The Biden administration may relabel the Houthis in Yemen a foreign terrorist organization, in response to the Iranian-backed group’s increased attacks against Israel and on commercial shipping in the region.
Such a move would see the Biden administration reverse course on a controversial and last-minute Trump-era policy.
President Biden removed the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) label on the Houthis in February 2021 over concerns that blacklisting the militant group would prevent aid organizations and business from serving a population suffering under nearly a decade of civil war. Nearly 22 million Yemenis, half being children, require humanitarian assistance.
But the Houthis’ dangerous attacks in the region are raising pressure on the Biden administration from lawmakers in Congress to move beyond counterstrikes on military targets and to burden the group with a terrorist designation by the U.S.
While Biden said last week he considers the Houthis a terrorist group and that the State Department acknowledged it is looking into reimposing the designation, senior administration officials have not committed to imposing the FTO label.
“Nothing to update yet on the FTO designation,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Tuesday. “We’re still in the process of reviewing it.”
But it’s not entirely clear that labeling the Houthis a terrorist organization would have any practical and immediate impacts on hurting its ability to sow terror and chaos in the region. The Houthis have said their attacks are in support of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which is under siege from Israel after the group launched its shocking terrorist attack on Oct. 7.
The FTO designation could embolden the Houthis, indicating its tactics are working, said Dave Harden, a former senior State Department official who served in both the Trump and Obama administrations.
“It doesn’t matter to the Houthis that they’re a foreign terrorist organization under U.S. law, they probably like it,” he said.
“They don’t bank and shop and travel and engage in the Western economy. They’re not like [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov]. These guys, it doesn’t affect them, and if anything, it’s a badge of honor.”
An FTO designation is meant to disrupt financial support to such a group, giving the Treasury Department a wider hand to issue sanctions and signal to other foreign governments, people or businesses that they could lose access to the U.S. financial system if they engage with the sanctioned group.
Former President Trump’s designation of the Houthis as an FTO drew rare pushback from Republicans in Congress, largely over humanitarian concerns. Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) opposed the move outright.
In 2021, Sen Jim Risch (Idaho) and Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas), the senior Republicans on the Senate and House Foreign Affairs committees, raised grave concerns that the Trump administration was not putting in place “necessary licenses, waivers and appropriate guidance” to allow the delivery of goods to the Yemeni people.
Harden, who is founder of the Georgetown Strategy Group, said it’s fair to recognize concerns about blocking the delivery of humanitarian assistance or commercial goods to Yemen, but that the Houthis are threatening that anyway by attacking shipping in the Red Sea.
Major shipping companies are rerouting their vessels on longer and more expensive routes to avoid the Red Sea route toward the Suez Canal, raising concerns over disrupted supply chains, delayed deliveries and higher prices for consumers across the globe.
Still, Republican and Democratic voices are calling for Biden to take seriously its review of whether to impose the FTO designation for the Houthis — even as many of these lawmakers expressed serious concerns of the terrorist group label when it was imposed by former President Trump.
McCaul said in a statement last week that the Biden administration “must acknowledge it was a mistake to rescind the Houthis designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, and re-list them immediately.”
Other lawmakers calling for Biden to impose the FTO include Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and staunch supporter of Biden’s handling of Israel’s war against Hamas.
Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Brian Mast (R-Fla.) wrote a letter last week to Biden in favor of the FTO designation.
In November, 15 Republican senators wrote a letter to Biden calling for the Houthis to be designated as an FTO.
Harden reacted to such congressional calls as more of a domestic political signal as opposed to hurting the Houthis.
“This is something that we care about, and maybe it’s symbolic, but it’s not meaningful,” he continued.
The FTO designation still poses a significant risk to humanitarian organizations, said Bruce Riedel, nonresident senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and author of the book “America and the Yemens: A Complex and Tragic Encounter.”
“The reasons why Joe Biden’s administration lifted the FTO still apply today. I would hope there would be some reluctance to go down that road,” he said.
Riedel also argued that the FTO could push the Houthis closer to Iran.
“The Houthis are a very independent actor, they’re not like Hezbollah [in Lebanon]. They are a home-grown independent actor. But the more they are attacked, they will naturally go to the Iranians for more and more help, which I don’t think is in our interest either.”
The Biden administration is so far focused on rallying a global coalition to pressure the Houthis to relent on the attacks, while also taking military action in coordinated strikes.
“This is a global challenge,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday.
“We’re talking about a vital artery of global commerce, a critical maritime choke point that’s being held hostage, and countries and companies that have nothing to do with the Middle East, whatsoever, are being affected — more than 50 nations in nearly 30 attacks. And so it’s a crisis that the whole world needs to respond to.”
Sullivan said that retaliatory attacks launched by the U.S. and U.K., and supported by other democratic nations, were aimed at degrading the Houthis’ military capabilities but were not expected to eliminate the threat completely.
“We did not say when we launched our attacks, they’re going to end once and for all, the Houthis will be fully deterred,” he told the forum.
“We anticipated the Houthis would continue to try to hold this critical artery at risk. And we continue to reserve the right to take further action, but this needs to be an all-hands-on-deck effort.”
The Houthis have, unsurprisingly, ignored a directive from the United Nations Security Council to cease attacks on ships in the Red Sea. But Sullivan said the U.S. is looking to work with countries with ties to Iran to pressure the Houthis to get them to understand that their attacks must end.
“We want to work with countries across the board, countries who are allies and partners, countries who are not, in the common interest to get this to stop.”