The United States reclassifies the Houthis as terrorists in response to the Red Sea attacks
Written by Simon Lewis and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government on Wednesday returned Yemen-based Houthi rebels to the list of terrorist groups, in the latest attempt by Washington to stop attacks on international shipping.
The “Specially Designated Global Terrorism” (SDGT) designation, which imposes harsh sanctions on the Iran-aligned group, is intended to cut off funding and weapons that the Houthis have used to attack or hijack ships in vital shipping lanes in the Red Sea, officials said.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement, “This designation is an important tool to obstruct terrorist financing for the Houthis, further restrict their access to financial markets, and hold them accountable for their actions.”
He added: “If the Houthis stop their attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the United States will immediately reevaluate this classification.”
President Joe Biden’s administration also issued “exceptions” aimed at avoiding impact on Yemen’s population, which relies on food imports and humanitarian aid, and pledged to engage with groups including aid agencies before the designation takes effect within 30 days.
The Houthi campaign disrupted global trade, raised fears of inflation, and deepened fears that the repercussions of the war between Israel and Hamas would destabilize the Middle East.
Last week, Biden described the Houthis as a “terrorist” group. American and British warplanes, ships and submarines launched dozens of air strikes targeting the Houthis, who control the most densely populated areas in Yemen.
On Tuesday, the US military carried out its latest strike against four Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles, two US officials told Reuters.
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdel Salam told Reuters on Wednesday that the designation would not affect operations that the group says support Palestinians and target Israeli ships or vessels heading to Israel.
These attacks are part of a broader response to the conflict in Gaza by the so-called axis of resistance – including the Houthis along with Palestinian militants Hamas, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias – who have ties to US rival Iran.
“We will continue to confront malign Iranian influence and weaken it where we can,” said one of the three administration officials who briefed reporters ahead of the announcement on the condition: “So, of course, the choice to move away from Iran is now in the hands of the Houthis.” Anonymity.
A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 to support government forces fighting the Houthis in a war widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a US ally.
The administration of former President Donald Trump added the Houthis to two lists it designated as terrorists a day before the end of its term. The United Nations, aid groups and some US lawmakers have expressed concerns that the sanctions will disrupt the flow of food, fuel and other goods to Yemen.
On February 12, 2021, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken canceled the designations “in recognition of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen.”
On Wednesday, the Houthis were re-listed under the SDGT, but not as a “foreign terrorist organization,” which includes a stricter ban on providing material support to those on the list, and means an automatic travel ban. US officials said this would make it easier to exempt humanitarian goods from sanctions.
The United Nations describes the humanitarian crisis in Yemen as “severe,” with more than 21 million people – two-thirds of the population – in need of assistance. It says more than 80% of the population struggles to access food, safe drinking water and adequate health services.
The US Treasury also issued licenses, as of February 16, allowing certain Houthi-related transactions, including transactions related to agricultural commodities, medicines, medical devices, communications, and personal transfers. Houthi-related transactions related to port and airport operations and transactions related to refined petroleum products in Yemen were also approved.
“The Houthis must be held accountable for their actions, but this should not be at the expense of Yemeni civilians,” Blinken said in a statement.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Daphne Psalidakis and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Michael Perry and David Gregorio)