Foreign Terror Designation of Houthis Removed by U.S., Citing Humanitarian Concerns

The U.S. will continue to monitor the activity of the Houthis and their leaders, officials said

A Houthi demonstration against the U.S. foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation held last month in Raymah governorate, Yemen. (Source: Al-Masirah social media)

By Samuel Rubenfeld

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The U.S. State Department formally revoked the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, reversing a decision implemented on the final full day of the Trump administration.

The revocation, effective Tuesday, follows an announcement by President Joe Biden earlier this month to end U.S. support for offensive operations by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition that is fighting a war against the Houthis, who are backed by Iran and control territory on which 80 percent of Yemen’s civilian population lives. The revocation also followed a departmental review of the designation and other U.S. sanctions programs announced shortly after Biden took office. 

In addition to revoking the FTO designation, the department also lifted terrorism sanctions imposed on Houthi leaders. However, the Houthi leaders remain designated under another U.S. sanctions program listing those undermining peace and stability in Yemen.

The U.S. Treasury Department had issued a general license and other guidance to mitigate the effects of the FTO designation during the course of the review. On Tuesday, as part of the revocation process, the Treasury withdrew the license and related guidance.

The revocation is a recognition of the humanitarian situation on the ground, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Friday, pointing to warnings about potential problems for aid to reach the Yemeni people. 

The U.S. will continue to monitor the activity of the Houthis and their leaders, Blinken said, adding that officials are “actively identifying additional targets for designation,” including those responsible for attacks against Saudi Arabia and commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The U.S. will also continue to implement United Nations sanctions on Houthi members, call attention to the group’s destabilizing activity and apply pressure to change the group’s behavior, Blinken said.

The Houthis, however, have escalated their attacks in recent days, claiming responsibility last week for an attack on an airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia that caused a civilian aircraft to catch fire; no one was hurt, the Associated Press reported. On Tuesday, the State Department  called for the Houthis to halt an advance on Marib, a city controlled by the internationally recognized government where about 1 million Yemenis have sought refuge amid the war. The U.N. humanitarian relief chief has also expressed concern about the escalation in Marib.

Abdullah al-Hakim, a Houthi leader, speaks about recent Houthi advances in Marib. He was delisted under counterterrorism authorities, but remains sanctioned by the U.S. under its program on Yemen. (Source: Houthi social media)

The attacks reflect a continuing trend seen by a U.N. panel of experts, according to a report issued late last month. The Houthis have used a combination of missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to attack Saudi Arabia, the report said. 

Beyond the attacks on Saudi interests, the U.N. panel found that the political proximity between the Houthis and Iran is growing more apparent. 

Prominent billboards in Sana’a went up honoring Iranian leaders, according to the U.N. report. High-ranking Houthi leaders have said they are part of Iran’s “axis of resistance,” and an “increasing body of evidence” suggests that Iran is supplying “significant volumes of weapons and components to the Houthis,” the report said.

Iran told the U.N. panel it doesn’t export arms to Yemen, according to the report.

One of the continuing investigations by the U.N. panel concerned the supply chain of component parts of a Quds-1 cruise missile, including pressure transmitters produced by a German firm. Iran-based Sepahan Electric and the Turkish company LONCA Paz. Mak. San. Tic. A.S. sent the transmitters to unknown end users, the U.N. report said. Both the Iranian and Turkish companies are part of the German firm’s worldwide distribution network, according to its website.

The U.N. panel also tracked the supply chain of an ignition coil produced by a Swedish firm found in a Houthi UAV; the coil was shipped from an Indian company to Iran-based Toseeh Tejarat Dasht Persian Co. before reaching an unknown end-user, the report said. The Indian firm says on its website that it sells and exports agricultural commodities, such as rice and spices. 

In addition, the U.N. report raised questions about the ability for badly needed aid to reach the Yemeni people. Yemen is suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 233,000 dead amid the conflict, about half of which are from indirect causes such as lack of food and health services, according to the U.N. humanitarian office. And the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded Yemen’s myriad problems, PBS Frontline reported.

The panel “continues to investigate” whether a humanitarian council created by the Supreme Political Council, the Houthi governing body, “is a front for collecting assistance that may be diverted to the Houthi war effort,” the report said. The council issued numerous orders in 2020, some of which are contradictory and have impeded humanitarian work, according to the report.

The Supreme Council for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Cooperation (SCMCHA), established in November 2019 by a Houthi decree, was a merger of the humanitarian aid and disaster recovery office with part of the ministry of planning, according to the U.N report. The merger established SCMCHA as one of the most powerful entities in Houthi-controlled areas because it concentrated wide powers into one body; combined political, financial and intelligence powers into an ostensibly humanitarian entity; and provided that entity with sole responsibility to supervise one of the largest financial inflows into Yemen, the report said.

SCMCHA is “perhaps the only recently-created entity that has such a high concentration of high-ranking and influential personalities on its board,” according to the U.N. report. 

Earlier this month, SCMCHA’s secretary general met with representatives from international aid and development organizations, including Germany’s reconstruction bank, according to an SCMCHA post on social media. SCMCHA also supervises projects conducted by international and domestic aid organizations, which include the distribution of water tanks, food relief, and health packages for internally displaced populations, according to banners of the projects posted on the organization’s social media accounts.

A banner shows the December 2020 completion of an SCMCHA water tank distribution project. (Source: SCMCHA social media)

Ahmed Mohammed Yahyah Hamid, SCMCHA’s chairman and head, is “possibly the most powerful Houthi civilian leader not bearing the name al-Houthi,” the report said. Hamid is a high-level Houthi official, having served as an information minister and as head of various Houthi information offices, according to a bio from the Information Ministry’s website. 

In his role at SCMCHA, Hamid “incurs responsibility” for the body’s activities; there are 17 members of the board, five of whom have engaged in acts of intimidation and direct threats issued against humanitarians, as well as obstructions of aid-related work, according to the U.N. 

An analyst from the Counterterrorism/Middle East team contributed to this report.