Using Diffeo to Better Understand the Civil War in Yemen

in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Houthi, Yemen, Civil War, Counterfeiting, Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Office of Foreign Asset Control

Executive Summary

Using Diffeo, we quickly identify Iranian and Saudi activities in the ongoing civil war in Yemen. Iran has been supporting Houthi rebels, and Saudi Arabia has been supporting the Yemen government. Diffeo recommended content on Iranian counterfeiting operations in support of Houthi rebels as well as specific operations and actors involved in the Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations, which was designed to promote a benevolent image of Saudi support to the Yemeni government.


The 2015 Yemeni Civil War is entering its fourth year with no end in sight. The war has a complicated history spanning almost two decades. The Houthi rebels oppose the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and loyalists of the current Yemeni government headed by president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Many consider this civil war to be a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, because these other countries are backing the Yemeni government and the houthi rebels, respectively. This tangled web of allies, enemies, and frenemies is becoming increasingly complicated by political transitions in supporting third-party governments like France, the UK, and the United States that have evolving stances on the conflict. 1

In this intelligence bulletin, we focus on Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s supporting roles in this conflict.

Collaborating with the Diffeo Agent

In this Web research, we use Diffeo’s AI-powered assistant to explore connections between Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Yemeni government, and Houthi rebel movement. Starting with a BBC article outlining in general detail the Yemeni Civil War, we invite Diffeo into our browser to view news articles and other online materials with us. As we read materials of interest, we identify entities of interest by starring their names directly in context as we encounter them in Web pages. This micro-bookmarking capability enables you to quickly mark people, organizations, or any other concept that you see mentioned in the text. Diffeo immediately digs into each such concept, in parallel, so it can help you leap ahead in your investigation.

anchor text Figure 1. Starring specific concepts and entities in web content

As we click the star button on key players, such as Yemen’s former president, current president, Houthi rebels, as well as supporting countries like Saudi
Arabia, Iran, the US, UK, and France, Diffeo creates mention cards for in the sidebar, so we can see its progress in uncover connections and recommended content about each actor and their interactions Wanting to know more about relationships that connect Houthis and Iranians, we explored connections directly in Diffeo’s sidebar and graph visualizations.
Diffeo recommends many articles, one of which discusses sanctions imposed upon Iranian companies by the US Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) for supporting Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) counterfeiting operations to support the Houthi rebels in Yemen. 2

anchor text Figure 2: Diffeo Recommends an article on US Sanctions

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Figure 3: Diffeo recommends relationships with Houthi rebels

anchor text Figure 4: Diffeo Recommends an article on US Sanctions

Using the evidence lists provided for each relationship, we look at the source documents on the US Department of Treasury website to confirm for ourselves that OFAC did indeed designate these Iranian companies and people for facilitating counterfeiting operations in support of the IRGC 3. Next, we turn to the Diffeo Knowledge Board to see if we can find more on the designated individuals.

We expand a node representing Mahmoud Seif, a member of the Houthi rebels. Diffeo provides an visual edge symbol connecting Seif to Iran, and recommends a reading list of articles about the connection. One such citation from 2004 details Mahmoud Seif’s attempt to supply the Iranian military with thousand of US military night vision goggles, export controlled items not authorized for sale or distribution to Iran. 4

anchor text Figure 5: Diffeo recommends past Seif’s previous attempts to export controlled technology to Iran.

Having quickly found information about Houthi connections to the Iranian government and counterfeits with a history of facilitating illegal operations on behalf of the Iranian government, we turn attention to Saudi Arabia and learn more about their support to the pro-regime forces supporting the Yemeni government.

According to IRIN, “Saudi Arabia has recruited an array of foreign consultants and public relations firms, to include Booze Allen Hamilton, to draw up and promote its new multi-billion dollar aid plan for Yemen, one that could reduce imports of vital goods into a key rebel-held port, an IRIN investigation reveals”. The plan, known as the Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations (YCHO), is controversial due to its neglect of UN calls to lift a blockade at Hodeidah, and would deny relief aid in rebel held areas. 5

anchor text Figure 6: Diffeo recommends information about Saudi Arabia PR campaign

anchor text Figure 7: Diffeo recommends an article on a YCHO operation

For YCHO, Diffeo recommends an article that discusses a meeting between the Saudi Fund for Development and the Minister for Public Works of Yemen, during which a “Memorandum of Understanding was signed in the presence of a number of officials for the financing and installation of 4 cranes for the Yemeni ports of Aden, Mukalla and Mokha.” 6

anchor text Figure 8: Diffeo recommends an article on a YCHO operation

How did Diffeo Help?

As with most armed conflicts where third-parties nations are engaged in a proxy war, the civil war in Yemen is exceedingly complex. Trying to understand the primary warring parties and which third-parties are supporting who, with what, when, and where is a challenging task and requires constant research as the conflict evolves. Diffeo helped us get up to speed quickly, and dig deeper on connections of interest to our analysis. Rather than executing hundreds of manual searches through various search engines, the relatively few actions we took within Diffeo revealed Iran’s support to Houthi rebels through extraterritorial operations, counterfeiting, and arms trafficking, as well as detail information about Saudi Arabia's YCHO aimed at strategic development and propaganda support to the current Yemeni government.

anchor text Figure 9: Diffeo Knowledge Board representing our research on the civil war