It’s just a humiliation,” said a man called Al Qudsi, referring to the rigours of passing through Al Houthi checkpoints on the way to work.
Even diplomats are not spared. At the airport, the Al Houthis have forced some to empty bottles of alcohol considered to be forbidden under Islam.
The German embassy complained to the Yemeni foreign ministry that its diplomats had faced demands for up to $250 (Dh918) to pass through the airport VIP hall, while the Chinese embassy said customs officials tried to search the ambassador’s personal belongings, according to documents.
Al Houthis deny they are copying the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, the most powerful force in Lebanon.
But similarities in tactics, such as blocking the airport road and setting up protest camps in the capital, have prompted accusations that the Al Houthis get support from Iran.
Salah Al Sammad, a Al Houthi who advises the president, says the group only assumed control to root out corruption, and will leave once the government can provide security in Sana’a.
That assertion is greeted with some scepticism, and a senior security official said that Iran sent weapons and money to the Al Houthis, whose leaders had travelled to Iran and Lebanon.
Al Sammad denied receiving Iranian support.
But a large bomb at the Iranian ambassador’s residence last week, claimed by AQAP, appeared also to be a message that the Al Houthis have outstayed their welcome.
It is hard to see how Yemen can avoid sectarian conflict between the Al Houthis and Al Qaida. The bomb at the Iranian envoy’s house may just be the beginning.