How the Houthis became 'terrorists' for three weeks - analysis

US flip-flop on terror designations underpins the problem with political decisions impacting counter-terror strategy.

A Houthi security officer reacts at the site of an air strike launched by the Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa, Yemen May 16, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AL-SAYAGHI)
A Houthi security officer reacts at the site of an air strike launched by the Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa, Yemen May 16, 2019
The US decision to remove the Houthis in Yemen from the list of foreign terrorist organizations reflects yet another roller coaster in US foreign policy.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others pushed to label the Houthis “terrorists” in the last days of the Trump administration. The announcement was made on January 10 and took effect on January 19, the day before the administration left office.
On February 5, reports said the Biden administration would revoke the decision. The Houthis were therefore “terrorists” for just a few weeks.
The Houthis, known as Ansar Allah, are an Iranian-backed rebel group in Yemen. They have used missiles and drones to attack Saudi Arabia and also civilians in Yemen. Because the definition of “terrorism” is often political, with peaceful groups like Kurds in Afrin called “terrorists” by NATO-member Turkey, it is not always clear today what constitutes “terrorism.”
The US has a robust list of groups and individuals designated terrorists over the years. However, administrations often change those that they target.
The Trump administration sought to target Iranian-backed groups with these designations; other administrations have targeted al-Qaeda-linked groups. The US may be fighting the Taliban and terrorists one day and then looking to make peace with them the next.
This lack of clarity stands behind the flip-flop on the Houthis and calls into question the overall Western parlance when it comes to “terrorism.” Designating groups as being “terrorist” has been used by countries such as Turkey as justification to invade, bomb, ethnically cleanse and target civilians under the guise of “fighting terrorism.”
WHEN IT came to the Houthis, things were more complex. They are openly a movement of hate. Their slogan is “death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews.” It is also a rebel movement based in the mountains of Yemen that draws strength from historic divisions in the country.
In 2015, as the Houthis rose from the chaos and conflict in Yemen, they threatened to take Aden and give Iran a strategic perch at the Bab al-Mandab Strait. Saudi Arabia led an intervention. The fighting has dragged on, and there has been a famine and concerns over human-rights abuses.
The Houthis are not the only alleged terrorist group in Yemen. For many years, al-Qaeda was active there, and men such as Anwar Awlaki operated there until US drone strikes ended their lives. The US has had a long-term role in Yemen’s instability. Al-Qaeda targeted the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen prior to 9/11.
The UN special envoy for Yemen opposed Washington’s designation of the Houthis as terrorist in early January. The Trump administration, like in most things, did not consult with others, create a consensus or try to build support. Because the administration often governed through executive orders, there was no attempt to consult with European or other allies about the Houthis.
The arbitrary nature of labeling them as terrorists paved the way for them to be removed from the list. The US administration likely knew this, but Pompeo’s agenda was to let a series of decisions drop right before the end of the administration to either box in or force the Biden administration to walk them back.
THE STATE Department website says: “Executive Order 13224 gives the U.S. Government a powerful tool to impede terrorist funding and is part of our national commitment to lead the international effort to bring a halt to the evil of terrorist activity. In general terms, the Order provides a means by which to disrupt the financial support network for terrorists and terrorist organizations by authorizing the U.S. government to designate and block the assets of foreign individuals and entities that commit, or pose a significant risk of committing, acts of terrorism.”
The website includes a list of press releases on designations. But that list begins with the new administration, and the “archived” list from 2017 to 2021 goes to a link that doesn’t work. This illustrates how the US list of organizations and press releases lacks clear continuity and is overly political.
There are no press releases at the new link. America is the most powerful country in the world, but its State Department can’t bother to maintain a clear list of press releases on foreign terrorist organizations.  
The State Department does maintain a list of designated organizations with dates that were added or removed. But it does not have links to say why the organizations were put on the list or what criteria they met. This is because the US does not explain why it has labeled one group or another as “terrorists” or what they did to get on the list.
Of the groups that were designated and then removed, there are those designated from 1997, such as the Tupac Amaru movement until 2001, the Khmer Rouge until 1999, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine – Hawatmeh Faction until 1999, the GIA until 2010, the Mujahdein-e Khalq until 2012 and Abu Nidal until 2017. The Trump administration also added Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the IRGC between 2019 and 2020.
On Friday, the US said it would revoke the designation for the Houthis. “Our action is due entirely to the humanitarian consequences of this last-minute designation from the prior administration, which the United Nations and humanitarian organizations have since made clear would accelerate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” an official said.
THE ISSUE of humanitarian aid and needing to have it go through or into areas controlled by a “terrorist” group is one of the problems inherent in the US concept of designating some groups as such. It is unclear why America does not simply have an exception for humanitarian aid. Rather than making an exception so that civilians living under a terrorist group’s control can get aid, the US rather handedly tends to lurch back and forth.
On the side of not having groups labeled “terrorists” are those who advise “engaging” with them rather than blacklisting them and empowering “hard-liners.” Under this logic, it is better to talk with these groups than make it impossible to do so.
The US does not negotiate with or deal with “terrorists.” The logic of “engagement” has tended to cement in place and legitimize these groups, enabling Hamas, Hezbollah or the Houthis to become de facto rulers of terrorist statelets.
On the other side, those who seek to label them as terrorists tend to do so for reasons that also have no positive outcome. For instance, blacklisting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was done largely at the behest of Turkey in 1997 and has given Ankara impunity to massacre Kurds and crush dissent under the guise of “fighting terrorism.” Ankara invaded Afrin in 2018, claiming to “fight terrorism” and then ethnically cleansed 170,000 civilians.
Totalitarian regimes, from Hitler to Stalin, also conjured up various excuses about how they were fighting various bogeymen to excuse wanton human-rights abuses.
Today, Turkey’s authoritarian regime calls student protesters and journalists “terrorists” and has removed opposition mayors. In this sense, the “war on terror” often becomes Orwellian, with peaceful people who never put their hands on a weapon called “terrorists,” while regimes such as Ankara back far-right extremists who actually terrorize civilians.
The roller-coaster ride with the Houthis betrays any real discussion about the group’s methods. The Houthis do terrorize civilians and use missiles and drones to attack other states and the government of Yemen.
The criteria for designating “terrorists” no longer appear to be about their methods. They don’t need to target civilians or blow up buses to be “terrorists.” Groups that never target civilians can be called “terrorists,” while groups that ethnically cleanse and massacre are not.
This lack of clarity unsurprisingly means that this becomes more a political tool than one that has a clear criteria and logic, and US administrations need to show cause and go through some rigorous court rulings to determine who is a terrorist and who is not.
The flip-flop of calling Houthis “terrorists” one week and then not the next will make many groups assume that all they need to do is wait for a new administration in Washington to get their enemies labeled “terrorists.” Turkey has played this game with Washington already; other states will likely learn the trade.