US to designate Iran-backed Houthis as terrorist group

The designation will take effect on January 19, one day before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
Monday 11/01/2021
Houthi followers wave up their weapons during a gathering in Sanaa, Yemen. (REUTERS)
Houthi followers wave up their weapons during a gathering in Sanaa, Yemen. (REUTERS)

WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced late Sunday that he will designate Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels as a “foreign terrorist organisation” as time runs down on the Trump administration.

The designation will take effect on January 19, one day before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

The announcement Sunday comes as Pompeo and his top aides rush to complete actions they believe will cement their legacy and the president’s.

Late Sunday, Pompeo announced he was proceeding with the designation of the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, along with separate terrorist designations of three senior rebel leaders.

“These designations will provide additional tools to confront terrorist activity and terrorism by Ansar Allah, a deadly Iran-backed militia group in the Gulf region,” he said. “The designations are intended to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.”

The Houthis on Monday condemned the United States' move to brand the rebels as a terrorist organisation and said they reserved the right to respond.

"These policies represent a crisis in thinking and are to be condemned, and we have the right to respond," Houthi political commander Mohamed Ali al-Houthi said in a tweet.

"The Yemeni people don't care about any designation from (US President Donald) Trump's administration as it is a partner in killing Yemenis and starving them," he added.

Consideration of the designation had already prompted complaints from relief organisations that have warned the sanctions could prove catastrophic for efforts to help starving Yemeni civilians who have been caught in the conflict between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, which is backed by Saudi Arabia.

“The United States recognises concerns that these designations will have an impact on the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” Pompeo said in his statement. “We are planning to put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen.”

Those measures will include the issuance of special licenses by the Treasury Department to allow US assistance to continue to flow to Yemen and for humanitarian organisations to continue to work there, he said.

Pompeo is also expected to deliver remarks later this week denouncing Iran for its alleged harbouring and support for members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. In November, US, officials said Iran had been harbouring al-Qaeda's No. 2, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, who had been killed in August by Israeli agents in Iran along with his daughter, the widow of bin Laden's son Hamza bin Laden.

The Trump administration has steadily ratcheted up pressure on Iran since the president withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal in 2018 and began to re-impose sanctions that had been eased under the agreement, which aimed to curb Iran's atomic programme.

The administration had been weighing the formal designation of the Houthi rebels as a “foreign terrorist organisation” for months. But that effort had been bogged down by internal disagreements over whether sanctions could be effectively enforced without worsening Yemen's dire humanitarian crisis.

Objections from the Treasury Department were apparently overcome last week after certain exemptions to the sanctions allowing for aid work to continue were arranged.