Competing narratives over the death of a Houthi leader

Undated photo of Ibrahim Badreddine al Houthi in Yemen.

Last week, Ibrahim Badreddine al Houthi was killed by mysterious circumstances in Yemen. Ibrahim was a prominent leader within the Houthi movement and also the brother of Abdel Malek al Houthi, the overall leader of the movement.

Since the announcement of his death, Iran and several groups that it supports have released condolence statements on social media. In every statement, the Saudi-led coalition was blamed for Al Houthi’s death.

However, this has been disputed by the Saudi-led coalition and various Middle Eastern outlets, showing the complex nature of the information warfare being conducted within Yemen’s conflict.

On Friday, the Houthi movement released a statement via Al Masirah that Ibrahim al Houthi was assassinated in Yemen by “the hands of treachery belonging to Saudi-American-Israeli enemies.” But no other information was given by the Houthi-ran news channel.

Not long after this message was released, Lebanese Hezbollah published a message in support of the Houthis. While blaming “Zionist enemies” for Al Houthi’s death, Hezbollah adds that it “considers that the fallen Yemeni leaders are martyrs [and] is good news for the victory of the Yemeni people.”

The fact that Hezbollah eulogized Ibrahim al Houthi is not surprising, however, as ties between the Houthi insurgency and Hezbollah become more open.

Harakat al Nujaba, an Iraqi militia that has grown in importance as a proxy within Iran’s ‘axis of resistance’ in recent years, released its own statement eulogizing Al Houthi on Friday.

Much like Hezbollah, Harakat al Nujaba blames “clients of the Zionists” for his death, before sending the Yemeni people “its congratulations and blessings for the martyrdom” of Al Houthi.

The Islamic Resistance in Qatif, a branding for Shia militants within Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province with possible links to Iran, also chimed in by blaming the “Saudi-American-Israeli” enemies and sending its congratulations to the people of Yemen for Al Houthi’s death.

On Saturday, another Iraqi proxy for Iran, Kata’ib Hezbollah, blamed Saudi Arabia and said that Ibrahim al Houthi’s death is “evidence of the failure of the forces of aggression and its mercenaries.”

One day later, Iran’s semi-official news outlet Fars News blamed a Saudi airstrike on Al Houthi’s death. The outlet also quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as implicating Saudi Arabia in the assassination.

But Lebanon’s Al Mayadeen, a pro-Hezbollah news outlet, reported on Friday that Houthi intelligence services uncovered an armed cell belonging to Saudi intelligence, which was responsible for gunning down Al Houthi in Sana’a. This story was then picked up by Iran’s Arabic-language news site Al Alam and Russia’s propaganda channel RT.

The narrative perpetuated by the Houthis and its allies, however, has been disputed.

Shortly after the Houthi’s statement was released on Friday, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya reported that Al Houthi was killed last Tuesday alongside eight other militants en route to Sana’a. Much like the Houthi statement, no other information was provided.

But Sky News Arabia, another pro-Saudi source, then reported that Al Houthi was assassinated inside Sana’a. The UAE’s The National added to this by saying that Al Houthi was assassinated inside Sana’a by a rival faction within the Houthi movement.

On Sunday, Al Arabiya then quoted the Saudi-led coalition as officially blaming Al Houthi’s death on internal rifts within the movement’s leadership. “The Houthi leadership has consistently betrayed itself in operations of liquidations and killings,” the Saudi coalition said.

Prominent Yemen experts have also spoken to the veracity of this explanation.

Given the total control over Sana’a that the Houthis exert and that internal rifts within the Houthi leadership have been reported before, the story portrayed by the Saudi-led coalition is entirely plausible.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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