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US designating the Houthis as a terrorist group – too little too late 

  • Mahmoud Shehrah

    Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

    زميل مشارك، برنامج الشرق الأوسط و شمال افريقيا, تشاتام هاوس

Houthi attacks on vessels in the Red Sea have prompted European countries to form coalitions to protect maritime shipping, effectively leading to the militarization of one of the most important trade routes in the world. But if history teaches us one thing about the Houthis, it is that the group does not respond to half-made threats or to ‘playing nice’. Therefore, retaliatory actions such as the recent airstrikes launched by the US and the UK in Yemen, and Washington’s designation of the Houthis as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT) are too little, too late. These measures will not change the group’s behaviour, nor will they be sufficient to deter future attacks. Stronger action by the international community is needed to achieve these goals. It is crucial for international policymakers to implement rigorous coordination measures, enforce further sanctions, and pursue a holistic strategy focused on altering behaviour, ultimately pushing the Houthis to commit to peace.

In December 2018, the Houthis faced significant military pressure from Yemeni government forces located in the vicinity of the port city of Hudaydah on the Red Sea. After months of refusing to send a delegation to negotiate through the UN-led mediation efforts, the group finally agreed to attend peace talks in Sweden. They agreed to share Hudaydah Port’s revenues with the Yemeni government, allow for the opening of roads in Taiz, and comply with other de-escalatory measures. However, after gaining the upper hand on the battlefield in Hudaydah, the Houthis backtracked on previously made commitments within the agreement sealed under UN auspices.

While the US and UK airstrikes on Houthi targets are not expected to be a game-changer, other military actions may be possible to alter the group’s behaviour and restore security in the Red Sea. Importantly, any military plan will require regional allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to share intelligence, coordinate military action, and exert political pressure on the Houthis. It is also imperative to coordinate with and support Yemeni government forces who are better placed to pressure the Houthis on the ground.

Additionally, strict inspection protocols are necessary for ships heading to ports controlled by the Houthis to prevent Iranian weapons from reaching Yemen. The Houthis import spare parts that are assembled in workshops supervised by Iranian experts in areas under Houthi control and strengthening inspection protocols can help prevent weapons smuggling from Iran. At the same time, the EU, US, UK and other actors should exert pressure on Tehran to stop sending weapons to the Houthis. It is also imperative to only allow the passage of food and fuel, as other non-military imports, such as tobacco, can be monetized by the group, further fuelling the conflict.

A further measure the international community should consider is the imposition of coordinated ‘red lines’ to prevent Houthi diversion of humanitarian aid from its intendent recipients, which constitutes a violation of humanitarian principles. Over years of civil conflict, the Houthis have allowed aid to be delivered to their supporters’ families and deprived those who do not submit to their ideological doctrines from receiving it – even refusing to implement a biometric identification system for World Food Programme (WFP) food aid distribution in their controlled areas. It was not until WFP temporarily froze its activities in areas under Houthi control in northern Yemen that the group started to let UN and other aid organizations act with a certain level of independence.

Pressure on the Houthis does work when it is not half-serious or inconsistent. In the last days of his administration in 2021, US president Donald Trump designated the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). In those days, I was the liaison between the Yemeni government and the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen. I had not seen the Houthis acting in such a cooperative and compromising manner as during the weeks the Trump administration maintained the designation. During this time, hundreds of Yemenis who had been arbitrarily detained and held by the Houthis without charges were released. When US president Joe Biden later lifted the designation, in part due to pressure from humanitarian organizations, the Houthis immediately reinstated their former practices and began new military operations across Yemen. In the days after the designation was withdrawn, Houthi leaders even stopped answering phone calls from UN officials.

Sanctions should not be limited to specific Houthi leaders, as was the case with the recent package issued by the UK. Instead, they should be directed at the group as whole and target Houthi financial networks and investments in countries like Oman, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and others. Sanction packages should also aim to weaken Houthi business interests in fuel and money exchange networks, which have been expanding and are therefore vulnerable to pressure.

The European Union should likewise consider sanctions and a formal designation of the Houthis as EU member states and businesses are also being affected by the lack of security in the Red Sea.

The international community overall has an interest in pushing back against the Houthi threat to Red Sea shipping, given its ramifications for the global economy and the humanitarian situation in Yemen. If international policymakers do not act now and firmly, they will continue to send the wrong signals to the Houthis – that they can obstruct world trade and get away with it. Hence, to push for peace in Yemen and the security of the Red Sea, Houthis must be hit hard – and it must happen fast. There is a need for stricter action that goes above and beyond the current, insufficient half-acts.

Mahmoud Shehrah is an Associate Fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House focusing on Yemen.

X: @shehrah_mahmoud