The Houthis Fortify Their Regime by Targeting Yemen’s Youngest

CEP Senior Advisor Ambassador Fitton-Brown is the former UK Ambassador to Yemen and former coordinator of the U.N. Security Council’s ISIL/Al Qaeda/Taliban Sanctions Monitoring Team. 

Ari Heistein is a non-resident fellow at the Counter Extremism Project who has published reports on the Houthis’ procurement and financing structures, their misuse of telecommunications technology, their targeting of religious minorities, and the group’s oppression of women and journalists

When referring to themselves, members of the Iran-backed “axis of resistance” tend to attribute their movements and actions to nature. For years, Hamas has described murder sprees  and rocket attacks as the natural response to their circumstances. Similarly, Yemen’s Houthis and their allies have described their own organization as “organic” and their malign activities as “a legitimate and natural response.” This rhetoric aims to send a message to Western audiences: “if you saw things from our perspective then you would be on our side.”  

But such claims are most obviously contradicted by the intensive and nefarious efforts of these organizations to indoctrinate the populations under their control. If the Houthis were a “natural response” to their surroundings, would they need to rule their own information environment with an iron fist, brainwash children in schools and summer programs, and then blackmail families to send their kids to the front lines? Presumably this would be entirely unnecessary if all or most of their fellow Yemenis felt a natural sense of agreement with them. Here we already identify a problem with some Western commentary on the Houthis, which conflates the group with Yemen itself. But there are millions of Yemenis still living under the auspices of the internationally-recognized legitimate Government of Yemen. When the Houthis act, it is not Yemen acting; it is an illegal militia that happens to control part of Yemen.

Less than a year after they took Sanaa in 2014, the Houthis seized control of the telecommunications infrastructure and media outlets to promote their own radical vision for Yemen while suppressing competing ideologies. According to Citizen Lab, they used surveillance and censorship tools taken from the previous regime to dramatically intensify the monitoring and regulation of Yemenis’ online activity – controlling both what citizens could say and what information they could access. But the Houthis do not limit their activities to IT infrastructure: having coopted or silenced every journalist in the territory they rule, they have now moved on to ensuring that even social media influencers are not able to expose the injustices and hardships of living under the Houthi regime. Their aim is to dominate the information space in Yemen in order to ensure the general public’s loyalty despite the misrule of the Houthi family and their cronies.

While seeking information dominance in Yemen more generally, it is clear that the group places a particular focus on efforts to radicalize Yemen’s youngest. It is undoubtedly one of the most disturbing elements of the Yemeni civil war—a conflict filled with more than its fair share of tragedy and brutality—to see how some in the next generation of Yemenis have already sworn away their lives to a regime that places no value on human life, let alone childhood. One study noted of the Houthis’ revamped educational system that “To normalize weapons and violence, textbooks used pictures of weapons, deceased children, bloodshed, and militarizing narratives in a repetitive manner across all 1-9 grades.”

In addition to updating the school curricula in order to push Houthi rhetoric during the academic year, the Houthis have also pushed military-style summer programs for children, referred to as “Summer Centers.” This is where children, hundreds of thousands of whom are below the age of 14, are exposed to Houthi doctrine and engaged in live fire training exercises. Recent media reports from Yemen indicate that the regime has launched a massive public relations campaign to convince parents to send their children to these institutions. It is unclear what the scope of attendance is for Houthi summer programs throughout Yemen, but it appears that in at least some cases they are succeeding in their mission of indoctrination: in one instance it was reported that an anti-Houthi man was beaten to death by his children at the instruction of the regime for seeking to prevent their participation. 

Sadly, the Houthis’ designs for Yemen are worse than simply indoctrinating children – the regime also sends them to die on its behalf. According to the Yemen Peace Forum, the Houthis have recruited over ten thousand child soldiers thus far, and in 2020-21 alone approximately 2,000 of the Houthis’ child soldiers are believed to have died fighting for the regime. Despite the Houthis signing an Action Plan with the United Nations to “end and prevent the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict” in 2022, this problem has only intensified since October 7, 2023, when the Houthis sought to claim the mantle of the Palestinian cause by attacking both Israel and international shipping in the Red Sea. 

Indoctrination alone is not enough to explain why children fight and die for the regime. As they rule over a poverty-stricken population with scant resources, the Houthis leverage their control of international humanitarian assistance to blackmail families in need into sending their children to the front lines. Such methods comport with the Houthis’ wider  recruitment of fighters, in some cases from non-Zaidi backgrounds, via financial motivation; they also sadly comport with the appallingly widespread practice of marrying off young girls, some far short even of the age of puberty, to old men for the financial advantage of their families.

There are further obvious knock-on effects of these horrendous abuses of minors. Neither child soldiers nor child brides will ever be given the chance to be educated or develop their full potential as citizens. The economies of both parts of Yemen - that controlled by the legitimate government as well as that under Houthi domination - are already impoverished by gender inequality and the widespread and destructive use of qat as a narcotic. It is difficult to foresee how Yemen will ever be able to prosper in the light of these compounding Houthi crimes.  

If the Houthis’ indoctrination and recruitment programs continue, Yemen will remain a miserable place controlled by armed radicals for the foreseeable future and rest assured, the Houthis will aim to drag the rest of the region down with Yemen. During his tenure as UK Ambassador to Yemen, Amb. Fitton-Brown heard the Houthi leaders themselves cite that their “advantage” over Western governments was that they did not care how many Yemenis had to die in order to fulfill their apocalyptic vision.

As is evident from the massive resources and effort invested in compelling Yemenis to buy into Houthi ideology and then make the ultimate sacrifice for the regime, there is nothing “natural” about this extremist Iran-backed organization and its activities. At the same time, it is clear that if the Houthi regime and their indoctrination machine are not stopped soon, they will reshape Yemen in a way that could take generations to undo. While the primary victims of Houthi radicalization and militarization are the Yemenis condemned to live under their rule, the region and the global economy will also suffer the consequences of inaction in the face of a growing and increasingly entrenched Houthi threat. 

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.


On May 8, 2019, Taliban insurgents detonated an explosive-laden vehicle and then broke into American NGO Counterpart International’s offices in Kabul. At least seven people were killed and 24 were injured.

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