July 14, 2022
Iran Supports Houthi Control over Yemen Telecommunications Sector
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]
Key Takeaway: Iran may be providing technical assistance to strengthen the Houthi movement’s ability to gather intelligence and suppress dissent. A Yemeni nongovernmental organization (NGO) reported that Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have sent logistical and technical support to Yemen to help the Houthis exploit their control over domestic telecommunications infrastructure. This support will help the Houthis suppress domestic dissent and solidify their control over northern Yemen.
The Houthi movement is likely acquiring new systems to increase its ability to surveil private communications. TeleYemen, a telecommunications company likely controlled by the Houthis, may have begun using a “bandwidth management system” in 2021. Such a system would allow the Houthis to control information and monitor private communications, according to the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen. TeleYemen has defended this purchase, claiming the bandwidth management system merely filter content that violates “the law and Islamic doctrine.” The source of this bandwidth management system is unclear. The Yemeni government has intercepted other smuggled telecommunications equipment crossing the Yemeni-Omani border—a known transit route for Iranian weapons bound for the Houthis.
Iran is likely helping the Houthis use telecommunications data to surveil and control Yemenis. Yemeni NGO Regain Yemen *reported that Iranian intelligence organizations and companies and Lebanese Hezbollah are providing logistical and technical expertise to the Houthi movement to “exploit [telecommunications]” for intelligence as part of an “intelligence investment partnership.” The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps may have become *involved in the Yemeni telecommunications sector as early as 2018 by purchasing shares. The Iranian regime has experience building a police and surveillance state and likely seeks to share this expertise to enhance the already strong Houthi control over Yemen’s telecommunications sector and advance Houthi *efforts to build a similarly strong authoritarian state.
Tehran’s support for Houthi social control efforts is part of a larger effort to secure regional allies from internal instability. The Iranian regime built an adaptive and sophisticated police and surveillance state domestically and now exports its social control capabilities to friendly states to help them suppress dissent. Tehran sent internal security forces, such as its national police, to Iraq and Syria to crack down on civil disorder in 2019 and 2011, respectively. The regime also “shared techniques on internet surveillance and disruption” with Syrian President Bashar al Assad at the beginning of the Syrian civil war.
The Houthis will use greater surveillance and control of the Yemeni population to consolidate their position in northern Yemen, cementing an Iranian partner along the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia’s southern border. Investments in telecommunications infrastructure is not always malign, of course, and more effective telecommunications infrastructure would likely improve economic conditions in Yemen. The Houthis have already demonstrated willingness to exploit this infrastructure, however. Collecting alms from the telecommunications sector is the Houthi-led government’s second most profitable revenue source. The Houthis also *use control over telecommunications to finance war efforts. Abdullah Musfir al Shaer, the Houthi official in charge of the telecommunications sector, is the brother of Saleh Musfir al Shaer, the US-sanctioned head of the Houthi military logistics support organization. Saleh Musfir and the Houthis used this authority to *seize the resources and assets of the Yemeni telecommunications company Sabafon in September 2019. Such seizures help fund the Houthi war effort.
The Houthis will use enhanced surveillance and censorship capabilities to crack down on internal opposition more effectively. The Houthis already detain and harass political opponents and religious minorities. They will likely use a more capable surveillance apparatus to identify, detail, and then torture activists and others political opponents, particularly in urban areas where the threat of protests may be greater. This solidification of Houthi control will harm human rights in Houthi-controlled areas and further the spread of digital authoritarianism in the Middle East.