Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Ambiguous assassination in Yemen

Ambiguity surrounds the circumstances of the death of Saleh Al-Sammad, head of the rebel Houthi Movement’s Supreme Political Council, during an inspection tour in Yemen this week, writes Ahmed Eleiba

The Northern Yemeni Ansar Allah or Houthi Movement has announced the death of Saleh Al-Sammad, head of its Supreme Political Council, during an aerial assault by the Saudi-led Arab Coalition in Al-Hodeida province.

Al-Sammad was reportedly conducting an inspection along the battlefront after meeting with local notables. Al-Hodeida, a Red Sea port city, contains some of the rebel movement’s most important arms depots and is strategically important as a point of entry for smuggled arms.

Ambiguity continues to surround the circumstances of Al-Sammad’s death. While the Houthi Movement has said he was killed during the coalition strike, some believe his death could have been an inside job.

Coalition forces have not confirmed that Al-Sammad was killed during the aerial assault, even though his death is a major gain for the coalition, especially as he was killed with six other prominent Houthi officials in his entourage. Al-Sammad was the second on the coalition’s most-wanted list, which includes 40 other Houthi leaders.

Houthi-affiliated media had broadcast news of Al-Sammad’s tour in Al-Hodeida up to only a few hours before the announcement of his death. Editor-in-chief of the Yemeni Al-Shahed newspaper, Abdel-Aziz Al-Majidi, said that the continued broadcasting of the footage could have been meant to cover up his death, as otherwise it would have been announced the moment he was killed.

In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Majidi said that “the incident was staged by the Houthi Movement so as to lay the blame on the coalition and mobilising support for retaliation.”

However, the internationally recognised Yemeni government maintains that Al-Sammad was killed by coalition forces. Government spokesman Rajeh Badi described the assassination of Al-Sammad as the beginning of the collapse of the Houthi Movement. “It is a victory for legitimacy and the coalition forces in Yemen,” he said. “The death of a person who was appointed to head a militia is a sign of its immanent collapse. The death of Al-Sammad will usher in a new phase.”

Houthi leader Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi has appointed Mahdi Al-Mashat, a former director of his office, as acting chairman of the Supreme Political Council, with commentators seeing this as a sign of a more hardline stance.

According to analyst Khaled Alian in an interview with the Weekly, Al-Mashat is unqualified for the post when compared to Al-Sammad. “Al-Mashat is best known for sabotaging the negotiations that took place in Kuwait,” Alian commented.

Of Al-Sammad Alian said that “the Houthi Movement has lost a unique voice from outside the Houthi family. Al-Sammad was a prominent figure and perhaps the only person from outside the ruling family to occupy a senior position. He was keener on an institutional government than anyone whose thinking was confined to the family.”

Alian believes that Al-Sammad was assassinated by a faction within the Houthi Movement, whose internal conflict, he said, had now emerged into the open. Head of the movement’s Supreme Revolutionary Committee Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi, who heads its security apparatus, has clashed with Al-Sammad in the past, and there had been rumours that he had placed Al-Sammad under house arrest.

Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi appeared on the Houthi-affiliated Al-Masira TV channel to deliver a tribute to Al-Sammad and announce his funeral ceremony. Observers noted that the Houthi leader read the speech, which was unusual for him, and gave the impression that he was under pressure not to stray from the text.

The address offered further signs of a hardening of the movement, and while Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi said it was Al-Sammad as a man of peace and dialogue who had been assassinated, the fact Al-Mashat stood by his side during the address symbolised the strength of the movement’s militant wing.

Al-Mashat’s appointment to replace Al-Sammad could further serious internal tensions within the movement, as according to bylaws governing its Supreme Political Council Al-Sammad should have been succeeded by its vice-president.

The council was created during the alliance between former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthi Movement. While this fractured following Saleh’s assassination at the hands of the Houthi Movement, the movement took pains to ensure that a portion of Saleh’s political party, the General People’s Congress, remained represented.

Al-Mashat’s appointment as head of the council instead of Qassim Labouza, its vice-president, could trigger a succession conflict.

The assassination of Saleh Al-Sammad, coming on top of recent developments in Yemen, has increased the pressures on the Houthi Movement. Forces under the command of Tarek Saleh, nephew of the late Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been making progress on the ground in the battle against Houthi forces in the Al-Hodeida province.

Saleh commands some 10,000 officers from the Yemeni army that fell apart following the outbreak of the February 2011 Revolution that overthrew his uncle, the former Yemeni president. He has since been campaigning to win over other factions of the splintered army.

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