Al Jazeera World

The Road to Sanaa

A story of political skulduggery in Yemen and the high cost to the presidency of alleged collusion with the Houthis.

Filmmakers: Safa Karman and Gamal al-Moliky

With access to previously secret Yemeni defence ministry documents and testimony, Al Jazeera World investigates how the way was paved for the Houthis to take the city of Amran on their progress towards the capital Sanaa. It asks whether the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his defence ministry were involved.

The Road to Sanaa tells the story of an alleged conspiracy by the Yemeni government against the apparently loyal army officer, Brigadier General Hamid al-Qushaibi and asks whether by appearing to collude with the Houthis, it unwittingly plotted its own downfall.

The Yemeni army fought a series of battles against the Houthis between 2004 and 2011 in which Qushaibi was key. He led the 310th Armoured Brigade based in the northern city of Amran, Qushaibi’s hometown. As an army officer, he had been loyal to the governments of both former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his successor, Hadi. 

There was no serious response from the government particularly the defence minister. It was a combination of negligence and complicity. The defence minister visited the Houthi and met their military leader. This demoralised our fighters. How could he visit the Houthi militia rather than his own men?

by - An army commander of the 310th Armoured Brigade who did not want to reveal his identity due to security concerns

However, Qushaibi had supported the Youth Revolution in Yemen in 2011 and, by doing so, upset Saleh. He also arguably represented a threat to Hadi after Saleh was removed from power in February 2012.

The Houthis had started as a peaceful group aimed at reviving the Zaidi strain of Shia Islam, but developed into an armed militia under their founder Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi.

He was killed in 2004 and succeeded by his younger brother and current leader, Abdel-Malik al-Houthi. Under him, the Houthis began to move south from their stronghold in the northern province of Saada in June 2014. As they did so, Amran was the last bastion of government defence on their way south towards Sanaa, and the fall of Amran in unusual circumstances in July 2014, opened the way for the Houthis to move directly on to the capital.

The Road to Sanaa raises the question as to whether the government genuinely supported Qushaibi in his defence of Amran – or whether it effectively hung him out to dry, by allowing the Houthis to kill one of the men who’d openly supported the revolution against Saleh in 2011. It asks whether the Hadi government and its Ministry of Defence took a calculated risk by enabling the Houthis to defeat the 310th Armoured Brigade in Amran and kill Qushaibi.

Seven officers from Qushaibi’s brigade, who do not want their identities revealed for security reasons, recount the events of that ill-fated battle. A senior Yemeni government official – who also wished to remain anonymous – subsequently confirmed their version of events in a phone call to the Al Jazeera team after the fall of both Amran and Sanaa.

“The government only gave Qushaibi verbal promises: We’ll send you this. We will support you. These were just words, merely lies. He believed them, in good faith. Air strikes started but only warned the Houthis. Each time he attacked, the Houthis moved elsewhere, “an army commander of the 310th Armoured Brigade tells Al Jazeera World.

According to testimonies in the film, supplies were cut off, requests to the government largely fell on deaf ears, and when backup troops arrived “they took off their uniforms and joined the Houthis”.

What the president and the Ministry of Defence did not foresee was that, by doing so, they virtually opened the door for the Houthis to move on to Sanaa and take over the institutions of government in September 2014.