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White House Re-Designates Houthis as Terrorists

Houthi missiles on parade
File image courtesy Houthi Military Media

Published Jan 17, 2024 6:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Biden administration has re-designated Yemen's Houthi rebel group as a terrorist organization, three years after lifting a Trump-era listing. 

The group is now back on the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entities, a lower-level designation. The Trump administration listed the group as both an SDGT and a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) shortly before Biden took office, and Biden reversed it as one of his earliest acts as president.

Houthi leaders control Yemen's most populous areas, and the aid community had called loudly for restrictions on trade with the famine-stricken country to be lifted. At the time, the UN considered Yemen to be suffering from the world's worst humanitarian disaster. Designating the Houthi group and its officials as an FTO made it impossible to legally transact with them, and therefore difficult to move aid supplies into the country. 

“The [Trump-era] designations came at a time when the country was facing an unprecedented set of catastrophes. We had famine warnings where 16 million people – that’s one in two Yemenis – were close to starvation,” Norwegian Refugee Council official Saltana Begum told Al Jazeera at the time. “There was the threat that people like myself could be criminalized or prosecuted for delivering aid.”

Biden administration officials were receptive to aid NGOs' appeals and delisted the Houthi group swiftly. Biden also ended American support for the Saudi military campaign against Houthi forces. The group holds the strategic port of Hodeidah, the country's primary seaport, as well as the longtime capital of Sanaa. 

Recent events have forced the administration to reconsider. Houthi forces have attacked merchant shipping in the Red Sea dozens of times since November, claiming that they are acting in support of Palestinians in Gaza. Recent attacks have hit American and Greek merchant ships with no clear connection to Israel. The U.S. and the UK have hit back with airstrikes and missile strikes on Houthi positions, but have not yet succeeded in eliminating the threat. For the time being, the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) and multiple maritime security firms have urged all shipping to avoid areas near Bab el-Mandeb, normally one of the busiest maritime choke points in the world. 

Biden's opponents have criticized him for lifting the FTO designation in the first place, and for reimposing only the less-stringent SDGT listing. 

“President Biden should have never removed the foreign terrorist organization designation. He is still bent on half-measures at every step of the way," said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), ranking membver of the Armed Services Committee. "Further Houthi attacks on commercial shipping or U.S. sailors should be met with a response that makes last week’s strike in Yemen look small in comparison."