FILE PHOTO: Performers dance over the U.S. flag during a rally by Iran Regime-Backed Houthi supporters. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Yemen’s Houthi militants continue to disrupt shipping in the Red Sea, undeterred by the intensifying Western airstrikes or the group’s re-designation as a “global terrorist” organisation. As their attacks have intensified, the group’s slogan (or sarkha, meaning “scream”) has also gained notoriety.

Banners bearing the sarkha dot the streets in areas of Yemen under Houthi control and are brandished by supporters at their rallies. It declares: “God is Great, death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews, victory to Islam.” (The mentions of the Houthis’ enemies appear in a red font resembling barbed wire).

Many commentators are quick to point out the origins of the sarkha can be traced to a motto from the Iranian revolution. The link reveals the longstanding relationship between the Houthis and their principal regional backer, Iran.

The sarkha also carries an anti-imperialist message, which has caused some outside analysts to overestimate the Houthis’ local legitimacy and diminish the suffering of ordinary Yemenis living under their brutal and exclusionary rule.

Since the Houthis’ re-designation as a global terrorist organisation, another slogan has become prevalent on placards at their rallies. Set against a red background, it reads: “America is the mother of terrorism.”

At first glance, this appears to be an extension of the ideological sentiments conveyed in the sarkha.

However, this slogan also reflects the complexity of Yemeni views about US counterterrorism interventions and the widespread belief that these have provided terrorist groups with the oxygen they need to survive.

The US has long been criticised for disproportionately killing civilians in counterterrorism strikes. Some experts argue this may create more “terrorists” than it kills.

Another critique: it was the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that originally supported Osama bin Laden and the mujahideen in Afghanistan in an attempt to trap the Soviet Union in an unwinnable war, making the US at least somewhat responsible for what followed.

However, there are other layers to these slogans that are less intuitively understood by a Western audience.

The West’s reflexive support for authoritarian leaders who claim to be targeting terrorism is widely seen in Yemen (and throughout the Middle East) as fuelling a symbiotic relationship between oppressive regimes, terrorist groups and Western-led military interventions.

For many in the region, groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State function, in part, as “tools” that Western-backed authoritarian leaders use to maintain their power. They provide plausible deniability for the violence these leaders use against civilians, or support their pitch that “if I’m gone, terrorists will take over the country”.

In Yemen, there is a long history of allegations that Western-backed leaders have:

releasedal-Qaeda prisoners so they could regroup

facilitated al-Qaeda attacks against local and foreign targets

misdirected US strikes to kill political opponents rather than al-Qaeda leaders.

The West’s regional partners, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have also been accused of recruiting al-Qaeda members to fight in paramilitary forces against Yemeni opponents.

As a result, many Yemenis wouldn’t view al-Qaeda or Islamic State as being completely separate from those in charge of the country. Rather, they often see these terrorist groups as helping to reinforce the status quo.

This view is, of course, diametrically opposed to Western understandings of al-Qaeda or Islamic State. In the West, these groups are framed as rebels seeking to overturn the state. But across the region, many believe these relationships defy simple categories like “state versus insurgent” or “friend versus enemy” because terror groups can be both at once.

One Yemeni analyst articulated the frustration of trying to explain the symbiotic relationship between terrorist groups and authoritarian leaders in the Middle East:

It’s easier to tell a kid that Santa Claus isn’t real than to get foreigners to see what al-Qaeda in Yemen really is.

For the Houthis, America’s alleged role in helping to fuel terrorist groups has been a longstanding part of the group’s messaging.

Over a decade ago – two years before the Houthis seized the Yemeni capital and sparked a lengthy war – I visited a northern town where there were several large, freshly painted murals bearing the statement “al-Qaeda is American made”.

When I asked residents about the this, they appeared to see the statement as a banal declaration of fact. They were more impressed by the “nice handwriting” than the message. (Like the banners bearing the sarkha, the murals used a red barbed-wire font for the word “America”.)

The Houthis’ message about American complicity in terrorism resonates because it works at several levels.

It gestures to the violence unleashed by the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, the near-unconditional support the US provides to Israel, and the military, carceral and political support the US and its Western partners provide authoritarian leaders in the region.

It also gets at the profound sense within Yemen (and across the region) that the political status quo is sustained by violent regimes. And that terrorist groups like al-Qaeda – and the counterterrorism interventions they invite – are part of how those regimes maintain their power.

Of course, the violence the Houthis use to sustain their own power is an irony that should not be lost. The Houthis are widely despised by Yemenis who live under their rule. Even so, their messaging taps into widespread views about the drivers of regional violence that some Western observers have long dismissed.

Indeed, the complexities that underpin the Houthis’ new slogan help explain why Western policy across the region will continue to backfire.

Put bluntly, people in the region see Western policymakers as blind to their historical record of strengthening the enemies they come to fight. The fact that Western airstrikes are giving the Houthis a legitimacy that was previously unimaginable is ominous.

Unfortunately for Yemeni civilians, the Houthis’ stance against Israel will increase their appeal to those who know little of what it is like to live with them. It will also make it even harder for Yemenis to dislodge them from power.