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Redesignating Houthis, Biden admin hopes terror group will become ‘constructive actor’

“If the Houthis cease their attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the United States will immediately reevaluate this designation,” the U.S. national security advisor said.

Screen capture of a video that Houthi rebels released of a ship hijacking on Nov. 19, 2023 in the Red Sea. The Iran-backed terror group claimed the ship was tied to Israel. Credit: YouTube/Reuters.
Screen capture of a video that Houthi rebels released of a ship hijacking on Nov. 19, 2023 in the Red Sea. The Iran-backed terror group claimed the ship was tied to Israel. Credit: YouTube/Reuters.

The United States plans to re-designate the Yemen-based Houthi militant group as a terrorist organization following its repeated attacks on Red Sea shipping that have wreaked havoc on international trade, Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security advisor, said on Wednesday.

That designation of the Iran-backed group will take effect 30 days from the announcement in order to allow for “humanitarian carve-outs” intended to ensure that the sanctions do not harm the Yemeni population, according to Sullivan.

The Houthis control 70% to 80% of Yemen’s population of more than 31.5 million and about one-third of the country’s territory, per the U.S. State Department.

“Over the past months, Yemen-based Houthi militants have engaged in unprecedented attacks against United States military forces and international maritime vessels operating in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden,” Sullivan stated. “These attacks fit the textbook definition of terrorism.”

“Today, in response to these continuing threats and attacks, the United States announced the designation of Ansarallah, also known as the Houthis, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT),” he added. “This designation is an important tool to impede terrorist funding to the Houthis, further restrict their access to financial markets and hold them accountable for their actions.”

The SDGT designation is less punitive than a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation, requiring a higher threshold of evidence for prosecution and preventing victims from suing for compensation, among other differences. 

Former president Donald Trump applied both designations to the Houthis at the end of his term in 2021. The Biden administration removed those designations nearly one month later, over the objection of some U.S. partners in the region, including the United Arab Emirates that had been subject to Houthi ballistic missile attacks.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday in an embargoed, background briefing, senior officials said that the administration believes that the SDGT designation provides them with greater flexibility than the FTO one, including for the creation of humanitarian exemptions.

The officials added that the new terror designation will be focused on the Houthis’ attacks on shipping and not their “broader suite of behavior,” a point that Sullivan repeated in his statement on Wednesday.

“If the Houthis cease their attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the United States will immediately re-evaluate this designation,” Sullivan said.

The statements imply that if maritime attacks cease, Washington might remove the designation even if the Houthis continue to fire ballistic missiles at Israel and other neighboring countries.

The Houthis have long carried out drone and ballistic missile attacks against civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as part of Yemen’s nearly decade-long civil war, in which a Saudi-led coalition supported Yemen’s internationally-recognized government against Houthi rebels, who control Yemen’s capital Sanaa. 

Those attacks have largely subsided in recent years, as the Saudis have led peace negotiations between the Houthis and Yemen’s official government.

U.S. Central Command forces, in coordination with the United Kingdom, and support from Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and Bahrain, conducted joint strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen on Jan. 11, 2023. Credit: X/U.S. Central Command.

But in October, shortly after Israel began military operations in Gaza in response to Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attacks, the Houthis began launching missiles against shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. They also attempted to fire missiles at Israel. The Houthis have also hijacked an oil tanker, the Galaxy Leader, which they claim is tied to Israel and are holding its 25 crew members as hostages.

Those attacks have continued despite the formation of a U.S.-led naval force in the Red Sea, repeated warnings by the international coalition and U.S. airstrikes on Houthi military sites. On Tuesday, the Houthis successfully hit the Greek-owned bulk carrier Zografia in a missile attack as it was sailing from Vietnam to Israel. The attack reportedly caused only minor damage and no casualties.

The attacks have almost completely diverted international shipping around the Red Sea, disrupting some 20% of global trade, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this month.

The Houthis’ ability to carry out these attacks is enabled by Iran, which supplies them with missiles, small arms, and other forms of material and operational support. Semafor reported Monday that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is deployed in Yemen to directly assist the Houthis.

The senior Biden administration officials said they hope that the sanctions will press the Houthis to sever ties with Iran, as part of a “comprehensive strategy” combining diplomacy at the United Nations and with coalition partners, sanctions and military action.

“We believe this designation will apply additional pressure on the Houthis to change its behavior and turn away from Iran, and then for the Houthis to become a constructive actor in the United Nations Security Council process,” one of the senior officials said.

“I think we have a pretty comprehensive strategy already underway,” another senior official added.

A spokesman for the Houthis responding to the designation on Wednesday said that the sanctions will have no impact on the group’s operations.

“The American designation will not deter us from our support for Palestine,” said Mohammed Abdulsalam, the official Houthi spokesman. “The recent American decision will only make us more committed to our position in support of the Palestinians.”

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