Nearly three years after removing them from US government rolls of international terrorist groups, the Biden administration is re-adding the Yemen-based Houthis to a list of specially designated global terrorists following a series of attacks by the group on US forces and international shipping in the Red Sea.
A senior Biden administration official told reporters late Tuesday that the Houthi militia will not be re-added to the ranks of groups designated by the State Department as Foreign Terrorist Organisations, but will instead receive the lesser designation, which automatically imposes a range of US sanctions on the group.
By contrast, a designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation makes it a crime for anyone to provide “material support” to the group, a category broad enough to potentially include humanitarian aid meant for the people of Yemen.
The official said the re-designation of the Houthis under the SDGT category was necessitated by the group’s string of attacks against US forces and international shipping.
“Over the past month, Yemen based Houthi militants have engaged in unprecedented attacks against US military forces and international maritime vessels operating in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. These attacks fit the textbook definition of terrorism, endanger US personnel, civilian mariners and our partners, jeopardising global trade and threatening freedom of navigation,” the official said.
“We are taking this action because of the Iranian backed Houthis’ continued attacks on the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. These attacks are a clear example of terrorism and are a violation of international law and a major threat to lives, global commerce and they jeopardise the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” the official continued, adding that the “ultimate goal” of the renewed sanctions is to pressure the group to “de-escalate” and undergo a “positive change in behaviour”.
In a statement White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan called the designation “an important tool to impede terrorist funding to the Houthis, further restrict their access to financial markets, and hold them accountable for their actions”.
“If the Houthis cease their attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the United States will immediately reevaluate this designation,” he added.
The move comes nearly three years after Secretary of State Antony Blinken stripped the Houthis of both the FTO designation and the lesser SDGT designation in an effort to speed the delivery of humanitarian aid to Yemen. At the time, Mr Blinken called the move “a recognition of the dire humanitarian situation” in the country, which has been ravaged by years of civil war.
In a statement announcing the move, Mr Blinken said the Houthis “must be held accountable for their actions”, but not “at the expense of Yemeni civilians”.
“As the Department of State moves forward with this designation, we are taking significant steps to mitigate any adverse impacts this designation may have on the people of Yemen,” he said.
Because the sanctions imposed pursuant to a terrorist designation would normally prevent most forms of aid from flowing into areas controlled by the Houthis, a second official said the Biden administration is balancing the designation with “unprecedented carve-outs and licences” as well as a 30-day delay for implementing the designation to ensure that the carve-outs and licenses are in place to prevent “adverse impacts” on the people of Yemen.
“The people of Yemen should not pay the price pay the price for the actions of the Houthis,” said the official, who said the Biden administration’s “clear message” is that “commercial shipments into Yemeni ports” should continue to bring food, medicine and fuel into the country because they will not be covered by the coming sanctions.
“We recognise the grave humanitarian situation in Yemen and we're taking many steps to ensure these sanctions do the least harm to the Yemeni people,” the official said.
A Treasury Department official told reporters that the department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control will prioritise “mitigation of unintended adverse impacts” as they implement the renewed sanctions, including through “broad general licences that authorise certain transactions related to the provision of food and medicine and medical devices, fuel, personal remittances ... telecommunications, operations of ports, and airports”.
The official added that the general licenses will be added to “existing humanitarian carve-outs” for “authorised activity” by contractors and implementers working for non-governmental organisations and the US Agency for International Development.
Before the 30-day pause ends on 16 February, the government will be reaching out to “stakeholders crucial to facilitating humanitarian assistance and the commercial import of critical commodities” into Yemen, as well as “financial institutions, commercial shippers, NGOs, UN humanitarian assistance agencies, and other critical international organisations that deliver vital humanitarian assistance” to ensure continued delivery of aid and needed goods and services.