image Photo: Reuters

US to declare Houthis terrorists

The United States is set to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebel movement as a foreign terrorist organization.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in an official statement his “intent to designate Ansarallah – sometimes referred to as the Houthis – as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO)” and as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity.”

“I also intend to designate three of Ansar Allah’s leaders, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al Hakim, as SDGTs,” Pompeo said in a State Department press release.

Referencing the recent 30 December 2020 “callous attack targeting the civilian airport in Aden,” which killed at least 26 people including 3 Red Cross staffers and injured more than 50, Pompeo said his aim was to hold the “deadly Iran-backed militia group in the Gulf region” accountable for “terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.” He said the Aden Airport attack had been “directly tied” to Ansarallah by the Yemeni and Saudi governments as well as multiple experts.

“If Ansarallah did not behave like a terrorist organization, we would not designate it as an FTO and SDGT. It has led a brutal campaign that has killed many people, continues to destabilize the region, and denies Yemenis a peaceful solution to the conflict in their country,” insisted the U.S. Secretary of State.

The top US diplomat will present his plan to to blacklist the Iran-aligned group to Congress on 19 January – just one day prior to the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on 20 January.

The outgoing administration of US President Donald Trump has been ramping up Iran-related sanctions in recent weeks, prompting some Biden allies and outside analysts to surmise the Republican administration is seeking to make it harder for the incoming Democratic leadership to re-engage with the Islamic Republic, including the potential rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action international nuclear agreement.

Emphasizing that “Rather than distance itself from the Iranian regime, it [the Houthi group] has embraced the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism even more,” Pompeo explained “Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has supplied Ansarallah with missiles, drones, and training, allowing the group to target airports and other critical infrastructure. The Iranian regime continues to thwart the efforts of the United Nations and friendly countries to solve the crisis peacefully and end the conflict.”

Secretary Pompeo stressed that the U.S. “calls on the Iranian regime to stop smuggling weapons to Ansarallah in violation of UN Security Council resolutions and to stop enabling Ansarallah’s aggressive acts against Yemen and towards its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia.” He also disclosed that Washington has “worked through our partners in the region to urge Ansarallah to stop engaging in terrorist activities, including those involving attacks threatening civilian infrastructure in the region, as well as to cut off ties with IRGC officials and stop the practice of kidnapping, which has included the deaths and kidnappings of U.S. nationals.”

After underscoring “The designations are also 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. Progress in addressing Yemen’s instability can only be made when those responsible for obstructing peace are held accountable for their actions,” Pompeo said the U.S. Treasury Department will provide some licenses that will apply to some humanitarian activities conducted by non-governmental organizations in Yemen and to certain transactions related to exports to Yemen of critical commodities like food and medicine.

The U.S. Treasury has the authority to carve out exceptions with the issuance of special licenses to humanitarian groups to deliver food and medical supplies to heavily sanctioned countries, as it has done with Iran and Venezuela. The final decision to designate the Houthis as terrorists was reportedly delayed for weeks due to fierce debate within the Trump administration and internal disputes as how to ensure ongoing aid shipment to Yemen.

“The United States was the largest humanitarian donor to Yemen in 2020, providing $630 million in Fiscal Year 2020 humanitarian assistance to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people. American assistance has reached all corners of Yemen and has been used in critical program support for food, nutrition, hygiene, and for internally displaced people,” detailed Pompeo, adding that, “The United States is also providing more than $18 million to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in Yemen.”

A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 in support of government forces fighting the Houthi rebels. United Nations officials have been trying to revive peace talks to end the war as the country’s suffering, further intensified by the collapse of the country’s economy and currency collapse amid the coronavirus contagion.

The UN describes Yemen as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of its people in need of help. Top UN officials have warned that millions of people are facing famine and more money is needed to deliver aid, as diplomats and humanitarian groups have expressed concern that the US decision could threaten peace talks and complicate efforts to combat the crisis.

Many agencies say they must work with the Houthis, who are the de facto authority in northern Yemen, to deliver assistance. Aid workers and supplies also come in through Houthi-controlled Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port.

“This serves no interest at all,” Ryan Crocker, a retired U.S. ambassador who served in the Middle East, said of the designation. “Are there elements among the Houthis who have been involved in terrorist acts? Sure. Just as with other groups in the Middle East.” Crocker went on to insist that, “The Houthis are an integral part of Yemeni society. They always have been. This is making a strategic enemy out of a local force that has been part of Yemen for generations. They are not Iranian pawns.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned against any unilateral moves as the United States threatened to blacklist the Houthis in November, because Yemen was in “imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades.”

UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric warned yesterday that the US designation of the Houthis as terrorists is likely to have “serious humanitarian and political repercussions.”

Dujarric called on Washington “to ensure that licenses and exemptions are granted, so that humanitarian assistance continues to reach the people who need it, and the private sector can continue to function, in order to stave off complete economic collapse and large-scale famine.” He also declared that the humanitarian operation in Yemen is “the largest in the world,” which “cannot replace the private sector or compensate for major drops in commercial imports.” Moreover, the UN official cautioned that the US decision could risk further political destabilization in the country by triggering greater polarization between opposing sides in the conflict that has raged since 2015.

According to official UN figures released December 2020, more than 230,000 Yemenis have died due to the war, primarily due to the lack of food, health services and infrastructure.

In related developments, the US State Department also designated Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism “for repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism in granting safe harbor to terrorists.”

To read Secretary Pompeo’s full statement on Cuba, please click here.