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US to relist Houthis as terrorist group with special designation

Designation leaves room for humanitarian aid

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she would have preferred that the Biden administration had designated the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she would have preferred that the Biden administration had designated the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The State Department on Wednesday said it would redesignate the Houthis as an international terrorist group in response to the Yemen-based militia’s dozens of attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, as well as on Israeli cities and U.S. Navy ships.

The designation of the Houthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) group will take effect in 30 days to give the Biden administration time to ensure strong carve-outs allowing humanitarian aid to continue for Yemen, parts of which are devastated from years of civil war and a Saudi-led coalition bombing campaign.

The Houthis control much of northern Yemen and are a quasi-governmental entity there. The Houthis were designated in the final days of the Trump administration as a SDGT, as well as the more well-known category of Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), resulting in commercial entities halting transactions with nonprofits in Yemen and imperiling the delivery of food and fuel into the Arabian Peninsula country.

But weeks after coming into office, the Biden administration lifted both designations due to “the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the time.

Three years later, though, the increased regional threat posed by the Houthis, as well as modest progress in fine-tuning sanctions carve-outs to minimize civilian harm, have given the Biden administration more confidence it can redesignate the Iranian-backed militia without economically devastating Yemen.

“We have taken this action to pressure the Houthis to cease their terrorist activities, including missile and drone attacks against international shipping. The ultimate goal of sanctions is to convince the Houthis to de-escalate and bring about a positive change in behavior,” a senior administration official said in a Tuesday background call with reporters. “If the Houthis cease their attacks, we can consider delisting this designation.”

As multiple U.S. administrations have leaned more heavily on sanctions to respond to belligerent nation-state and terrorist actors, humanitarian groups and international organizations in places like Afghanistan and Syria have warned about the devastating impact on civilians who live in areas controlled by designated entities. For example, all U.S. persons are forbidden from providing “material support or resources” to an FTO, which banks have in the past taken to mean they can’t facilitate transactions to import food and medicines into territories controlled by a designated group.

Safeguarding humanitarian aid

The Biden administration has worked to assure nonprofits and financial institutions they will not violate U.S. sanctions for providing humanitarian goods and essential services to territories controlled by a sanctioned actor.

The Treasury Department over a year ago issued general licenses creating sanctions carve-outs for four categories of work: official U.S. government business; official business for certain international organizations, such as the International Red Cross or United Nations; transactions supporting the work of certain NGOs; and the provision of agricultural commodities, medicine and medical devices.

“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,” the senior administration official said. “This will be in addition to the existing humanitarian carve-outs that exist in many sanctions programs for food, medicine and humanitarian assistance.”

The SDGT designation, created by a 2001 executive order, authorizes blocking assets belonging to foreign individuals who commit or are likely to commit terrorist attacks and those of their supporters and enablers.

The Treasury Department is to publish licenses authorizing certain transactions related to provision of food, medicine, personal remittances, telecommunications and mail for Yemen. Port and airport operations will also be covered by the authorizations, the State Department said.

“We are taking many steps to ensure these sanctions do the least humanitarian harm to the Yemeni people,” the administration official added.

Since the Houthis began missile and drone attacks last fall on ships in the Red Sea to punish Israel and its allies for the bombardment of the Gaza Strip, a growing chorus of lawmakers has called for the Biden administration to relist the Houthis as an FTO.

Some Republican critics of the administration’s policy said the Houthis deserved the FTO designation.

“The Biden administration’s decision to remove the Houthis’ FTO and SDGT designations in 2021 was a huge mistake, and I have repeatedly called on the administration to restore them,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said in a statement. “Yet, even after months of unprovoked Houthi attacks on U.S. service members, U.S. interests, and global shipping, the Biden administration only redesignated the Houthis as SDGTs — not as a FTO. It is past time for this administration to take a clear-eyed view of the situation and redesignate the Iran-backed Houthis as a FTO.”

Senate Armed Services member Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said on Tuesday evening as word of the designation began circulating that the designation as an SDGT was an improvement. “I still would like to see them listed as an FTO,” she said.  “But let’s keep moving in the right direction. Biden needs to be a little stronger on the world stage.”

Bills from Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., would require the designation of the Houthis as an FTO.

“For months I have been calling on President Biden to follow President Trump’s lead and redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist organization. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t do so before the Houthis destabilized naval traffic in the Red Sea,” Daines said in a Tuesday statement.

The administration says its decision to redesignate the Houthis as an SDGT but not an FTO strikes the right balance.

“We do think that 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,” the administration official said.

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