January 17, 2020
Iran’s man in Yemen and the al Houthis
The Washington Post’s revelation of a second US military operation targeting an Iranian commander in Yemen the same night as the airstrike that killed Iranian military commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani has gotten far less attention that the spectacular Soleimani strike. But Abdul Reza Shahlai deserves some media love.
Shahlai is a deputy commander within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Qods Force — Iran’s expeditionary force specialized in unconventional warfare. He provided support to Iraqi Shia extremist groups to attack US and coalition forces in Iraq in the 2000s and planned a Jaysh al Mahdi Special Groups attack against US forces in Karbala, Iraq, that killed five US soldiers in January 2007. Shahlai also coordinated and approved all Iran-based Lebanese Hezbollah training for Iraqi groups. He later coordinated and helped finance an IRGC Qods Force plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US in Washington, DC, in 2011. Discussions surrounding the 2011 assassination plot in Washington, DC, also mentioned attacking an embassy — presumably American — in Saudi Arabia. More recently, his name surfaced in Israeli reports on a Gaza-based smuggling ring moving weapons to Yemen in early 2017. A $15 million reward for information issued by the US State Department in December 2019 confirmed Shahlai’s presence in Yemen, where is probably the most senior Iranian official overseeing the IRGC Qods Force support to the al Houthi movement.
The presence of Abdul Reza Shahlai in the al Houthi-controlled Yemeni capital of Sana’a — where the US tried and failed to take him out at the same time the Soleimani operation was going on — probably facilitates an IRGC Qods Force initiative to expand the al Houthis’ indigenous capabilities. Shahlai’s specialty is in external operations and cultivating that specific skillset within Iranian-backed groups. Some of the al Houthi attacks against Saudi and other regional targets are no doubt a result of his handiwork. His commitment to targeting US interests globally — from Iraq to Washington, DC — might also mean that Shahlai is actively seeking regional American targets of opportunity. He remains a senior commander within the IRGC Qods Force’s Unit 400 — a clandestine unit conducting missions against Western targets.
Killing Shahlai along with Soleimani would have delivered a one-two punch to the IRGC Qods Force. No doubt, he’s a dangerous man. But unlike the death of Soleimani (and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al Muhandis) in Iraq, killing Shahlai would not be much of an immediate game-changer for Yemen’s al Houthi movement.
The al Houthis have benefited significantly from Iran’s and Iranian proxies’ support. Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have developed the al Houthis’ spectrum of capabilities from media and information to political organization to basic soldiering and to asymmetrical attacks. By the end of 2012, the al Houthis sported a robust media outlet hosted in Beirut, a political party that gained support from outside of the traditional al Houthi base in northern Yemen, financing from Hezbollah, and a growing stockpile of arms. By the end of 2014, the al Houthis controlled Yemen’s capital, and reportedly a few hundred IRGC trainers and advisers were in Yemen while another hundred Yemenis trained at an IRGC base in Qom, Iran. By 2020, a limited but strategic Iranian investment in Yemen has transformed the al Houthis’ threat to challenge both Saudi Arabian and other Gulf state security and maritime security and transferred capabilities and expertise from the indigenous production of roadside bombs to ballistic missiles. That Iranian investment, however, by no means secures the al Houthis’ loyalty to Tehran.
Wartime requirements drove the al Houthis closer toward Iran as a partner and benefactor. The al Houthis are now an established member of the “Axis of Resistance,” an Iranian-led effort to expand regional influence (what Americans might call the Iranian threat network). Leader Abdul Malik al Houthi lists convergent interests between the al Houthis and other members of the Axis, including Hezbollah, particularly in contesting the American, Israeli, and Saudi role in the region. Iran has been the only state willing to formally recognize the al Houthi-led government in Yemen, and the al Houthis have appointed an ambassador to Tehran (days after a representative met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei). The al Houthis remain independent from Iran, however, and Abdul Malik al Houthi has been clear that he is the ultimate decision-maker.
The al Houthis seek international recognition and control over their future in Yemen, which at some point may create friction with Iranian efforts. Even as Iran and its proxies escalated against the US in Iraq in late 2019, the al Houthis preserved the informal truce with Saudi Arabia during ceasefire talks. A deadly Saudi attack on a Yemeni market that drew international condemnation solicited threats from the al Houthi military spokesman but shortly thereafter, the al Houthis released six Saudi prisoners. The US strike against Qassem Soleimani also provoked bellicose language from the al Houthis — who organized massive rallies in Yemen — with the group’s political bureau calling for the expulsion of the “American occupier” from the region. The al Houthis claim to have fired three Zelzal-1 rockets into southern Saudi Arabia on January 5, the first such attack in months, possibly a muted response to the US strikes but also nudging the Saudis on ceasefire negotiations.
Losing Abdul Reza Shahlai would slow the IRGC’s maturation of the al Houthi threat but in no way erases that threat. Even rolling back Iran’s expeditionary activities in the region does not eliminate the capabilities Iran and its proxies have transferred to the al Houthis. The al Houthis can strike maritime traffic in the Red Sea or Gulf aviation and oil infrastructure. Reversing this threat requires a nuanced approach to splinter the al Houthis from the Iranian network and engaging with the Yemen conflict in its own right, rather than a subset of US counterterrorism or counter-Iranian strategy.