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March 2, 2024

US Redesignates Yemen’s Houthis as Terrorists Amid Attacks

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Jan 17, 2024

The Biden administration announced Tuesday that it is redesignating Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization after a series of attacks targeting global shipping in the Red Sea. The move reverses a 2021 decision to revoke the terrorist designation and comes amid escalating tensions between the Iran-backed rebels and the US and its allies.

Background on the Conflict

Yemen has been embroiled in a civil war since 2014 when the Houthis seized the capital Sanaa and ousted the internationally recognized government. A Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict in 2015 on behalf of the government. The war has killed more than 150,000 people and spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

In late 2020, the Trump administration designated the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization. However, the Biden administration revoked the designation just weeks after taking office over concerns that sanctions could worsen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

Over the last year, the Houthis have stepped up drone and missile attacks into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The rebels have also targeted commercial ships passing through the Red Sea with armed drones and sea mines.

Recent Attacks Prompt Policy Shift

According to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Houthis have launched attacks “impacting vessels carrying goods through international waters” at an “unprecedented pace” in recent weeks.

The rebels claimed responsibility for a January 8 attack on a Turkish-flagged ship that wounded a crew member. On January 9, the Houthis seized an Emirati-flagged ship that is still being held captive.

These incidents come after the Houthis temporarily seized a Seychelles-flagged tanker in late 2021. According to Lloyd’s List Intelligence, there were about 460 interactions between the Houthis and commercial vessels in the Red Sea last year, including vessel seizures, failed weapons attacks, and warning shots.

Experts say the attacks show the Houthis are increasing pressure on the Saudi-led coalition to gain leverage and control over Yemeni ports. Coalition forces implemented a blockade on Houthi-held areas in 2017 in response to rebel missile attacks.

US Ramps Up Military Pressure

Alongside the terrorist designation, the US military has stepped up operations targeting the Houthis after largely focusing on al-Qaida and Islamic State militants in recent years.

The US conducted airstrikes last week in response to Houthi attacks on Emirati and Saudi targets. American warships also intercepted a shipment of missile components on a traditional wooden sailing vessel known as a dhow that the US says was smuggling weapons from Iran to support the Houthi insurgency.

Date US Military Action
January 10 Air assault on Houthi military facilities
January 13 Interception of Iranian weapons shipment
January 15 Airstrikes on Houthi missile launch sites

Experts say the US moves to put military pressure on the rebels while hitting their finances through sanctions is aimed at pushing them into peace talks. However, they warn of potential blowback.

Former US ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein argues the terrorist designation could discourage Houthi leaders from engaging diplomatically while giving Iran more room to aid the rebels.

“The Iranians have taken advantage of every opportunity where they see space to expand their influence,” Feierstein told Al Jazeera. “And if the Houthis are isolated, the Iranians will take advantage of that.”

Sanctions Target Finances But Risk Aid Groups

By designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization, the US subjects them to a range of financial sanctions. Americans and businesses worldwide could face penalties for conducting transactions with the group without special licenses.

US officials say they will implement targeted sanctions focused on the Houthi leadership and its financiers while exempting humanitarian activity. However, aid groups still fear reduced access to Houthi-held territory where 70% of Yemen’s population lives.

When the Houthis were previously designated, banks and humanitarian groups dropped or paused operations due to uncertainty and legal risks. The UN has called for guarantees that trade and aid will not be impacted so Yemen can import food to prevent widespread famine.

Sanction Exemptions Details
Aid organizations Special license allows work with Houthis when aid is aim
Imports of basic goods Food, medicine, fuel not blocked by sanctions
Remittances and salaries Payments allowed into Houthi-held areas

“We will remain very focused on not imposing requirements on third parties and individual members of the Houthi movement that would cause undue harm to the people the Houthis purport to represent,” a senior State Department official stated.

Still, aid groups say the carve-outs don’t eliminate legal risks, and they will likely scale back operations due to banks refusing to handle funds tied to the rebels. About 23 million Yemenis rely on some form of aid, over two-thirds of the population, according to the UN.

Calls for Broader Peace Push

Critics argue sanctions alone won’t pressure the Houthis into peace talks without a wider diplomatic push to end the overall conflict. Congress recently passed a resolution calling for greater US leadership in seeking a negotiated settlement.

The UN’s Yemen envoy Hans Grundberg called the US move “deeply troubling” and said inclusive talks involving the Houthis are the only path to stability. Saudi Arabia and Oman have also reportedly made quiet efforts recently to advance negotiations.

Sources say the Biden administration recognizes the limitations of sanctions and continues pursuing a dual-track policy of military pressure and diplomacy. Officials hope the terrorist designation gives the US more leverage to extract concessions from the rebels.

“We recognize that this designation comes with some risk,” the State Department said Tuesday. “But we do believe that it is the appropriate path forward to try to achieve that ultimate goal: a peaceful resolution to the conflict.”

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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