The US Designates Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization: Likely Consequences

EPC | 12 Jan 2021

On 10 January 2021, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that his Department intends to notify Congress of its intention to designate the Houthi Ansar Allah (Supporters of God) group as a "foreign terrorist organization" (FTO). In the same statement, which was posted on the website of the Department of State, he also announced his intention to designate three Houthi leaders, namely Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim, on the list of international terrorists.

The US Secretary of State pointed out that the designations “will provide additional tools to confront terrorist activity and terrorism by [Ansar Allah]”. It is also intended “to hold [Ansar Allah] accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping”. He also added that the designations are “intended to advance efforts to achieve a peaceful, sovereign, and united Yemen that is both free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbors”. These sanctions are scheduled to take effect on 19 January 2021, the day before US President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

This paper sheds light on the context of the evolution of the US position on designating the Houthi group as a "terrorist organization", and the potential political, field, economic and humanitarian repercussions of this designation.

The context

The recent US announcement came as an expected result of a series of pressures exerted by the administration of outgoing President Donald Trump on the Houthi group, which began to increase and intensified significantly in December 2020, as part of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and its proxies in the region. In a move that reflected the determination of the Trump administration, whose mandate is coming to an end, to proceed with designating the Houthis as a “terrorist organization”, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker travelled to Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman, in the first week of December 2020, with the aim of “exploring possible alternatives to designating the Houthis as terrorists, including blacklisting individual leaders or key figures in the group” according to what was reported by the US NBC News network at the time. It was evident that Schenker’s discussions with officials of the two neighbouring Gulf states of Yemen took opposite directions. While Muscat expressed its reservations about any tendency to include the Houthis in the lists of terrorist groups, Riyadh continued its pressure on the Trump administration to expedite the issuance of such a decision.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration proceeded with its gradual approach aimed at framing the Yemeni group allied with Iran and including it in the "maximum pressure" campaign that targets Iran. The administration's efforts to establish a link between the group and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which it recently designated as a terrorist entity, has started to accelerate. On 8 December 2020, it announced the imposition of sanctions on the IRGC Quds Force (IRGC-QF) officer Hasan Irlu who was recently despatched by Iran to the Yemeni capital Sanaa to serve as a liaison with its Houthi allies. According to the US State Department’s statement: "By dispatching Irlu to Yemen, the IRGC-QF is signalling its intent to increase support to the Houthis and further complicate international efforts to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict".

On 7 December 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that his country had included the Houthi group among “Entities of Particular Concern", along with the Somali al-Shabaab (Youth) al-Mujahideen Movement, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, Organization for the Liberation of the Levant), Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS), and the Afghan Taliban Movement. Three days later, the US Department of the Treasury, pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, imposed sanctions against five individuals associated with security and intelligence agencies controlled by the Houthis. The persons included in the sanctions are: Sultan Zabin, in his capacity as the current Director of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Sanaa, Abdul Hakim al-Khaiwani, a leading Houthi member and Ddeputy Minister of the Interior in its government (who currently leads the security and intelligence services loyal to the group), Abdul Rahab Jarfan, the former Head of the National Security Bureau (NSB), his Deputy Motlaq Amer al-Marrani, and Abdul-Qader al-Shami, the former director of the group's Political Security Organization (PSO).

On 10 December 2020, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Timothy Lenderking made remarkable media statements in which he said that “the Houthis do things that are akin to behavior of a terrorist organization. They target civilians … and … seem to be deepening their relationship with the IRGC, which … is a designated terrorist organization”. The US official added, in answer to a question from Reuters during a press briefing via telephone, that the Houthis carry out “highly distasteful activities”, including “the use of child soldiers, the barring of access to the Safer tanker for the United Nations, which could lead to a maritime catastrophe, and their obstruction of aid inside Yemen”.

Thus, in the light of the continuation of this gradual approach aimed at framing the Houthi group bit by bit within the current narrative of President Trump's administration, by establishing ties that are more closely related to the terror rings targeted by the anti-Iranian "maximum pressure" campaign, it was likely that the US administration would proceed with its plans to include the Houthi group in the blacklist before leaving the White House on 20 January 2021, which was actually the case.

According to the estimates of some US analysts, the insistence of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to proceed with this approach and ignore all expected reservations and objections to such a move will cast a shadow over the administration of President-elect Joe Biden whose options in dealing with such a matter would be limited in the short term. Those analysts suggest that Biden’s advisers could then “issue their own assurances to aid workers and humanitarian organizations working in Yemen, by making clear that the US appreciates the need to strike a balance between human rights considerations and the challenge of combating illicit activity. This may encourage some groups to continue their efforts, assuming that they would not face legal consequences if such exceptions are made”.

From the perspective of the current US administration, the Houthi Ansar Allah group is today one of the most active and important Iranian arms in the region. As underlined by US and Western observers, experts and officials, Tehran has regularly increased its support for this group, giving it more missiles, drones, and other aid on the ground. The Iranian armed forces spokesman Abu al-Fadl Shikaraji has admitted providing support to the group, indicating at the end of September 2020 that his country has placed the "defensive technologies for producing missiles and drones at the disposal of the Yemeni people". The group also has a strong relationship with Iranian or Iranian-linked entities and groups that are designated by Washington as terrorist organizations, such as the Iranian IRGC and the Lebanese Hezbollah. While the designation of the group as a terrorist organization shows that the Trump administration is taking a tougher position vis-à-vis Tehran, it is an important step in the siege of Tehran’s influence.

On the other hand, there are grounds to condemn the group already. According to many human rights organizations and reports, it is involved in crimes against humanity and war crimes, such as killing opponents, torture and attacking civilian targets in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and constitutes a threat to international navigation in the Red Sea. For these reasons, the Republican Study Committee (RSC) Task Force on National Security and Foreign Affairs recommended to Congress in June 2020 the designation of the group as a foreign terrorist organization.

This US approach comes at a time when peace efforts have faltered and the chances of reaching a political settlement of the Yemeni crisis have receded. Not only have the moves of the United Nations (UN) envoy not led to tangible results, the military confrontations between the parties to the Yemeni conflict also returned forcefully after they had significantly diminished. The missile attack on Aden airport in late December 2020 constituted a milestone in strengthening the US direction. Secretary of State Pompeo considered in his statement dated 10 January 2021 regarding the announcement of the designation of the Houthis as a “terrorist organization” that the recent Aden attack clearly demonstrated the “brutal” nature of the group and its behavior as a “terrorist organization”. Therefore, in addition to the keenness to limit Iran's influence, the search for new punitive measures against the Houthis and their leaders reflects recognition by Washington and its allies of the difficulty of reaching a peace agreement that would end the conflict in Yemen, and thus reflects a desire to move stagnant waters.

Repercussions of designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization

1. Political repercussions

  • The path of the peaceful solution

There are concerns that this designation might have negative consequences on the peace process in Yemen, considering that it might discard the Houthis, make them adopt more hard-line positions, and make negotiating and reaching understandings with them more difficult, and also considering that it would impede the UN mediation efforts and endeavours. These concerns also relate to the legal obstacles that this designation would create, thus impeding the work of the peace mediators. Given the restrictions it would impose on material support, for example, providing negotiators with any facilities or services such as transport and housing would become a crime. Besides, it would be difficult to involve a designated terrorist group in any government that would be established by any peace agreement.

However, in the opinion of some analysts, some of those concerns seem unrealistic, and others can be overcome. According to those analysts, the hard line adopted by the Houthis with regard to peace is essentially present. It is inconceivable that in their reaction, they would go as far as blocking all channels of communication with the world and rejecting negotiation and mediation. Besides, such a designation remains in the end essentially political, and can be adapted so that it would not prevent the work of mediators or stop peace efforts. For example, it is possible to grant those mediators facilities and exceptions. Furthermore, this designation may eventually be reconsidered, which may be as a result of any peace agreement. Realistically, states often hold talks with entities designated as terrorist. This is what happened, for example, with the Afghan Taliban Movement, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the US. On the other hand, this designation may give more power to the UN in that it may enable it to propose negotiations to cancel the designation in exchange for political and military concessions to be made by the Houthis.

Contrary to those concerns, there is a chance that this designation would serve the political path. Under the pressures of its negative results, the Houthis may find themselves forced to reconsider their positions and make concessions. However, reaching this result would not happen automatically; it presupposes that the Houthis will change their perception of the balance of power. So far, they believe that their opponents are about to collapse and surrender, and that confronting their opponents and the US only requires some resilience. To prove this, they cite the guaranteed results of resilience and resistance, including when Washington ultimately had to negotiate with the Taliban after two decades of confrontation. Changing their said perception requires that the designation be accompanied by or lead to some losses and some military and political pressures on them.

  • The status of the legitimate Yemeni government

The internationally recognised Yemeni government viewed this designation as a great political and moral victory for itself and for the Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen. Thus, it declared that it is welcoming the designation. It is widely believed among government circles that its political position would become stronger with this designation which would serve to ease the international community’s pressure on it and eventually make its negotiating position stronger.

Accordingly, the Yemeni government considers itself the primary beneficiary of this designation, given that the designation constitutes a confirmation that the Yemeni government is the only legitimate authority in the country. The designation would also strengthen the government’s legitimacy internally and externally in the face of the Houthis, especially after the start of implementation of the Riyadh Agreement and the formation of the power-sharing government. It would also reverse the serious deterioration that has started to afflict its popularity and contribute to curbing internal disputes, because it constitutes an evolution in the position of the US and the Gulf allies and a renewed recognition of the danger of the Houthis. It also provides hope for continuing the battle against the Houthis.

  • The Houthi group

The US designation puts the Houthis in a weaker political position and causes them many losses. Therefore, it is natural for them to object to it and attack it strongly. At the domestic level, the designation would make them a less attractive political party that is not politically viable in the long run. It would also embarrass their relationship with the social, political and economic figures and entities, especially those with external interests and dealings, contribute to the emergence of a general negative mood towards them, and give an important moral boost to their opponents and those who do not agree with them in the silent street but could not stand up to them. However, their authority and the way they manage the country are not expected to be much affected, not only because of their power, but also because of the isolation they live in and that is experienced by the country in general.

At the external level, their international isolation is expected to worsen and their activities in this regard would become more complicated, even if the peace endeavours and the desire of the international community to end the conflict contribute to reducing this isolation. Given Washington’s influence and strength as the primary global power, and the overlap of interests with it, its decision may affect, to one degree or another, the positions of members of the international community, governmental and non-governmental alike, given that, eventually, they will find it embarrassing, and perhaps risky, to deal with a group that is designated as a terrorist organization by the US.

Based on the positions of Germany, France and the UK on Trump's policies towards Iran, and their rejection of Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and of Washington’s request that the ban be extended to arms sales to Iran, the decision to designate the Houthis as "terrorists" is not expected to receive any support from those countries. Nevertheless, their positions and perceptions of the solutions and means that should be adopted to end the conflict in Yemen may be affected after this designation, especially if the Houthis show intransigence towards peace and, most importantly, if they acted to threaten international navigation, peace and security. In that case, they may be convinced, for example, of the need to exert pressure on the group and impose sanctions on it. In another related finding, this designation would harm any plans of the Houthi to convert their authority over the areas they control into some kind of internationally recognised status.

In the context of their relationship with Iran, the Houthis, who enjoy a margin of independence from Tehran compared to the rest of the entities and groups associated with it, would find themselves forced to approach it and rely more on it. For its part, Tehran would find in the developments an opportunity to increase its influence on the group and push it to adopt more radical approaches. However, Tehran may face financial and political burdens due to this designation, even as it suffers from a difficult economic situation, especially if matters end up affecting the group's resources and external dealings, or if it has to face obligations that exceed its capabilities.

On the other hand, this designation is expected to limit the capability of other regional parties sympathetic to the Houthis to provide their facilities and services to them, and to provide them with media support at the same pace as before.

2. Economic repercussions

Foreign trade with Yemen is expected to be affected given that companies and trade intermediaries doing business with the Houthis may be subject to US criminal liability or economic sanctions. There are fears that this designation would have an impact on this trade and various supply chains, and on supplies or basic commodities, including medicines, as a result of any potential impact on the work and activities of government institutions. However, such concerns are considered by some analysts to be exaggerated, considering that this designation concerns the Houthi group and not the government institutions that they control.

As for the Houthi group itself, this designation would criminalise providing support to it and freeze its financial assets. However, this is not expected to be effective because the group does not have significant external assets that the US can access. With regard to foreign financing, the parties that provide, or are likely to provide, financing to the group are limited, being almost confined to Iran (and its proxies in Lebanon and Iraq), which is no longer able to provide much due to its critical economic situation, although it is still possible to use backdoor means to deliver any support to the Houthis in various ways and circumvent banking systems.

This designation may affect the activities of the commercial entities and figures that belong to the group or that work for it. Reports of the expert team of the Yemen Sanctions Committee referred to a number of them, but such a result is not expected directly and quickly due to the legal complexities that will face the process of identifying those entities and figures. Besides, any penalties that affect them may not be effective because of their cautious and wary activity and their preconceived fears that made their activities, assets, transactions and financial accounts almost hidden, in addition to their capability to circumvent any penalties that may affect them. In general, this designation is not expected to lead to the group's future suffering from lack of funding. Any measures related to the designation or any penalties resulting from it would not be able to drain the group’s financial resources to the point of inflicting severe damage on its financial position.

3. Field repercussions

The field scene in Yemen would be liable to further escalation. The Houthis are expected to escalate in order not to appear in the position of the weak and helpless. Because they would view this designation as a prelude to targeting them, their moves would often take the form of quick pre-emptive operations against their opponents.

On the other hand, any reduction in international pressure could encourage the Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen and its allies to re-escalate militarily. After all, field escalation against the Houthis is possible because, according to the opinion of some analysts, exerting military pressure on them may be necessary to activate the faltering political track.

Among its consequences on the Houthis’ field position, this designation is expected to reduce the chances that the Houthis would obtain the components and parts that they import from abroad and use in the manufacture of drones, and to reflect on the smuggling of weapons to them. While the Houthi group will try as usual to exploit the current development to arouse the feelings and enthusiasm of its supporters and fighters and portray the war as a "Zionist-US" war, their morale and fighters will inevitably be negatively affected, given that they will find themselves perceived as terrorists, and have become, albeit theoretically, in direct confrontation with the largest global power. On the other hand, the morale of their opponents would increase and the fighting spirit of their forces would be enhanced.

4. Humanitarian repercussions

While relief organizations could be granted exceptions that allow them to work and deal with the group without affecting their activities, as Secretary Pompeo indicated, the possibility that this activity would be affected and that the capability of those organizations to deliver aid would decline remains valid, at least as a result of the reactions of the Houthis and their policies. The Houthis have been hindering the distribution and delivery of aid in the past period, indeed seizing it. They had previously been accused by the relevant organizations and the team of experts of the Sanctions Committee of impeding humanitarian activities in the areas under their control.

It is expected that obstacles placed by the Houthis and their interventions would increase, and that they would seek to seize more aid after having been designated as a terrorist group, especially if the designation causes them material losses. This in turn would affect the pledges of the funders to relief programmes and the Humanitarian Response Plan. Donors had previously threatened to reduce their funding or even halt it, including the US which has already frozen part of its humanitarian financing at the beginning of 2020. This would have dire consequences for the humanitarian situation, given that the Response Plan received until late 2020 only nearly 25 percent of the funds pledged by donors, which has forced the UN to close many of its humanitarian and relief programmes in Yemen.

Conclusion

  • There are concerns that the US administration's designation of the Houthi group as a "foreign terrorist organization" would have negative consequences for the peace process in Yemen, given that it might push the Houthis to become more radicalised and hinder the UN mediation efforts. Those concerns are related to what this designation would create in terms of legal obstacles to the work of international mediators. However, some of those concerns may not be realistic, and others can be overcome. The Houthi hard line towards peace exists in the first place. In addition, such a designation ultimately remains an essentially political one, and can be adapted so that it would not prevent the work of mediators. This designation may be reconsidered and this would be one of the results of any future peace agreement.
  • While the legitimate Yemeni government believes that this designation constitutes a great political and moral victory for it and that its political position at the international level would become better, ending up making its negotiating position stronger in the future, the designation is expected to place the Houthis in a weaker political position and cause them many losses. Internally, it would make them a less attractive political party and embarrass their relationship with the social, political and economic figures and entities, especially those with external interests and dealings. Externally, their international isolation would worsen and their activities become more complex, even if the peace endeavours and the international community's desire to end the conflict contribute to reducing this isolation. In the context of their relationship with Iran, Tehran would find in this development an opportunity to increase its influence over them and push them to adopt more hard-line approaches, and bring them closer to it.
  • Foreign trade with Yemen is expected to be affected in the light of the continuing effects of this designation, given that commercial intermediaries dealing with the Houthis may be exposed to US criminal responsibility or economic sanctions. As for the Houthi group, this designation would criminalise providing support to it and freeze its financial assets. However, this is not expected to be effective because the group does not have external assets that Washington can access, although such a designation would affect the activities of the entities and commercial figures that work for it.
  • The obstacles placed by the Houthis on humanitarian and relief organizations are expected to increase. The Houthis are also expected to seize more aid after having been designated as a terrorist group, especially if this causes material losses for them. This in turn would affect the pledges of the funders of relief programmes and the Humanitarian Response Plan. This would have dire consequences for the humanitarian situation, given that the Response Plan has received only nearly a quarter of the funds pledged by donors, which has so far forced the UN to close many of its humanitarian programmes in Yemen.

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