by Hassan Ramahi and William Glucroft
Yahya Badr al-Din al-Houthi serves as a senior strategist for Ansar Allah, the movement of armed Yemeni rebels commonly known as the Houthis. He is the brother of the movement’s chief, as well as a member of the Yemeni parliament. He has also been designated a terrorist — by Interpol, in 2007 — with a rap sheet of lethal attacks and sabotage spanning a decade. Among the most recent hits in which he played a role: the January 2015 armed takeover of the presidential palace in Sanaa and forced detention of the country’s president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
For the past ten years, Al-Houthi, an avowed supporter of Lebanese Hezbollah to boot, has enjoyed political asylum in Germany. In flagrant violation of the terms of his special status, he has used the European nation as a home base for political action and a springboard for armed operations, shuttling illegally to and from his home country. From the safety of German TV studios via Arabic satellite television, he has exhorted his followers in Yemen to fight. Among the channels he has used is the Arabic edition of Deutche Welle, the German government’s flagship international broadcast. He has coordinated these and other activities with Iranian officials through meetings in Berlin with Tehran’s ambassador to Germany, and also used German soil to hold talks with representatives of Iranian proxy militias in Lebanon and Iraq.
The story of Al-Houthi’s exploits, covered in a two-part summer series in the print edition of Majalla, raises questions about the German security sector’s capacity and willingness to hold its political refugees to the legal conditions of their stay. The revelations come, moreover, amid a growing popular backlash against the German government’s absorption of hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-torn Arab and Muslim lands — an anger stoked by growing incidents of violence within Germany perpetrated by some of the newcomers.
A few days after the July installment of the series hit the newsstands, Al-Houthi liquidated his German assets and departed the country again. According to a source in Germany’s private sector with knowledge of the transactions, he sold off a six-bedroom house with a large garden, a small farm, and a Mercedes luxury car. As of this writing he resides in Switzerland, where he enjoys freedom of movement thanks to the country’s own asylum laws and the temporary German passport which he still holds.
Here for the first time in English, Majalla presents the principal outtakes from the Arabic series — a case in point of a new kind of transnational challenge to a continent in flux, in an era of simultaneity, rapid transit, and mass migration.
A Chronology of Opportunism
Beginning in 2004, according to charges against Al-Houthi which would be brought to trial by a Yemeni prosecutor five years later, the rebel leader was a prime mover in a series of armed attacks aiming to overthrow the government of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. In February 2010, he was convicted in absentia of personal involvement in the murder of civilians, destruction of private and government property, and plotting to assassinate Yemeni and foreign political figures including the American Ambassador in Sanaa.
As noted earlier, Al-Houthi’s designation as a terrorist by Interpol dates back to 2007. Early that year, he fled his native land for Libya, on an offer of safe haven from Mu’ammar Qadhafi, who at the time had appointed himself a peace broker in Yemen. Al-Houthi’s welcome in Libya did not last long, however. By the end of that year, he had fled to Germany and won asylum.
In October 2009, on the eve of Al-Houthi’s Yemeni trial in absentia, German officials warned him to abide by the laws of his asylum status and refrain from engaging in any activity that could be construed as hostile to a foreign state. Though the extent to which he may have violated the laws in secret cannot be determined, his media activity on Deutche Welle and other networks was manifest: He voiced staunch support for the Houthi rebels, in substance making the case for armed attacks against the government in Sanaa. Following his in absentia conviction in Yemen in February 2010, Interpol attempted to act on Sanaa’s request that he be extradited to the country to serve a 15-year prison sentence. Protected by his asylum status, he remained in Germany.
Eventually, Al-Houthi returned to Yemen on his own terms: After President Saleh’s departure from power in 2013, the country’s new president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, granted him a pardon and encouraged him to participate in the “National Dialogue” conference as a representative of the Houthi rebels. Within two years of his return, he helped steer the coup against President Hadi, and personally participated in storming the Presidential palace and placing Hadi under house arrest.
In 2014, while comfortably ensconced in Yemen’s Houthi enclave, the rebel leader shuttled back to Germany to renew his asylum status and temporary German passport. In 2016, as the Arab military alliance to restore Yemen’s legitimate government registered substantial gains against the rebels, Al-Houthi returned again to Bonn — and to the airwaves of Deutche Welle. He used the network to voice opposition to calls for confidence-building measures which had been placed on the table during the summer’s Yemeni peace negotiations in Kuwait.
To better understand the legal ramifications of Al-Houthi’s travels and actions, Majalla spoke with a lawyer at a church in Bonn who assists in asylum cases and has knowledge of the relationship between German foreign policy and immigration laws. “German law allows recipients of asylum free travel within Europe,” he explained, “but not to their native country. Were an asylum seeker to travel to his homeland, German law requires that his right of asylum be revoked upon his return.” In other words, Al-Houthi openly and repeatedly violated the terms of his asylum status, but was not held accountable for his actions.
Houthi’s most recent migration — from Germany to Switzerland this summer — raises new questions as to whether Swiss authorities will hold Al-Houthi to the standards of their own asylum laws, and whether Germany will at last act on the manifest evidence that he has violated German law.
Al-Houthi’s exploitation of German territory
The attorney with political asylum expertise also confirmed to Majalla that German law, like that of numerous other countries on the continent, restricts its political refugees from using the country to advance any attempt to destabilize a legitimate foreign government. Al-Houthi’s violations of this principle go well beyond his media activity, and involve further arenas of conflict beyond Yemen.
A diplomatic source with knowledge of Al-Houthi’s political activity in Germany told Majalla that the leader has met repeatedly with Iranian ambassador Ali Majidi in Berlin. The same source added that Al-Houthi has held talks with Lebanese Hezbollah via a Berlin-based Lebanese intermediary, as well as Shi’ite militias in Iraq via an Iraqi intermediary.
While in Germany, Al-Houthi also met with German leadership figures, including members of the foreign relations committee of the German parliament and foreign ministry officials in Berlin. It is perhaps noteworthy in this context that in late June of this year, a German national held hostage in Houthi-controlled Sanaa was released without explanation and flown to Oman.
Majalla sought comment from a variety of German officials as to whether the government was aware of Al-Houthi’s asylum law violations; if so, what measures the government is taking regarding Al-Houthi’s case; and if not, then how his flagrant violations escaped their notice. Interior and Foreign Ministry officials declined to respond to any questions on the specifics of Al-Houthi’s case.
Yahya al-Houthi and Europe’s Predicament
Yahya al-Houthi is not a typical asylum seeker. But his gaming of the German asylum system is naturally of interest to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Arab and Muslim lands into Europe — and to the German electorate, amid debates over how to handle the massive inflow.
Last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel set an optimistic tone in response to calls for the country to absorb as many refugees as possible.
“Wir schaffen das,” she said in September. We can do it.
It was an unusual response for a leader of Germany, a country better known for its cautious and conservative approach to social and political issues. It was all the more out of character for Merkel ,who, in her decade as chancellor, hasn’t been known to take a proactive stand on issues. Many political analysts see that as the key to her success and staying power. She proves adept at keeping out of nasty political fights, inserting herself into the prevailing side only at the end to take credit for the win.
The refugee crisis, which peaked in the late summer months of 2015, did not afford the luxury of standing idly by to see how things would play out before making a decision. Thousands of people were streaming into Europe, mostly via Turkey and the Balkans, every day. The European Union’s poorer member states were overwhelmed, and there was little coordinated action at the EU level. Gut-wrenching stories and images of drowned children washing up on Turkish and European shores were in the news. Men, women and children mostly from Syria but also Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere were taking any risk necessary to seek refuge from their war-torn lands.
It was a mounting humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen since the Second World War. Many Germans, eager to demonstrate a softer side to their country’s image, fell in with Merkel’s open arms, open borders approach, which would steer a million refugees towards Germany, a country of 80 million, and the EU’s leading economy and de facto leader. When the first refugee transports from Hungary and Austria arrived to Munich’s central train station, they were met by cheering crowds handing out toys, food and hot drinks to the exhausted new arrivals. Those new arrivals, meanwhile, were chanting the praises of Germany and their savior, Angela Merkel.
The year since those warmhearted and confident early days has been rife with uncertainty. The number of refugees coming in is down — 16,000-plus in June from a peak of 200,000 in November — but the challenges of what to do with those now here persist. Many lack basic education, and children can be years behind their German counterparts. The absence of language and job skills are in particular worrisome. The spate of sexual assaults by Arab refugees in Cologne on New Year’s Eve was a sign that integrating those from conservative Muslim countries into a western liberal one would prove more difficult than first thought.
Even the immigrant-friendlier left sees the task “harder than Merkel, with her frivolous ‘we can do it’ slogan of last autumn, would have us believe,” Sahra Wagenknecht, co-leader of the left-wing opposition party, Die Linke, told the Financial Times.
Looming behind the integration question is a real security concern. From the beginning, right-wing populist groups, such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has ridden the wave of anti-refugee sentiment towards greater political power, have been calling for strict border controls, easier deportation rules and more thorough investigation of asylum seekers. Those even further right have denounced Merkel as a “traitor” and attacked refugees and refugee shelters.
Germany has so far been spared the high-profile terrorism inflicted on Paris and Brussels, yet it endured four smaller and uncoordinated violent acts in the span of a week in July: a knife attack on a train near Würzburg, another knife attack in a city near Stuttgart, a suicide bombing at a music festival in Bavaria’s Ansbach and a shooting spree in Munich. Only the shooting was carried out by a native-born German, of Iranian descent. The others had all arrived to Germany as refugees.
In all, 10 people, excluding the attackers, have been killed and 53 wounded. German authorities are investigating an additional 59 refugees with potential links to terrorist groups.
The anti-refugee rhetoric is no longer just the domain of the right. Security fears, and uncertainty about Germany’s ability to cope with mounting threats, has people across the political spectrum turning against Merkel’s refugee policy. There’s growing concern that radical elements may have blended into the refugee flow undetected, or those now here are at risk of becoming radicalized, creating the homegrown terrorism seen in France and Belgium.
There are divisions within Merkel’s own conservative party, the CDU, and its more conservative Bavarian partner, the CSU. Horst Seehofer, the prime minister of Bavaria and head of the CSU, had already been fighting internally with Merkel for greater control of borders and refugees coming into Germany. In the aftermath of the recent attacks, three of which took place in his state, he’s calling for more intense background checks.
“We need to know who has entered our country,” he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Others are up to the task of accommodating refugees in Germany, but are stumped on how to screen for potential threats. “Integrating them individually, and making sure they get the right psychiatric treatment, is impossible. There are just too many,” CSU MP Florian Hahn told the FT.
Joachim Herrmann, also of the CSU and Bavaria’s interior minister, agrees. Individual attacks such as those that took place in Germany last week are “extremely difficult to stop,” he said in a public statement. “We can’t put a police officer in every train wagon.”
At the same time, Hermann has suggested Germany have the right to deport refugees with criminal records back to the war zones from which they came. That would be a violation of the Geneva Convention.
The case is different when a refugee himself isn’t deported, but rather willingly returns to — or commutes between — the country he fled. This would be a violation of the refugee’s asylum status and should be grounds for immediate revocation and deportation.
For reasons that remain unclear, this does not always happen.
Chancellor Merkel, meanwhile, stands by her “we can do it” refugee policy. In a press conference that interrupted her summer holidays, Merkel pledged her commitment to Germany’s humanitarian values and international obligations. At the same time, she wants more money and resources for police and security forces.
A global challenge?
The question of uniformity in enforcement of immigration and asylum law in Europe is not altogether new, nor is it limited to the continent. Some inferences may be drawn between the case of Yahya Al-Houthi and various cautionary tales from the United States.
For an outside perspective, Majalla approached Clint Watts, a Senior Fellow with the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, previously served as an FBI Special Agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force, and as the Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Watts has conducted a serious of studies about the challenges of counterterrorism in Europe. Majalla shared its findings on the case of Yahya Al-Houthi with Watts. In response, he opined that the case, on the face of it, “speaks to the broader predicament of a Western European country that suddenly has to rapidly assess a lot of people who are coming in as refugees and asylum seekers. They’re inevitably going to miss something. This is a problem in Germany, but the issue is not unique to Germany. Another example is the United States in the 1990s, when it took in a lot of refugees from the Afghan war. During that time, one of the beneficiaries was the Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel Rahman, who was connected to the first World Trade Center attack in 1993.”
In addition to the practical problem of limited resources, Watts add, there is also a conceptual problem of the temporality inherent in the assessment of any refugee: “In a country like Germany,” he observed, “the vetting of a refugee or asylum seeker is a one-time thing, reflecting the government’s assessment of him at the time he entered the country. There is not going to be a continuous, indefinite vetting — so if the refugee has a reversion back into a violent mindset and decides to do something nefarious, he is probably going to be able to do what it is that he wants to do.”