Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Yemen's Multilayered War: The Houthi Rebellion

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Anant Jani

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Yemen's Multilayered War: The Houthi Rebellion

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Global Views 360

Publication Date

August 4, 2020

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Houthi rebels protesting the airstrike in Sana

Houthi rebels protesting the airstrike in Sana | Source: Henry Ridgwell (VOA) via Wikimedia

This is the 3rd part of a short explainer article series on the current crisis in Yemen.

To read the 1st part of the series click on the link.

To read the 2nd part of the series click on the link.

After the overthrow of the monarchy in 1968,  Yemen existed as two countries — North Yemen and South Yemen.  These two countries united in 1990, after several years of conflict with one another.

This unity could not remain for long and the North-South divide resurfaced which led to the first civil war of unified Yemen. This civil war was short-lived and ended in 1994 after the decisive victory of the pro-unification governing faction over the Southern saperatist faction.

On the other hand a major dissatisfaction with the central government was simmering in the region dominated by a local branch of Shia Muslims known as Zaidi. They are the decendent of Prophet Muhamma and believe that Muslims should be ruled only by a descendant of Prophet Muhammad whom they call an Imam. They have ruled Yemen for more than 1,000 years which ended in 1962.

Zaidis are a minority sect in Yemen but have much ideological affinity with the Sunni Shafi'i majority. They lived together harmoniously and prayed in the same mosques for hundreds of years.

A new element was also getting added to the dangerous mix of sub-nationalism, intra religious division, and tribal loyalty in Yemen. The Yemeni veterans of Soviet-Afghan war who fought with the mujahideen were battle hardened and well versed in guerilla warfare. They started a low level insurgency and also tried to impose a hardline interpretation of Islamic religious and social practices in Yemen.

In order to counter the socio-economic and political marginalization by the central government as well as the growing influence of Salafism in their northern heartland, the Houthis formed a movement named Ansar Allah. President Saleh however accused them of attempting to overthrow the government and of seeking to revive the rule of the imamate in Yemen.

The Houthi Rebellion (also known as the Shia Insurgency):

The Houthi Movement in its current militant form began in 2004 by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, religious, political and military leader, as well as former member of the Yemeni parliament between 1993 and 1997. Though he was killed in the action of very early in his fight with the government forces, his brother who took over the movement leadership made it politically and militarily a formidable force in Yemen.

Zaidis have had historical grievances against the Wahhabi, the dominant Sunni sect in Saudi Arabia, who assisted North Yemen in the First Yemen Civil War. The Zaidi fear they still have too much say in Yemeni politics. They have also fought against the Salafis, whom they accuse of implementing the hardline interpretation of Islamic religious and social practices in Yemen. In order to counter these forces, Houthis destroyed the schools run by them in Saada, Dar al Hadith in Dammaj and its sister school in Kitaf, claiming them to be “feeder schools”, for al-Qaeda.

It was the 2011 Yemeni Uprising (or Intifada), which catapulted Hauthis to the centre of Yemen politics. They sided with the common citizens of the country in demanding the resignation of President Saleh whom they charged with corruption and for being a lackey of Saudi Arabia and the USA. A Nesweek photo-essay reported that Houthis are fighting "for things that all Yemenis crave: government accountability, the end to corruption, regular utilities, fair fuel prices, job opportunities for ordinary Yemenis and the end of Western influence."

Later in 2011, President Saleh resigned, as per the Houthi terms, letting Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi step in as the President in exchange for immunity from prosecution. However the Houthis pressed on with their power grab which started resentment among other players.

In an ironic act, ex-President Saleh who was overthrown in an Houthi led public uprising, threw his weight behind Houthis in the power struggle. In 2015 he publicly announced his formal alliance with the Houthis, and hoped for ceasefires with the Arab Coalition.

In 2015, Hadi, the President of Yemen was placed under house arrest by the Houthis and forced to resign. He managed to flee to Aden, and rescinded his resignation. He fled to Saudi Arabia, and returned in September with the Arab Coalition at his support. Ever since, he has used Aden as his governing base.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia imposed severe restrictions on import, including air and sea blockades in Yemen, resulting in the shortages of food and medicine. Given the fact that Yemen is dependent on imports for food supply and medicine, it is no surprise that the blockades have led to a famine situation, compounded by an outbreak of cholera since 2016 caused by and worsened due to the air-strike bombed healthcare infrastructure.

After aligning with Houthis for many years, Saleh once again took an about turn in 2017 by publicly ending this alliance and stated his openness to talk with the Saudi-led coalition. Al Jazeera reported this was because the Saudi Prince had decided that Saleh, rather than Hadi, would help to win the war. However, the same year, Saleh was assassinated.

In September 2019, the Houthis claimed responsibility for drone attacks on Saudi Arabia's eastern oil fields of Abqaiq and Khurais, disrupting nearly half the kingdom's oil production.

In January 2020, the Houthi Special Criminal Court found Hadi guilty and sentenced him to death, for “high treason...and looting the country’s treasury”, over other things,

It is important to note that Saudi Arabia and the USA have also seen this war as a Sunni Saudi pitted against a Shi’ite Iran. This has been shown to be inaccurate - both nations likely intending it as an excuse for using extreme military might and sanctions that Saudi has engaged in with the backing of both, the Obama and Trump administration, to use Yemen for strategic purposes.

It is this war, between Saudi-backed Hadi at Aden and the Iran-led Houthis at Sana’a, that has prolonged for 5 years and displaced millions, prompting the UN to call it the worst man-made humanitarian disaster.


To read the 4th part of the series click on the link.

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April 13, 2021 2:10 PM

Detecting The Ultra-High Energy Cosmic Rays With Smartphones

Smartphones have become the most commonplace objects in our daily lives. The unimaginable power that we hold in our hands is unrealized by most of us and, more importantly, untapped. Its creativity often gets misused but one can only hope that it’s fascinating abilities would be utilized. For example, did you know that the millions of phones around the globe can be connected to form a particle detector? The following article covers the CRAYFIS (Cosmic RAYs Found in Smartphones) phone-based application developed by the physicists from the University of California—Daniel Whiteson, Michael Mulhearn, and their team. CRAYFIS aims to take advantage of the large network of smartphones around the world and detect the cosmic or gamma rays bursts which enter the Earth’s atmosphere almost constantly.

What Are Cosmic Rays?

Cosmic rays are high velocity subatomic particles bombarding the Earth’s upper atmosphere continuously. Cosmic ray bursts have the highest energy compared to all forms of electro-magnetic radiation. When we say ultra-high energy particles (energy more than 1018^eV), we mean two million times more energetic than the ones that can be produced by the particle colliders on Earth.  These rays are thought to be more powerful than typical supernovae and can release trillions of times more energy than the Sun. They are also highly unpredictable as they can enter Earth’s atmosphere from any direction and the bursts can last for any period of time ranging from a few thousand seconds to several minutes.

Despite many theoretical hypotheses, the sources of these ultra-high energy cosmic rays are still a mystery to us even after many decades of their discovery. These rays were initially discovered in the 1960’s by the U.S. military when they were doing background checks for gamma rays after nuclear weapon testing. Cosmologists suggest that these bursts could be the result of super massive stars collapsing - leading to hypernova; or can be retraced to collisions of black holes with other black holes or neutron stars.

How Do We Detect Them?

When the high-energy particles collide with the Earth’s atmosphere, the air and the gas molecules cause them to break apart and create massive showers of relatively low-energy particles. Aurora borealis i.e., the Northern and the Southern lights are the lights that are emitted when these cosmic rays interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Currently, these particles are hitting the Earth at a rate of about one per square meter per second. The showers get scattered to a radius of one or two kilometers consisting mostly of high-energy photons, electrons, positrons and muons. But the fact that these particles can hit the Earth anytime and anywhere is where the problem arises. Since the Earth has a massive area, it is not possible to place a detector everywhere and catch them at the exact moment.

Energetic charged particles known as cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, where they collide with air molecules to produce a shower of secondary particle | Source: CERN

Detecting such a shower requires a very big telescope, which logically means a network of individual particle detectors distributed over a mile or two-wide radius and connected to each other. The Pierre Auger Observatory in South America is the only such arrangement where 1,600 particle detectors have been scattered on 3,000 square kilometers of land. But the construction cost of the same was about $100 million. Yet, only a few cosmic ray particles could be detected using this arrangement. How do we spread this network around the Earth?

In addition to being cost-effective, such a setup must also be feasible. The Earth’s surface cannot possibly be dotted with particle detectors which cost huge fortunes. This is where smartphones come into the picture.

Detecting The Particles Using Smartphones

Smartphones are the most appropriate devices required to solve the problem. They have planet wide coverage, are affordable by most people and are being actively used by more than 1.5 billion users around the planet. Individually, these devices are low and inefficient; but a considerably dense network of such devices can give us a chance to detect cosmic ray showers belonging to the highest energy range.

Previous research has shown that smartphones have the capability of detecting ionizing radiation. The camera is the most sensitive part of the smartphone and is just the device required to meet our expectations. A CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) device is present in the camera- in which silicon photodiode pixels produce electron-hole pairs when struck by visible photons (when photons are detected by the CMOS device, it leaves traces of weakly activated pixels). The incoming rays are also laced with other noises and interference from the surroundings.  Although these devices are made to detect visible light, they still have the capability of detecting higher-energy photons and also low-ionizing particles such as the muons.

A screenshot from the app which shows the exposure time, the events- the number of particles recorded and other properties

To avoid normal light, the CRAYFIS application is to be run during nighttime with the camera facing down. As the phone processor runs the application it collects data from its surroundings using a camera as its detector element. The megapixel images (i.e., the incoming particles) are scanned at a speed of 5 to 15 frames per second, depending on the frame-processing speed of the device. Scientists expect that signals from the cosmic rays would occur rarely, i.e., around one in 500 frames. Also, there is the job of removing background data. An algorithm was created to tune the incoming particle shower by setting a threshold frequency at around 0.1 frames per second. Frames containing pixels above the threshold are stored and passed to the second stage which examines the stored frames, saving only the pixels above a second, lower threshold.

The CRAYFIS app is designed to run when the phone is not being used and when it is connected to a power source. The actual performance would be widely affected by the geometry of the smartphone’s camera and the conditions in which the data is being collected. Further, once the application is installed and is in the operating mode, no participation is required from the user, which is required to achieve wide-scale participation. When a Wifi connection is available the collected data would be uploaded to the central server so that it could be interpreted.

There is much complicated math used to trace back the information collected from the application. The most important parameters for the app are the local density of incoming particles, the detection area of the phone and the particle identification efficiency. These parameters are used to find the mean number of candidates (photons or muons) being detected. Further, the probability that a phone will detect no candidates or the probability that a phone will detect one or more candidates is given by Poisson distribution. The density of the shower is directly proportional to the incident particle energy with a distribution in x and y sensitive to the direction in which the particle came from. An Unbinned Likelihood (it is the probability of obtaining a certain data- in this case the distribution of the cosmic rays including their energy and direction, the obtained data is arranged into bins which are very, very small) analysis is used to determine the incident particle energy and direction. To eliminate background interference, a benchmark requirement has been set that at least 5 phones must detect and register a hit to be considered as a candidate.

It is impossible to express just how mind-blowing this innovation is. As the days pass, Science and Technology around us keep on surprising us and challenge us to rack our brains for more and more unique ways to deal with complex problems. The CRAYFIS app is simply beautiful and it would be a dream-come-true to the scientists if the project works out and we are able to detect these high energy, super intimidating cosmic rays with smartphones from our backyard.

Further Reading

The paper by Daniel Whiteson and team can be found here.

An exciting book “We Have No Idea” by Daniel Whiteson and cartoonist Jorge Cham can be found here.

The CRAYFIS app can be found here.

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