Yemen’s Houthis claim to nab US-Israeli spy network using aid agencies as cover

Iran-backed rebels say CIA-linked ring carried out espionage activities for years, a week after they announced arrest of 11 UN staff as part of crackdown on non-government bodies

File: Graduate students take part in a parade in support of the Houthi rebel group in Sanaa, Yemen, June 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Osamah Abdulrahman)
File: Graduate students take part in a parade in support of the Houthi rebel group in Sanaa, Yemen, June 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Osamah Abdulrahman)

Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Monday said they had arrested a “spy network” operating under the cover of humanitarian organizations after aid workers including 11 UN staff were held last week.

The Iran-backed group claimed the network was linked to the CIA and had been carrying out “espionage” activities in Yemen for years, initially through the United States embassy before it suspended operations in Sana’a in 2015.

“An American-Israeli spy network was arrested,” the Iran-backed group’s security wing announced in a statement, saying those held worked under “the cover of international organizations and UN agencies.”

The Houthis, who are engaged in a long-running civil war that has triggered one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, did not specify how many people were arrested.

Israeli government officials had no immediate comment, and the UN declined to comment on the allegations. The US State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the agency was working to secure the release of its 11 detained staff who work for five different UN agencies and the UN envoy for Yemen. Six members worked for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Forces loyal to the Houthis in Yemen participate in a military parade on the occasion of the 34th National Day to commemorate Yemeni unity, in Sana’a, on May 22, 2024. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

Yemen’s internationally recognized government said “dozens of employees” of UN agencies and other international organizations were detained as part of a “massive abduction campaign.”

The Yemeni Mayyun Organization for Human Rights said at least 18 were held in “simultaneous” arrests that took place in the capital Sana’a, the key port of Hodeida, Amran, and Saada, the rebels’ traditional stronghold.

Among those detained were three employees of the US-funded pro-democracy group National Democratic Institute and three employees of a local human rights group, according to three officials of Yemen’s internationally recognized government who spoke to Reuters on Friday.

Houthi Al Masirah TV posted a series of videos on its Telegram channel allegedly showing the confessions of some of those arrested. Reuters could not independently verify the videos.

The Houthis have disappeared, arbitrarily detained and tortured hundreds of civilians, including United Nations and NGO workers, since the start of Yemen’s conflict in 2014, according to Human Rights Watch.

Yemeni security forces stand guard during a pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel rally in the Houthi-held capital Sana’a on April 26, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas. (Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

A ‘pretext’

Monday’s announcement imperils vital humanitarian operations in rebel-run parts of the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country, where more than half of the population is dependent on aid.

Mohammed Albasha, a senior Middle East analyst for the Navanti Group consultancy, called the espionage charges a “pretext,” saying the move aims to “systematically eliminate non-governmental organizations in Yemen.”

The arrests aim to force “foreign organizations or members of the international community seeking to conduct, fund, or implement projects inside the country” to deal exclusively with Houthi-run bodies, he said in a commentary published ahead of the rebels’ announcement.

The Houthis seized control of Sana’a in September 2014, prompting a Saudi-led military intervention on behalf of the government the following March.

Since November, they have launched scores of drone and missile strikes targeting ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, a campaign they say is intended to signal solidarity with Palestinians over the Israel-Hamas war.

In May, the Houthis also said they had exposed a “spy” network aiding the United States and Israel and arrested suspected members. A report by the Houthi-run Saba news agency did not specify the number of arrests, but unverified images published by Saba showed at least 18 people.

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