On January 10, 2021, the Trump administration announced that it would designate the Houthis of Ansarallah (“Supporters of God”), Shiite rebels in Yemen supported by Iran, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Three Houthi leaders - Abdul Malik al Houthi, Abd al Khaliq Badr al Din al Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al Hakim - were also designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. The Houthis were responsible for "terrorist attacks" on Saudi civilians, infrastructure and shipping, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement notifying Congress of the decision. The U.S. sanctions were scheduled to go into effect on January 19, the last full day of the Trump administration.
Pompeo accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of providing “missiles, drones and training” to the Houthis. “The United States calls on the Iranian regime to stop smuggling weapons to Ansarallah in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and to stop enabling Ansarallah’s aggressive acts against Yemen and towards its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia,” he said.
The Houthis took over the Yemeni capital Sanaa in September 2014. A Saudi-led coalition launched airstrikes against Houthi targets in Yemen starting in March 2015. The Houthis have retaliated by firing ballistic missiles at Saudi cities and military bases. Iran has repeatedly denied that it provided the Houthis with arms.
Peace Process: The move was highly controversial. Members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, pushed back on the decision which could deeply complicate the U.N.-led peace process. Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) warned that the decision would "further destabilize" Yemen and make it more difficult to negotiate an end to the conflict. “I look forward to working with President-Elect Biden and his team to overturn this misguided decision," he said. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) urged the incoming Biden administration to "reverse the designation on day one."
Humanitarian aid: International aid groups also warned that the designations could exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. More than 23 million people – 80 percent of Yemen’s population – needed humanitarian aid and protection, the United Nations reported in November 2020. “The consequences will be felt acutely across a country also hit hard by extreme hunger, cholera and COVID-19, as banks, businesses and humanitarian donors become unwilling or unable to take on the risk of operating in Yemen,” Oxfam said in a statement.
The administration pledged to issue sanctions waivers to organizations importing “critical commodities like food and medicine,” as well as to U.N. officials negotiating a diplomatic resolution to the Yemeni conflict. “We are working to ensure that essential lifelines and engagements that support a political track and return to dialogue continue to the maximum extent possible,” Pompeo said. The following is the State Department’s statement on the designations:
Secretary Pompeo in a statement on Jan. 10, 2021: "The Department of State will notify Congress of my intent to designate Ansarallah – sometimes referred to as the Houthis – as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), under section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, and as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity, pursuant to Executive Order 13224. I also intend to designate three of Ansarallah’s leaders, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al Hakim, as SDGTs.
"These designations will provide additional tools to confront terrorist activity and terrorism by Ansarallah, a deadly Iran-backed militia group in the Gulf region. The designations are intended to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.
"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.
"The United States recognizes concerns that these designations will have an impact on the humanitarian situation in Yemen. We are planning to put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen. We have expressed our readiness to work with relevant officials at the United Nations, with international and non-governmental organizations, and other international donors to address these implications. As part of this effort, simultaneously with the implementation of these designations on January 19, 2021 the U.S. Department of the Treasury is prepared to provide licenses pursuant to its authorities and corresponding guidance that relate to the official activities of the United States government in Yemen, including assistance programming that continues to be the largest of any donor and the official activities of certain international organizations such as the United Nations. The licenses and guidance will also apply to certain humanitarian activities conducted by non-governmental organizations in Yemen and to certain transactions and activities related to exports to Yemen of critical commodities like food and medicine. We are working to ensure that essential lifelines and engagements that support a political track and return to dialogue continue to the maximum extent possible.
"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. The United States is also providing more than $18 million to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in Yemen.
"We need not look further than the callous attack targeting the civilian airport in Aden on December 30, in which the Houthis struck the arrival terminal killing 27 individuals, including three staff members of the International Committee of the Red Cross, to see the destruction the Houthis continue to inflict upon civilians and civilian infrastructure. The Yemeni and Saudi governments as well as multiple experts have directly tied this attack to Ansarallah.
"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. Rather than distance itself from the Iranian regime, it has embraced the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism even more. 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. The United States 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. We have also 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.
"The international community has collectively agreed through UN Security Council resolutions and in other fora that unilateral actions to take over the institutions of the legitimate Republic of Yemen Government are unacceptable and that a legitimate political transition – long sought by the Yemeni people – can be accomplished only through political negotiations. However, the political process has produced limited results over several years. This compels us to look for additional means by which to change the behavior of Ansarallah and its supporters in our search for peace and security in Yemen."
Sen. Young (R-IN) in a statement on Jan. 11, 2021: “Our foreign policy approach in Yemen should be governed by two overarching questions: First, are we living up to our principles by helping to ease the suffering of the innocent in Yemen? Second, are we helping to advance our national security by taking steps to end, rather than exacerbate, the conflict?
“Today’s decision by Secretary Pompeo to designate the entire Houthi movement in Yemen as a Foreign Terrorist Organization accomplishes neither.
“I believe that this designation will further destabilize a war torn country, which is already the home of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, cut off our ability to continue negotiations toward peace, and will force the many NGOs in Yemen to stop providing lifesaving assistance in the country.
“This designation comes at the worst possible time as it will prevent the critical delivery of food, medical supplies, and other items necessary to combat both COVID-19 and famine. Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, one that has been exacerbated by ill-advised policies by senior U.S. government officials in recent years. Creating new, additional obstacles to the delivery of food and medical aid — during a global pandemic — is not in the best interest of the United States, our regional allies and partners, or the people of Yemen.
“I look forward to working with President-Elect Biden and his team to overturn this misguided decision.”
Sen. Chris Murphy in a statement on Jan. 11, 2021: "Designating the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) is a death sentence for thousands of Yemenis and a clear attempt by the Trump administration to hamstring future peace negotiations.
"The Houthis and their financial supporters are already subject to U.S. sanctions, so the designation only makes it more difficult to negotiate with Houthi leaders and to deliver aid to Houthi-controlled areas, where more than 70% of Yemenis live. The humanitarian impact cannot be overstated. 90% of Yemen’s food is imported, and even humanitarian waivers will not allow commercial imports, essentially cutting off food for the entire country. The administration is going forward without any estimate of how many people will be impacted or any plan to prevent the imminent humanitarian catastrophe.
"There is no doubt that the Houthis have led a brutal military campaign that has starved, imprisoned and killed many civilians. But as the United States designates international actors for intentionally harming civilians in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen should also be at the top of that list. Instead of a counterproductive policy of designating the Houthis as an FTO, the United States should be brokering a broad-based political solution in Yemen and denying Tehran opportunities to grow their influence there. President-elect Biden should reverse this FTO designation on day one."
Oxfam in a statement on Jan. 11, 2021: "Secretary Pompeo’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization is a counter-productive and dangerous policy that will put innocent lives at risk. This designation will not help to resolve the conflict or provide justice for the violations and abuses committed during the war; it will only escalate the crisis for millions of Yemenis fighting for their survival.
"Of the many options available for identifying and punishing terrorists, the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation that Secretary Pompeo has chosen to apply is by far the most severe – and the most deadly for Yemeni families. It will block US humanitarian aid, goods, and personnel from entering northern Yemen, where 70% of the population lives, and will substantially reduce them throughout the rest of the country.
"The consequences will be felt acutely across a country also hit hard by extreme hunger, cholera and Covid-19, as banks, businesses and humanitarian donors become unwilling or unable to take on the risk of operating in Yemen.
"Every day these designations remain in place will worsen the suffering of Yemen’s most vulnerable families. We call on President-Elect Biden to revoke them immediately upon taking office. In this instance, acting ‘on day one’ cannot be only a figure of speech, as lives hang in the balance."