IntelBrief: Yemen’s Houthis Could Be Targeted for U.S. Terrorism Designation

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The Biden administration is weighing a potential foreign terrorist organization (FTO) re-designation for the Houthi rebel group, Ansarallah, based in Yemen. The Houthis are one of the main pillars of Iran’s so-called “axis of resistance” and have remained active since the war between Hamas and Israel broke out following Hamas’s terrorist attacks of October 7. There have been numerous calls for the designation in the United States Congress. Pressure has been building for weeks, with Representatives Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) and Mike Waltz (R-FL) sending a letter signed by 40 bipartisan members of the House of Representatives calling for the re-designation to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Republican lawmakers have put forward bills in both houses of Congress, each known as “Standing Against Houthi Aggression Act,” that call for reinstating sanctions against the Houthis and putting the group back on the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation list. The Houthis were initially designated as an FTO in January 2021 as the Trump administration was preparing to leave office, only to have that designation revoked the following month by the incoming Biden administration out of concerns the designation could deteriorate the disastrous humanitarian situation in Yemen. Nearly three years later, the administration has begun to review a potential terrorist designation for the Houthis, in addition to other options, according to U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby. The Houthis pose a greater threat today than they did several years ago, having benefited from Iranian sponsorship but also recruiting locally from the ranks of former Yemeni military and intelligence officers while facing little resistance domestically.

The Houthis have received substantial funding from Iran, as well as training from the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), which has helped build the Yemeni group into a formidable fighting force. In the past, Houthi missiles and drones have targeted both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, a clear message from Iran that its proxies maintain region-wide reach. The Houthis have launched several high-profile attacks, though most of them unsuccessful, against a range of targets throughout the region in just the past two months, joining the fray a mere several days after the initial Hamas attack. The Houthis have fired ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and suicide drones against a range of targets, including Israeli cities and in the direction of U.S. naval assets. On October 19, the Houthis launched a barrage of five cruise missiles and 30 armed drones; four of the missiles and several of the drones were intercepted by the USS Carney, a guided missile destroyer deployed to the northern Red Sea. One of the cruise missiles was reportedly intercepted by a U.S.-supplied Patriot missile battery in Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Arab coalition that has fought since March 2015 to try to push the Houthis back to their historic northern Yemen redoubt. On October 27, the Houthis launched two armed drones that were downed or crashed in or near Egypt, including one that hit a building in the Red Sea town of Taba and injured six persons.

Houthi provocations have continued at a steady pace over the past two months. At the end of October, the Houthis fired a volley of ballistic and cruise missiles that were destroyed by Israel: a U.S.-made F-35 shot down the cruise missile, and the Arrow Weapons System, jointly developed by the United States and Israel, downed a Houthi ballistic missile apparently targeting the southern Israeli port city of Eilat. On November 8, the Houthis shot down a U.S. MQ-9 “Reaper” armed drone. On November 19, the Houthis hijacked a cargo ship in the Red Sea partially owned by an Israeli shipping magnate. After seizing the Bahamian-flagged Galaxy Leader and producing a slickly edited propaganda video out of the operation, the group issued a statement describing the hijacking as “a practical step that proves the seriousness of the Yemeni armed forces in waging the sea battle, regardless of its costs.” 25 crew members have been held hostage since the attack. The Houthis issued further threats against shipping in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a crucial chokepoint for the transit of energy exports, and have said that “all ships belonging to the Israeli enemy or deal with it will become legitimate targets.” Continued Houthi attacks against commercial shipping interests could have significant political and economic implications in addition to their security threat. Comments by shipping companies and insurance representatives suggest the threat could result in longer transit times to help assure vessel safety, as well as higher insurance premiums charged for shipping in the region. Washington will be watching the situation closely, especially with U.S. naval assets postured throughout the region.

U.S. Central Command released a statement this week noting that the USS Carney “show down an Iranian-produced KAS-04 unmanned aerial vehicle launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.” The statement went on to say, “Although its intentions are not known, the UAV was heading toward the warship. At the time of the shoot down, the USS Carney was escorting the USNS SUPPLY (Oiler) and another U.S. flagged and crewed ship carrying military equipment to the region. There were no injuries to U.S. personnel and no damage to U.S. vessels.” With the ongoing truce between Israel and Hamas, brokered by the U.S., Qatar, and Egypt, Iran’s proxies have also stepped back from conducting attacks, although the Houthis seem to be the most eager to continue the fight, along with Iraqi Shia militia groups. Reports yesterday suggest that U.S. airstrikes targeted a Houthi missile depot in Sanaa, demonstrating that the Biden administration will not sit by idly and will respond kinetically to continued strikes from any Iranian proxy group. Over the last several years, the Houthis have adhered strongly to anti-Israel ideology, and although the movement arguably has the most to lose should its actions provoke retaliation from the United States or lead U.S. officials to move away from diplomacy on a settlement in the Yemen conflict, it has continued to provoke the United States and Israel. Once the current ceasefire between Israel and Hamas expires, the expectation is that Iranian proxies will ramp up their attacks as well. In Yemen, the Houthis strong response has garnered support for the movement at a critical time, elevating hardliners within the organization. It also remains unclear if the benefits of designating the Houthis as an FTO will outweigh the potential costs. After all, the Houthi leadership does not travel outside of Yemen and owns no foreign assets to confiscate. An FTO designation would likely have a negative impact on non-governmental organizations attempting to provide humanitarian aid in Yemen, where it is desperately needed, and moreover, the designation may be celebrated by the Houthis as a badge of honor, further elevating the movement’s status. It also complicates U.S. diplomacy, especially for direct involvement by Washington. An FTO designation might push the Houthis to consider withdrawing altogether from peace talks to end the war in Yemen. There are also concerns that a designation might not have the deterrent effect intended and could instead result in further Houthi attacks on U.S. shipping, Israel, and commercial ships in the Bab el Mandeb. Nevertheless, given the Houthis’ growing sophistication in launching attacks, the Biden administration may feel compelled to designate the movement and begin moving to respond more aggressively to continued Houthi provocations throughout the region.

Source: The Soufan Center