Houthi fighters (AFP)

The US’ Re-designation of Houthis: Significance and Repercussions


Mon, 22-01-2024 01:10 PM, Aden

“For the Houthis, all the gains they made over the last year are now in question - the flights into Sanaa airport especially. They were on the path to achieving the global legitimacy they had sought but now that's over, unless this ends soon.”

Abdullah Al-Shadli (South24) 

On January 17, 2024, the US Department of State announced the re-designation of the Yemeni group ’Ansarallah‘, also known as the Houthis, as a ’Specially Designated Global Terrorist‘ group (SDGT). This came as a response to the persistent attacks by the Iran-backed Yemeni militia group against commercial shipping and American naval vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

In a statement, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said: “The designation will take effect 30 days from now, to allow us to ensure robust humanitarian carve outs are in place so our action targets the Houthis and not the people of Yemen.” He added: “We are sending a clear message: commercial shipments into Yemeni ports on which the Yemeni people rely for food, medicine and fuel should continue and are not covered by our sanctions… If the Houthis cease their attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the United States will immediately reevaluate this designation.” 

The decision comes three years after the Biden Administration revoked the designation of the Houthis on January 16, 2021. Former US President Donald Trump had previously added the Houthis to the terrorist list on January 10, 2021, before leaving the White House. 

The Biden Administration’s decision comes amid the escalation of security and military tensions in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden following a series of American-British strikes on January 12 and the subsequent days that targeted Houthi locations in Sanaa, Al-Hodeidah and other governorates in North Yemen. So, what are the significance and consequences of this move? How do experts assess it?

The designation category 

According to the US Department of State, “there are two main authorities for terrorism designations of groups and individuals. Groups can be designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Under Executive Order (E.O.) 13224, a wider range of entities, including terrorist groups, individuals acting as part of a terrorist organization, and other entities such as financiers and front companies, can be designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs)”.

While both of them lead to freezing of assets, “the FTO designation imposes immigration restrictions on members of the organization simply by virtue of their membership, whereas E.O. 13224 restricts travel for persons who meet the criteria contained within the order”.

Additionally, “the FTO designation triggers a criminal prohibition on knowingly providing material support or resources to the designated organization. Another difference is that only E.O. 13224 designations provide the Department of the Treasury the derivative authority to designate additional individuals or entities providing support to already designated individuals or entities”.

The Department of State is authorized to designate FTOs and SDGTs, while the Department of the Treasury has the authority to designate only SDGTs. Both departments pursue these designations in cooperation with the Department of Justice.

Thus, the designation of Houthis as part of the US terrorist list is different from the listing of Al-Qaeda, which is designated as FTO, while the different factions of ISIS are also designated FTOs. However, Houthi leaders such as Abdulmalik Badr al-Din al-Houthi, Abdul Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya Al-Hakim, are still subjected to sanctions under Executive Order 13224 related to actions that threaten peace, security and stability in Yemen.

Repercussions against the Houthis

The SDGT designation of the Houthis gives the US authorities a big space to take the proper options and economic measures to sanction them. However, it is too early so far to talk about the repercussions of the US’ designation of the Houthis. This is due to the fact that the designation will take effect “30 days from today (January 17)”, according to the US State Department, which said that the decision can be revoked if the Houthis cease their maritime attacks.

Furthermore, financial networks affiliated with the Houthis were sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury prior to this decision. On December 28, 2023, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) “designated one individual and three entities responsible for facilitating the flow of Iranian financial assistance to Houthi forces and their destabilizing activities. Among those designated today is the head of the Currency Exchangers Association in Sana’a, and three exchange houses in Yemen and Türkiye. These persons have facilitated the transfer of millions of dollars to the Houthis at the direction of U.S.-designated Sa’id al-Jamal, who is affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF).” 

On January 12, 2024, the US Department of the Treasury said that “OFAC designated two companies in Hong Kong (PRC) and the United Arab Emirates for shipping Iranian commodities on behalf of the network of Iran-based, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF)-backed Houthi financial facilitator Sa’id al-Jamal. OFAC is also identifying four vessels as blocked property in which these companies have an interest. The revenue from the commodity sales supports the Houthis and their continued attacks against international shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.”

Commenting on the events, political expert Abdulsatar Al-Shamiri told ’South24 Center‘: “I think that this designation (SDGT) won’t weaken the Houthis economically and won’t dry up their resources as they don’t have interests abroad.” He added: “However, the designation itself will strengthen the internationally recognized government (in Yemen). This will legalize the participation of states in fighting the Houthis in the future. If the Houthis go too far, then the number of countries taking part in striking them will increase.”

Nonetheless, the economic measures against the Houthis based on this designation – if it comes into effect - are expected to combine with the American military strikes against the militia’s locations. They will likely be harsher after one month if the Houthis continue their attacks against international navigation. However, the Houthis have so far denied that they are affected by these military strikes, as claimed by their leader Abdulmalik Al-Houthi in a televised speech on Thursday (January 18).

Al-Shamiri explained: “The military strikes will weaken the Houthis. This needs to be exploited by the Yemeni government in order to fill the vacuum and they should cooperate with the current US-led international alliance (Operation Prosperity Guardian) to regain Al-Hodeidah port (which is under Houthi control). This will serve as a big change at the security, political, and economic levels in favor of its legitimacy (IRG), against the Houthis.”

The consequences on the Saudi efforts

Since April 2022, following the UN-brokered truce, mutual attacks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia have been suspended. This was in line with the activation of a humanitarian truce in Yemen that lasted till October 2022. Despite the expiration of the truce and the failure to renew it, a de-escalation has been in place as part of direct political talks between Riyadh and the Houthis, facilitated with Omani mediation. 

In light of its efforts to secure a safe exit from the complicated Yemeni crisis, Saudi Arabia has adopted a roadmap which was drafted following its unilateral talks with the Houthis. Members of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC - the executive body of Yemen's internationally recognized government) and the Southern Transitional Council (STC – a major player within the Southern Movement) in particular have been excluded from participating in formulating the roadmap or its details. 

Saudi Arabia submitted the roadmap to the UN Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg who announced its features on December 23. He “welcomed the parties’ commitment to a set of measures as part of it”. Press sources speculated that this roadmap will be officially signed by the parties in January 2024.

However, as a result of the latest developments in the Red Sea - which the Houthis and Saudis maintain are linked to the current war in Gaza - it seems that the roadmap, that turns Riyadh from being a party in the Yemen conflict to the role of a mediator, may collapse, or at least be frozen. The Saudi Foreign Ministry’s statement following the American-British strikes against the Houthis reveals clearly Riyadh’s concerns about this scenario.1

American expert Michael Horowitz, a geopolitical and conflict analyst, as well as the head of the analyst team ’Le Beck International‘ (a consulting company specialized in the field of security and risk management, covering the Middle East, Asia, and Europe), told ’South24 Center‘: “Saudi Arabia has been pushing for a deal that would include significant concessions to the Houthis. One of the Houthis’ key demands has been to transfer funds for the payment of government employees - employees in the government they control - which Riyadh has been open to”.

He added: “The US sanctions do raise questions as to whether Riyadh would still be able to make these transfers. I expect that Washington will agree to allow some funds to be transferred by Riyadh, as a way to help stabilize Yemen, and so as not to undermine the peace efforts. After all, Biden has pledged to put an end to the conflict. But this still raises questions regarding the Saudi initiative, and could lead to some tensions.”

Horowitz believes that the US’ re-designation of the Iran-backed group “is a signal to the Houthis and a political move, more than anything else. The US does not want to implement sanctions in a way that piles upon an already difficult situation in Yemen, which would also water down the impact of the sanctions as a whole.” 

British writer and lecturer at the University of Oxford Andrew Hammond, who is interested in the Middle East, told ’South24 Center‘ that “the re-designation and the escalating attacks are putting Saudi-Houthi ties in a tough position”.

He said: “But it seems Saudi Arabia will do all it can to avoid being drawn into the conflict. The statement issued the other day1 distanced Saudi Arabia from the American-British strikes, and they have an interest in making sure the Houthis’ forces don't start firing missiles at Saudi targets - and there are more of them near Yemen now as new tourist projects are announced (by Riyadh).”

Hammond explained that “avoiding the FTO designation means that Saudi Arabia can continue talking to them; and the Biden Administration is selling this in an attempt to maintain the truce. But the country could easily slip back into war now and fighting could start on many fronts. Some of the government (Yemeni) forces are now receiving US attention as bulwarks against the Houthis, but this time it would be a war without Saudi Arabia.”

The UK expert pointed out that “for the Houthis, all the gains they made over the last year are now in question -  the flights into Sanaa airport especially2. They were on the path to achieving the global legitimacy they sought, but now that's over, unless this ends soon.”

Hammond’s statements reveal another possibility -- that the United States could open a dialogue with the Houthis regarding this designation and their naval attacks during the 30-day period before it comes into effect or even after that. 

Saudi political writer Mobarak Al Atty criticized the US’ re-designation of the Houthis. He told ‘South24 Center’ that “this is too late and comes at an improper time for the Arab region which is preparing for the peace project in Yemen. It is a timid designation in which Washington stresses that it is a temporary designation linked to the Red Sea events.”

He added: “For the Houthis, what happens now south of the Red Sea is due to the Gaza events. The reason for the Houthi threat against the waterways is that they launched a coup against a legitimate government and control five ports. Washington and London thwarted the Arab Coalition’s efforts to liberate these ports in 2018 through the Stockholm Agreement (Hodeidah Agreement)3.”

Al-Shamiri stressed that “the re-designation of the Houthis wouldn’t have occurred unless they harmed the American and European interests”. He added: “It seems that the US resorted to this option after it recognized the danger and weapons capabilities of this militia.”

Al-Shamiri downplayed the political effects of the US move, adding that “the path of peace in Yemen has been fragile and encircled by Houthi and Iranian dangers. It has been a trap set for the Yemeni legitimate government. No more, no less.”

Internally, the rivals of the Houthis endorsed the US decision. Statements by the Yemeni government, the STC and the National Resistance’s4 Political Office convey this tone. Their stances likely reveal the lack of enthusiasm by these parties toward the Saudi-Houthi deal as part of the roadmap. This is due to their unpleasant memories with the Houthis who blatantly violated previous agreements and understandings. 

Moreover, these parties aren’t apparently worried about the return of the armed conflict with the Houthis as they haven’t been in a situation of real truce over the past period, according to STC President and PLC Member Aidrous Al-Zubaidi’s interview with British newspaper ’The Guardian‘ some days ago. This means that the truce and de-escalation with their full concepts have been limited to Saudi Arabia and the Houthis and that Riyadh’s handing over of the roadmap file to the UN Envoy to Yemen likely confirms the success of its bilateral deal with the Houthis.

Humanitarian repercussions

Following the FTO and SDGT designation of the Houthis by the Trump Administration in January 2021, growing voices had warned of the dire humanitarian repercussions of these moves on Yemenis, especially the large population bloc in the Houthi-controlled areas in North Yemen.

At that time, UN officials and independent humanitarian organizations including the ’International Committee of the Red Cross‘ as well as 19 international non-governmental humanitarian relief organizations operating in Yemen repeatedly called for revoking of the designation. 

Although the Department of the Treasury’s OFAC issued many licenses that aimed to mitigate the possible repercussions against the humanitarian and commercial operations in Yemen at that time, humanitarian parties warned that this wasn't enough to avoid the designation’s negative humanitarian impact. 

Today, after the re-designation of the Houthis, humanitarian concerns emerge again despite the positive messages by the White House. In this regard, Andrew Hammond said: “On the humanitarian front, I haven't heard if the agencies are worried, but they must be.”

Michael A. Horowitz said: “My understanding, from US officials, is that the sanctions, which will take effect in around a month, will include significant exemptions meant to make sure humanitarian aid and operations remain unaffected.”

Al-Shamiri doesn’t believe that massive humanitarian repercussions will take place. He said: “The UN and the internal organizations can deal with any option, whether a terrorist group or not. These organizations will continue working in one way or another. Even if there is damage, it will remain marginal.”

However, in a country where most of its people need urgent aid, the humanitarian concerns remain legitimate and deserve urgent consideration and attention. The simplest negative impact can push Yemen toward more economic collapse and starvation. This will limit the Yemenis’ access to the much-needed supplies to stay alive including food, medicine and fuel.

(1 On Jan 12, Saudi Arabia called for restraint and "avoiding escalation" in light of the air strikes launched by the United States and Britain against sites linked to the Houthis in Yemen, the kingdom's foreign ministry said. Saudi Arabia said it was closely monitoring the situation with "great concern”, the foreign ministry said.)

(2 In October 2023, Yemen’s state-run carrier Yemenia suspended the only air route out of the country’s Houthi-held capital Sanaa to protest Houthi’s restrictions on its funds. On Oct 2, 2023, the Iran-backed group prevented a Yemenia plane from taking off from Sanaa Airport in a bid to compel the national airline to reverse its decision to suspend flights to Amman. Yemenia had resumed commercial flights from Sanaa Airport to Amman in April 2022 as part of a UN-brokered ceasefire that permitted ships to berth at the Hodeidah seaport.)

(3 The UN-brokered Stockholm agreement was signed in December 2018 between the Houthis and the Yemen government, aiming to keep the ports operational. One of the main components of the Stockholm Agreement is an agreement on the city of Hodeidah and the ports of Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa. The ports of Hodeidah – one of the most crucial ports in Yemen -  and Salif are controlled by the Houthis).
(4 Tariq Saleh’s National Resistance, whose influence stretches across western Yemen between Mokha and Hodeidah)

Journalist at South24 Center for News and Studies

Contributed to this report:
Director of the regional office of the South24 Center in Aden.

Note: This is a translated version of the original text written in Arabic