Why the US terrorist designation of Yemen's Houthis is a mistake

Why the US terrorist designation of Yemen's Houthis is a mistake
Analysis: Designating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation could choke humanitarian supplies to Yemen and torpedo diplomatic efforts for peace.
9 min read
22 January, 2021
Aid groups have expressed deep concerns over the decision. [Getty]
On the 11th of January, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo  announced that the United States would designate Yemen's Houthi rebel movement, known formally as Ansar Allah, as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO)

The Trump administration also designated three leaders of the movement, including their chief Abdul Malik al-Houthi, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.

The move came into effect on 19 January and the US Treasury Department released details of limited licensing exemptions to the restrictions. Licenses would regulate "the official activities of the US government," and would be granted to the United Nations as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).  

Despite exempting the export of agricultural commodities, medicine and medical devices, aid organisations have expressed deep concerns over the decision, fearing that the designation would almost certainly prevent the critical delivery of food and medical supplies to impoverished Yemenis facing both famine and the Covid-19 pandemic.   

Almost a quarter of a million people have died in Yemen's war and last year the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) described Yemen as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis."

Are the Houthis a terrorist organisation?

Like many other decisions taken by the former Trump administration, the US blacklisting of the Houthis as a "foreign terrorist organization" is a problematic and dangerous move for a number of reasons. 

First of all, it is rather doubtful whether the Houthis meet the legal definition of a terrorist group - something that six former US ambassadors to Yemen questioned in an open letter to Pompeo last month. Despite the fact that it's an old phenomenon, there is no legally binding definition of terrorism at the international level. 

Giuseppe Dentice, Head of the MENA desk at the Center for International Studies (CeSI), an Italian think tank in Rome, views the Houthis as an Islamic political and armed movement. In this sense, the Houthis are a hybrid group like others across the Middle East, such as Hezbollah or Hamas.

The designation may sabotage international efforts for finding a diplomatic solution to end the war

However, Jordan Reimer, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, working in the Defense and Political Sciences department, explained to The New Arab that many violent and insurgent groups can technically fit the definition of a "foreign terrorist organization" as the US law is currently written. Ultimately, "the designation of a group as an FTO is a political decision by any US administration," he said, recalling the very recent designation of Cuba as a "state sponsor of terror." 

But just because a group may fit the technical definition it does not mean that it is appropriate or prudent to do so. For instance, the Afghan Taliban has never been designated as an FTO even though it may fit the technical definition. For Reimer, the Houthis and the Afghan Taliban are much closer to traditional insurgent groups rather than traditional terrorist groups. 

In a similar context, Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, wrote that the decision is nothing but a farce and an abuse of the State Department, as "the designated entity is chosen because of their hostility to US and closeness to US adversaries, rather than of their purported 'terrorist' acts."

Read more: Biden and the Saudi quagmire in Yemen

As for Susanne Dahlgren, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and lecturer at Finland-based Tampere University, Ansar Allah is a political party and due to its international isolation, it has been pushed more deeply to rely on Iran (and Hezbollah), its only international ally.

"By declaring a group as 'terrorist' you stop dialogue with the group, and in line with the American war on terror, the group becomes a 'legitimate' target of extra-judicial killings," she told The New Arab.

As Yemen is already suffering from the American war on terror against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS), the last thing it needs is the US expanding the territory of its drone campaign and assassinations, she added. 

But, like all actors in Yemen's misery, the Houthis are certainly not a sinless victim. They have been kidnapping and killing their opponents and reportedly torturing their prisoners. Kirsten Fontenrose, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, stated that "the usefulness of this designation will be defined by whether it can catalyse a swift end to the self-sabotage exhibited by the Houthis" and "as soon as Houthis revisit their political platform, the designation of the group should be lifted immediately." 

She also argued that the international community for too long has treated Ansar Allah like a victim instead of a responsible actor and accused the group of "manipulating humanitarian aid as a method of control over a population that does not support them." However, the same arguments could be easily applied to other actors in Yemen, especially the Saudi-backed president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and forces loyal to him, who basically enjoy no support in the country.

The move has been interpreted as part of the final chapter of the Trump administration's 'maximum pressure' campaign on Iran

The purpose of the terrorist designation 

It seems that the designation of Ansar Allah as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) was the final chapter of the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran. According to Reimer, it is consistent with the administration's recent designations of several Iranian-backed militias in Iraq as FTOs. In Dentice's opinion, this move aims to leave a constant level of confrontation with Iran after the end of the Trump's administration tenure.

The final goal is to weaken Iranian proxies in the region in order to reduce the leverage of Tehran in the MENA region. In this way, Pompeo is trying to freeze the crisis while preserving, in particular, the interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are both involved in Yemen's war and confrontation with Iran.

But analysts greatly doubt that this move will affect Tehran's ties with the Houthis or even change the course of the war in Saudi Arabia's favour. Since Iran is already under heavy sanctions and the Houthis do not receive financial or material support from any entity other than Iran, Reimer estimates that designating the Houthis as an FTO will not actually cut off any sources of financial or military support to the Houthis.

Therefore, Dentice believes that the decision will not fundamentally alter the trajectory of the conflict in Yemen, which will continue on its own and reflect other balances and dynamics. The Houthis will continue to access their military and financial aid from Iran and resume their fight against the internationally-recognised government, Reimer noted. 

In Reimer's view, it is likely that the designation of the Houthis as an FTO may provide an additional "talking point" for countries like Saudi Arabia to justify their military campaign in Yemen and efforts to confront Iran. However, designation will have little effect on the ground in Yemen.

Read more: Yemen in Focus: Could US terror designation be used to leverage Houthis?

Serious humanitarian implications

However, despite some exemptions and licenses provided by the law, Reimer warns that it may have significant implications for the conflict as NGOs face the possibility of criminal prosecution or the cutting off of access to the US financial system for continuing to provide supplies to Houthi-controlled areas. 

Almost 80 percent of Yemenis live in areas under Houthi control including the country's capital Sanaa and the major port of al-Hodeidah. Approximately 80 percent of the population - 24.1 million people - require humanitarian assistance, with half of them facing starvation. Dahlgren is, therefore, absolutely convinced that the US decision will make the work of the UN Yemen office much more difficult and seriously affect humanitarian aid in the country.  Consequently, this may push Yemeni civilians further along the road to perdition. 

Will Joe Biden take a different approach?

Pompeo's actions could complicate US President Joe Biden's promised efforts to de-escalate tensions with Iran and seek an end to the conflict in Yemen

Now in office, Biden will find himself with a series of burning files in his hands, and Yemen is one of them. During the post-election holdover period, the Trump administration, according to Dentice, has pursued a so-called "well poisoning" strategy. "This is an act of malicious manipulation in order to hinder the enemy and prevent him from advancing as he retreats. Analogously, this guerrilla technique is used by Pompeo to make the transfer of deliveries between administrations complicated," he explained. 

NGOs could face the possibility of criminal prosecution or the cutting off of access to the US financial system for continuing to provide supplies to Houthi-controlled areas

As such, it is difficult to imagine a change of US strategy in the region in the short term. And should the Biden administration want to remove the Houthis from the list of FTOs, it will require a bureaucratic process that could take several months, Reimer noted. 

However, it is unclear if the Biden administration will attempt to remove the Houthis from the list immediately. According to Reimer, it seems more likely that such a move may be done in conjunction with progress in the ongoing Yemen peace process or in future US-Iran negotiations. In this light, the Trump administration may have provided an additional point of leverage for the Biden administration in any negotiation in Yemen or with Iran. 

Dahlgren is also not very optimistic regarding the reversal of Trump's decision, recalling that it was the Obama administration that escalated the drone campaign in Yemen and the Trump administration simply followed in its footsteps.

Read more: A house divided: The battle for Yemen's south

Finally, the decision may seriously jeopardise Washington's diplomatic credibility and its prospects to play any significant mediating role in any future negotiation talks, as every realistic scenario would have to include the Houthis as one of the negotiating parties, no matter how irritating this may be for the US and its Gulf partners. 

Effect on diplomatic efforts

There is also a question whether the designation may sabotage international efforts for finding a diplomatic solution for ending the war.

In Reimer's view, this may not be an issue, as any answer will come from those parties directly involved in the conflict, and their decision-making will not be affected by the FTO designation. But at the same time, it is clear that the designation will not help to create conditions for peace, rather, it is very likely that we will see new tensions and violence from both sides, according to Dentice.

Moreover, despite some unsuccessful efforts such as the Riyadh agreement, there has been very little willingness from any party for a negotiated solution to the conflict, as of now. As such, Reimer noted that the FTO designation may provide a convenient excuse for parties in the conflict to refuse to negotiate. But that is exactly what it will be - an excuse, not a true reason.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence.