The Houthi (Ansar Allah) Digital Ecosystem

28 May 2024

This Dispatch provides an overview of the digital ecosystem of the Houthi movement, the Iran-backed Yemeni militant group. It focuses on how the group has used social media to shape its international presence, support and legitimacy in the context of the Israel-Hamas conflict and the subsequent Red Sea crisis. The Dispatch also considers how inconsistencies in government designations, platform policies and moderation help the group to reach larger audiences online. 


Ansar Allah, colloquially known as the Houthis, are an Iran-backed militant group that control most of northern Yemen and operate as the country’s de facto government. They are a key node in Iran’s self-described ‘Resistance Axis’, a network of Islamist proxy groups across the Middle East; the Islamic Republic is also the only state to officially recognise the Houthis as the government of Yemen.

Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Houthis have traditionally focused on domestic control rather than international ambitions, though they have previously launched strikes against targets in Saudi Arabia.  However, on 19 November 2023, the group began attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea which they alleged were affiliated with Israel. On 13 April 2024, they launched drones against Israel in coordination with Iran and other regional proxies.

The Houthis framed these attacks as an act of solidarity with Palestinians facing the Israeli assault on Gaza, drawing unprecedented support and recognition from groups and social media accounts across the political spectrum. The attacks also led the United States to re-designate the Houthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity (though not the stricter category of Foreign Terrorist Organisation or FTO, due to concerns around the implications for aid provision in the country).

To better understand the Houthis’ online footprint, ISD has analysed a network of websites and accounts within their digital ecosystem across a range of platforms. We found that the Houthis often exist in a grey area for platform policy, allowing their content to proliferate more readily than other high-profile militant groups.

Background

Ansar Allah emerged in the 1990s as a Zaydi Shi’a religious revivalist movement in northern Yemen, critical of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Saudi Arabia and the United States. From 2004, Saleh’s government, backed by Saudi Arabia, launched a series of arrests and military actions against the group.

Saleh (and parts of the military still loyal to him) later joined with the Houthis to regain power after his 2012 ouster following the Arab Spring[1]. In 2014, the militant group captured the capital of Sana’a; the following year, a Saudi-led international coalition launched a war against them. The Houthis currently control around 25 percent of the country, accounting for roughly half the population.

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, described by the UN as one of the worst in the world, has been exacerbated by a Saudi blockade. Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen have also designated the Houthis as a terrorist group; the UN classified them as a terrorist group in 2022. The US had previously designated them as an FTO, and as stated, has re-designated them as an SDGT.

Understanding the Broad Digital Ecosystem

To map the Houthis’ digital ecosystem, ISD researchers used both keyword searches and snowball techniques to identify accounts affiliated to the movement during the period January-February 2024. Analysts identified websites and social media accounts and classified affiliated accounts as either official or unofficial (i.e. supporter accounts not formally attached to the Houthis). In total, analysts surfaced 98 relevant entities (60 official, 38 informal). These included 12 websites, 41 accounts on X (formerly Twitter), 22 Telegram channels, 9 Facebook accounts, 9 TikTok accounts, 1 Instagram account, 3 YouTube accounts and 1 account on Iranian social media platform Virasty. This snapshot is not intended to provide a comprehensive account of the group’s online activity and support, but rather an indicative overview.

ISD found official Houthi accounts were primarily active on X (30 out of 41 accounts) and Telegram (16 of 23 channels) while supporters disseminated content on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube, as well as X and Telegram. All websites and more than a quarter of social media accounts were classed as official media outlets affiliated with the Houthis. Houthi-affiliated media outlets were not found to be present on TikTok and YouTube; they also avoided posting explicitly pro-Houthi content on Facebook where there was evidence of some accounts having been removed.

Arabic was the default language across both categories. Four websites were available in English and one in Hebrew; among social media accounts, four contained a mix of Arabic and English while the remainder were exclusively Arabic. Different websites played different roles. Some were aimed at domestic or regional audiences and others at international audiences; some contained mostly religious content while others were exclusively news related. Official website Ansarollah was originally hosted on a German server until it was shut down in February, but an alternative version was launched within days. This analysis indicates that while most of the accounts in the ecosystem were aimed at domestic or regional Arabic-speaking audiences, there were official efforts to reach a wider international audience and adapt to moderation efforts.

The written language of Houthi content directly affected its content, suggesting a deliberate effort to choreograph content more palatable for international audiences. Arabic content was more openly celebratory of “Al-Aqsa Storm”, Hamas’ name for the 7 October attack; al-Masirah, a Houthi-owned channel, featured a specific “Al-Aqsa Storm” section in its Arabic website which was not present on its English counterpart. On the English language version of the Houthis’ official website homepage, a religious section centring al-Houthi (the Houthi movement) was absent, while military spokesperson Yahya Serea was more frequently featured. Serea is a less controversial figure identified with the Yemeni military in contrast to al-Houthi’s more explicitly hardline ideological persona.

Figure 1. Left: English version of Houthi official website, featuring Serea. Right: Linked page available on the Arabic language version of the official Houthi website, absent from the English version, featuring al-Houthi.

Figure 1. Left: English version of Houthi official website, featuring military spokesperson Yahya Serea. Right: Linked page available on the Arabic language version of the official Houthi website, absent from the English version, featuring al-Houthi (the Houthi movement). Serea is a less controversial figure identified with the Yemeni military in contrast to al-Houthi’s more explicitly hardline ideological persona.

Figure 2. Comparison of Houthi-owned media outlet al-Masirah’s Arabic version (left) and English version (right). The Arabic version includes the phrases: “Al-Aqsa Storm” “#Our eid of jihad and victory”, as well as a Hamas militant, which do not appear on the English version. Images saved on 11 April 2024.

Figure 2. Comparison of Houthi-owned media outlet al-Masirah’s Arabic version (left) and English version (right). The Arabic version includes the phrases: “Al-Aqsa Storm” “#Our eid of jihad and victory”, as well as a Hamas militant, which do not appear on the English version. Images saved on 11 April 2024.

Figure 3. Official and explicitly labelled Houthi account on X with a blue checkmark denoting paid premium service.

Figure 3. Official and explicitly labelled Houthi account on X with a blue checkmark denoting paid premium service.

Figure 4. Houthi Military Spokesperson Yahya Serea’s X account.

Figure 4. Houthi Military Spokesperson Yahya Serea’s X account.

Figure 5. Examples of some Houthi-affiliated media outlets and their branding.

Figure 5. Examples of some Houthi-affiliated media outlets and their branding.

State Interaction – Iranian and pro-Kremlin Amplification

State actors played a significant role in amplifying Houthi material, reflecting both longstanding loyalties and opportunistic efforts. On the one hand, Iran has long openly supported the Houthis as part of its ‘Resistance Axis’. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has found the group useful in its narrative of Western aggression and malign influence in the Middle East. At the same time, the Kremlin has sought good relations with the Houthis’ enemies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and so refused to establish commercial relations with the Houthis or support them diplomatically.

Figure 6. Iran-controlled Spanish language media outlet presents the Houthis as ‘Yemen’.

Figure 6. Iran-controlled Spanish language media outlet presents the Houthis as ‘Yemen’.

Iranian and pro-Iran accounts contributed to the spread of Houthi claims to represent the Yemeni people. For example, the above Spanish-language Facebook post from Iran-controlled media outlet HispanTV is entitled: “How decisive is Yemen’s battle against the West and Israel, to stop the genocide in Gaza?”

Pro-Kremlin and pro-Assad conspiracist accounts further amplified pro-Houthi content, often from Iranian sources, as in the examples below. Houthi messaging was thus translated into English by Iranian media outlets and others, then delivered to an international audience by pro-Kremlin and pro-Iran networks.

Figure 7. pro-Kremlin accounts amplify Iranian and Syrian pro-Houthi content.

Figure 7. pro-Kremlin accounts amplify Iranian and Syrian pro-Houthi content.

Iranian state media and ‘Resistance Axis’ content promoting the Houthis’ actions in the Red Sea designate the group as “Yemen”, giving it greater credibility. By contrast, Russian state media largely refer to them as “the Houthis”, reflecting the Kremlin’s more lukewarm positioning.

Figure 8. Iranian media (left) refers to the Houthis as “Yemen” while Russian media (right) uses “Houthis”.

Figure 8. Iranian media (left) refers to the Houthis as “Yemen” while Russian media (right) uses “Houthis”.

Far Left and pro-Palestinian Support for the Houthis

The Houthis have also successfully built support from prominent far-left and pro-Palestinian accounts with large followings. Comments on posts were overwhelmingly positive toward the Houthis, who are often described as “Yemen”, and critical of the US, UK and Israel.

Figure 9. Self-described “American Conservative Marxist-Leninist” activist Jackson Hinkle posts in support of both “Yemen’s Houthis” and “Yemen”.

Figure 9. Self-described “American Conservative Marxist-Leninist” activist Jackson Hinkle posts in support of both “Yemen’s Houthis” and “Yemen”.

Figure 10. Left: Far-left account criticises the US, the UK and Israel. Right: UK MP George Galloway praises “Yemen” and warns Western leaders against fighting them.

Far-left supporters of the attacks on Red Sea shipping believe that Western states and Israel are neo-colonial aggressors and that the Houthis are therefore an anti-colonial resistance movement. This narrative emphasises Western and Israeli transgressions of international law and human rights norms while ignoring the Houthis’ own human rights track record.

Figure 11. David Miller, producer at Iranian-controlled media outlet PressTV’s Palestine Declassified, posts in support of the Houthis as “Yemen”.

Figure 11. David Miller, producer at Iranian-controlled media outlet PressTV’s Palestine Declassified, posts in support of the Houthis as “Yemen”.

Far-left commentators have also directly platformed senior Houthi figures. In January, left-wing British politician George Galloway, who previously hosted shows on Iranian-controlled media outlet Press TV, spoke to Houthi spokesperson Mohammed al-Bukhaiti on a livestream which received 50,230 views and 3,400 likes. An interview with al-Bukhaiti by Max Blumenthal, founder and editor conspiracist media platform The Grayzone, commonly described as a ‘far-left’ outlet, had 98,403 views and 11,000 likes.

Figure 12. Al-Bukhaiti interviews with The Grayzone.

Figure 12. Al-Bukhaiti interviews with The Grayzone.

In both interviews, al-Bukhaiti frames the Yemeni civil war as a proxy conflict between Yemen, and the US and UK, blaming “Zionist gangs in Washington and London”. Galloway praised the Houthis as “the most popular people’s army anywhere in the world right now,” and failed to challenge al-Bukhaiti on his antisemitic conspiracies[2] or the Houthis’ human rights abuses. Both Galloway and Jackson Hinkle, who identify on the political left but have socially conservative views, praised the Houthis’ religious convictions.

Terrorist Designation and Platform Moderation: Divergent Responses to the SDGT Designation and Blue Checkmarks on X

US-based platforms including X, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube officially prohibit terrorist organisations and terrorist content, but have some flexibility in defining ‘terrorist’. The Houthis’ removal from the US FTO list since 2021 has apparently engendered room for interpretation, despite its re-designation as an SDGT in 2024. While US-based social media are clearly obliged to remove content from FTOs, companies appear to treat the SDGT designation as less definitive in its implications.

The treatment of paid-for blue checkmarks highlights inconsistencies in the application of platform policies. According to X’s guidelines, premium blue checkmarks are prohibited for US-sanctioned entities. The platform also responded to a Tech Transparency Project report in February 2024, which highlighted X’s provision of premium perks to US-sanctioned groups. Houthi accounts mentioned in the report and the Houthi-owned media channel al-Masirah were suspended.

By March 2024, 9 of the 20 of the accounts with blue checkmarks found by ISD between January and February 2024 had them removed, including al-Bukhaiti (577,000 followers) and Serea (829,000 followers). However, accounts such as Naser al-Deen Amer, vice chairman of the Ansar Allah Media Authority, and Ali al-Imad, a member of the Houthis’ political bureau, still had premium checkmarks as of 18 March 2024.

The inconsistency in approach across platforms recalls the inconsistent policy approach to the Taliban, also subject to an SDGT designation. Meta banned the Afghan group from Facebook and Instagram entirely while on X, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid had 968,000 followers as of 19 March 2024. Before it even comes to challenges around enforcement, these differences in approach show policy incoherence which the Houthis and other actors can exploit.

Conclusion

Foreign state and non-state actors have been key to disseminating the Houthis’ messaging. This creates a risk of further mainstreaming of antisemitic conspiracist tropes regarding Jewish influence in media and politics which are particularly flagrant in the group’s rhetoric, as well as pro-Kremlin and pro-Iran narratives. The group has further garnered popularity in the context of the Israel-Hamas war and attempted to whitewash its image for an international audience.

At the same time, international designation remains incoherent and inconsistent toward the Houthis. This incoherence is mirrored in the behaviour of social media platforms, where explicit Houthi accounts and content are inconsistently moderated. Without clearer designation and policy approaches, an unhelpful grey area will endure, and the Houthis’ digital ecosystem and audience will continue to proliferate.

Figure 13. Houthi spokesperson al-Bukhaiti comments on X’s moderation challenges.

Figure 13. Houthi spokesperson al-Bukhaiti comments on X’s moderation challenges.

 

End notes

[1] Saleh was killed by Houthi militants after he split from them in 2017.

[2] Al-Bukhaiti says: “The Yemenis of Ansar-Allah have made the issue of Palestine their primary issue. So they managed a falsehood in the world led or managed by the ruling Zionist gangs in London and Washington committing aggression against Yemen and encouraged the world to do so.” (13:04) “… We are not hostile to the British and American people, but rather our hostility is to the Zionist ruling elite in Washington or London, which caused many tragedies in the world, whether in South Africa, the Middle East, Africa, East Asia, or even Europe.” (16:26)

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