U.S. to designate Yemen’s Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization

Houthi promotional image for its 2019 fundraiser for Lebanon’s Hezbollah, featuring Abdul Malik al-Houthi (left) and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah.

The U.S. State Department announced earlier today that it intends to designate Yemen’s Houthi movement (also known as Ansarallah) as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).

This announcement came through a statement from Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, in which he noted that the department will also designate three of the top Houthi leaders as specially designated global terrorists.

Houthi leaders have previously been sanctioned by the U.S. government, however, this is the first time the movement itself will be considered an FTO.

Pompeo states that “these designations will provide additional tools to confront terrorist activity and terrorism by Ansarallah, a deadly Iran-backed militia group in the Gulf region.”

He goes on to also add that the designations “are intended to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.”

In addition to cross-border raids, the Houthis have been responsible for hundreds of drone and missile strikes inside Saudi Arabia as well as dozens of naval attacks on international shipping in the Red and Arabian Seas. Many of the weapons used in these assaults were supplied by Iran.

Pompeo also highlights the Houthis’ role in the devastation in Yemen and specifically brings attention to last month’s missile strike at Aden’s airport in which 27 people were killed.

In his statement, Pompeo also acknowledges the humanitarian concerns surrounding such a designation given Houthi control over much of the country. However, he argues that the U.S. will also implement several measures to mitigate these concerns on the ground.

The designations occur as the outgoing Trump administration seeks to continue its maximum pressure campaign against Iran before leaving office.

Pompeo specifically calls out Iran’s relationship to the Houthis in his statement and says that the Yemeni movement has embraced “the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism even more.”

Both the United States and the Houthis themselves have long shown the ties between the insurgent movement and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its network. The IRGC was itself designated as an FTO by the State Department last year.

Three Houthi leaders also designated

In addition to moving to designate the entirety of the Houthi movement as an FTO, Pompeo also announced that State also intends to designate three of the Houthis’ top leaders as global terrorists.

According to the statement, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim will be designated. Abd al-Khaliq al-Houthi and Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim were previously sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in late 2014. All three leaders are also sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council.

Abdul Malik al-Houthi is the overall leader of the Houthis, assuming leadership of the movement in 2004 and leading several subsequent uprisings inside Yemen.

Since seizing Sana’a and forcing former President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi from power in Jan. 2015, Abdul Malik al-Houthi has wielded significant influence across large swaths of Yemen.

He has also increased his movement’s public support for Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. On two occasions, al-Houthi has expressed his willingness to send fighters to Lebanon to take part in a future war with Israel.

His men have also openly fundraised for Hezbollah in territories they control while also openly meeting with Hezbollah leaders in Beirut.

Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, the youngest brother of Abdul Malik, is the military commander of the Houthi movement and leads its Republican Guards and special forces units.

He has previously led the Houthis in northern Yemen. As noted in his sanctions from both the U.S. and the U.N., Abd al-Khaliq “led a group of fighters dressed in Yemeni military uniforms in an attack on locations in Dimaj” in Yemen’s Sa’adah Governorate. He was also directly involved in the 2014 takeover of Sana’a.

Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim is often described as the ‘second-in-command’ of the Houthi movement, as well as its intelligence chief. Like Abd al-Khaliq, Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim (also known as Abu Ali al-Hakim), has played a significant military role.

The U.N. notes his involvement in the takeover of Sana’a and other areas of Yemen, while pro-Houthi sources continue to report on his involvement in Houthi military offensives.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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