America must put the Houthis back on the list of designated terror groups

America must put the Houthis back on the list of designated terror groups

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The Houthis kidnap Americans, rape and mutilate women, crack down on interfaith activists and routinely persecute minorities such as the Baha’i. They starve civilianshinder humanitarian aid access and use Iranian funds to acquire weapons and rockets.

It’s time for the U.S. to redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist group. The State Department just designated one person and three entities for facilitating Iranian financial support to the Houthis, but this is an insufficient and belated action, particularly as Iran continues to embolden its proxies to attack Israel and American interests in the region.

Labeling a group as “terrorist” in the U.S. results in consequences like freezing funds and prohibiting individuals from associating with or supporting the group. This designation also has global implications, potentially triggering criminal investigations and prioritizing asset freezes in other countries. 

Established in 1992 by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the Ansarullah (Supporters of Allah) movement is not a haphazard militia but a politically and socially organized extremist government ruling a section of Yemen. Their slogan, having no mention of their own domestic cause, unoriginally reads: “God is great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam.” This does not represent true Islam, but is as perverse a hijacking of religion as their recent physical takeover of ships in the Red Sea. 

The Houthi rebellion originated in 2014 with unresolved historical grievances over the political and economic marginalization of predominantly Zaidi Shia groups in Yemen and was exacerbated by the geopolitical power struggle between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. The rebellion turned a sociopolitical movement for representation into a highly effective and dangerous extremist group threatening the safety and welfare of civilians in both Yemen and the wider Gulf.

Over the course of several years, the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen endeavored to counter Houthi extremism. But the Houthis emerged as a formidable adversary due to, in part, the lack of tangible U.S. support for the war, media perception portraying Saudi Arabia as the oppressor, and American appeasement of Iran.

In the constantly evolving landscape of the current Israel-Hamas War, the Houthis have grown in confidence and influence, now proving to be, as the Saudi-led coalition has understood for years, a significant threat with wide implications. They leverage their control of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, to disrupt global trade. With their strategic geographic position, combined with tactics reminiscent of Hamas and Somalia’s Al Shabab, the Houthis turned saber-rattling into worldwide economic harm by attacking maritime shipping. These actions could lead to higher oil prices, increased commodity expenses and elevated inflation.

But why would a rebel group in Yemen threaten U.S. and global economic interests in the region?

The Houthis, supercharged by deep Iranian influence and sometimes direct control, long aspired to be a regional force with global reach and are simply capitalizing on pro-Palestinian sentiment to strengthen their influence both inside and outside of Yemen. Had they not seized the chance presented by the Hamas-Israel war, they would have sought another opportunity to extend their terrorist activities. In fact, on Oct. 2, U.S. Central Command naval forces intercepted and rerouted Iranian ammunition intended for the Houthis to Ukraine’s armed forces, indicating the Houthis’ preparations for an attack.

After successfully navigating an eight-year conflict against Saudi Arabia, the Houthis see themselves as major players in the Middle East. This perception was reinforced when the U.S. withdrew support for Saudi forces in Yemen and removed the Houthi group from its terrorist organization list under UN pressure and media scrutiny. Despite warnings from the UAE Embassy about the risks of this decision, the U.S. did not heed the concerns. The Houthis strengthened their control over Yemen, solidifying their position in the Middle East after America cut support for Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis are now focused on entrenching domestic control and developing new partnerships after the suspension of peace talks with Saudi Arabia in early October. The exploitation of pro-Palestinian sentiment became an unscrupulous but strategic ticket to establishing Houthi governance as a fait-accompli.By aligning themselves with “the cause,” the Houthis seek legitimacy in the Arab world — especially when many Arab governments face criticism for their perceived inaction in stopping the Gaza war.

Donning the cloak of the Palestinian cause could also provide the Houthis with a way to secure immunity from attacks by Saudi Arabia and its regional allies, at least in the short term. This may explain why not all countries who joined the U.S.-led international coalition aimed at curbing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, Operation Prosperity Guardian, have done so publicly. (Nonetheless, the coalition gaining public support from Bahrain may indicate tacit approval from Saudi Arabia).

The events of Oct. 7 underscore a critical lesson: Allowing radicals, particularly those with territorial control, to build offensive capacities poses significant risks. Similar to Israel’s conflict with Hamas, the Houthi threat must be addressed to ensure a more peaceful Middle East. In contrast to the substantial support given to American warships in the Mediterranean after Oct. 7, the Saudi coalition historically lacked such backing. This stance shifted only when the emerging global danger posed by the Houthis became apparent. 

After Operation Prosperity Guardian, the U.S. must reclassify the Houthis as a terrorist group. Not doing so suggests the U.S. is still uncertain about the global or even regional implications of the Houthi threat.

Eitan Charnoff is CEO of Potomac Strategy, a consultancy advising governments, NGOs and the private sector primarily on MENA region geopolitics, security and cooperation. Chama Mechtaly is an activist and policy advisor on peace-building and regional integration in MENA.

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