"With secessionist sentiments on the rise in the south and an escalating threat from Al Qaeda, another round in the north could prove devastating to a country with a weak-to-failing state system," says Mr. Hiltermann, the ICG's deputy program director of the Middle East and North Africa division.
The Yemeni and Saudi branches of Al Qaeda merged in January this year, prompting the US Director of National Intelligence to say that Yemen was "reemerging as a jihadist battleground and potential regional base of operations for Al Qaeda."
Yemen paints rebels as Islamic extremists
Yemen's government has attempted to garner international support for its fight against the Houthis by linking its efforts to the fight against radical Islam, says a recent ICG report, "Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb." The government has accused the rebels of plotting to attack Western interests, kidnap foreign diplomats, and attack unveiled women.
Such accusations – including the government's blaming of Houthis for the June kidnappings – are inaccurate, says Sheila Carapico, author of "Civil Society in Yemen."
"Early in the Saada conflict, the government tried to falsely portray its campaign against the Believing Youth as part of the global war on terrorism, whereas the Houthi movement is anti-Wahabbi and, if anything, opposes Al Qaeda," says Professor Carapico, who teaches international relations at the University of Richmond in Virginia.
Still, the conflict has been largely ignored by the international community, says the ICG report.