Why did the US list the Houthis as a ‘global terrorist’ group and what does it mean?

President Joe Biden's administration relisted Yemen's Houthis as specially designated global terrorists

Mourners carry the coffin of a Houthi fighter killed in recent US-led air strikes, in Sanaa, Yemen, on January 17. Reuters
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Washington’s decision to redesignate the Iran-backed Houthi rebels as global terrorists is yet another attempt to dissuade the Yemeni rebels from continuing their attacks on the Red Sea.

In the past week, US President Joe Biden's administration, with the help of several other countries, has carried out three strikes on Houthi sites in Yemen, which seems to have had little effect.

Now they are hoping that the punishing financial consequences associated with the specially designated global terrorist description will pressure the group into rethinking its ways.

“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,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement.

The designation allows the US to disrupt the Houthis' access to funds by freezing accounts and blocking the assets of people associated with the rebels. But the administration could have gone further.

It chose not to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation, which would carry even harsher restrictions and could penalise organisations that provide material support to the group.

“The SDGT provides better flexibility to achieve the aims that we have in terms of carving out and safeguarding humanitarian assistance, as well as the broader well-being of the people of Yemen, and targeting the action towards the Houthis while still achieving our foreign policy aims, which is to call out the Houthis actions for what they are, which is unacceptable terrorism,” a senior administration official told reporters.

Nadwa Al Dawsari, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said: “This is a group that's not going to be discouraged by designations or missiles. In fact, this group feeds off of actions like that.”

That is a sentiment shared by Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen under president Barack Obama from 2010 to 2013.

Mr Feierstein believes the designation is more symbolic than effective.

"They don't operate overseas, they don't have bank accounts overseas, they don't participate in the US financial system," he told The National.

Mr Feierstein said the Houthis' repeated aggression in the Red Sea forced the administration's hand.

"I think the administration felt that they were in a bind," he said. "There were demands that they do something that, you know, that responded to the pressure on shipping and the global economy.

"So they they couldn't not do something. I don't think they're under any illusion that what they're doing is actually going to have a serious deterrent effect."

The Houthis have already derided the designation. "The American terrorist list no longer has an impact, especially on the Republic of Yemen, the group said in a statement.

On Wednesday, just hours after the State Department announced their decision, the rebels said on social media that they had targeted an American ship in the Gulf of Aden.

Former president Donald Trump's administration listed the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation and a specially designated global terrorist, which had devastating effects on Yemen's access to critical humanitarian aid.

The Biden administration was quick to reverse the designation but has now had to change course.

The fact that it has had to do that shows how inconsistent America's approach to the Middle East has been, said Ms Al Dawsari.

A senior official defended the administration's decision to remove the Houthis from the foreign terrorist organisation list in 2021, saying it was the “correct step” at the time as it recognised the “very dire humanitarian situation in Yemen”.

The designation will go into effect in 30 days.

Mr Sullivan said the US was willing to “immediately re-evaluate it” if the Houthis stop attacking the Red Sea, a critical waterway for international shipping.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the administration was also prepared to take further steps if necessary.

“The President will not hesitate to take further actions to protect our people and free international trade,” he said during a White House briefing.

Updated: January 18, 2024, 7:23 AM