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The US and the dilemma of ‘Houthi terrorism’

Hassan Abou Taleb

Published: Updated:

The Houthis have multiplied their missile and drone attacks on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which their military spokesman described as “sensitive and symbolic targets.” In parallel, calls for designating Houthis as a terrorist group and blacklisting the movement have risen within UN bodies and in many countries. In the US, such calls have been voiced in the Congress and on the media.

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In response to these calls, the White House said the re-designation is under consideration. Experts from the US State Department justify the blacklisting in that the movement does not respond to UN peace and cease-fire initiatives, nor to the initiatives proposed by the US itself in coordination with Oman. Furthermore, the Houthis have gone too far with their ties to Iran and its destabilizing efforts, and are escalating attacks on civilian targets like airports, oil production facilities, fuel depots, and residential areas. Washington customarily classifies all the above as terrorist acts, and subsequently imposes sanctions on their perpetrator, restricts communication channels with them, fights them at the international scene, and imposes an embargo on all kinds of resources headed their way.

Those who support this view believe this step should be taken immediately, as an obligatory correction of the decision taken by President Biden a few days after assuming office to remove the movement from the list in order to facilitate US communication with the Houthis and encourage them to engage in peaceful efforts. However, this removal soon proved counterproductive, which is why a corrective step is a must.

Another viewpoint supports what it believes to be practical developments. This perspective does not ignore Houthi behaviors and dangers, but it believes that blacklisting the Houthis will cast its shadows on any potential communication in the future between the two sides and limit the US role in prospective political settlements, not to mention that it could give the movement leaders more influence and encourage them to further destabilize the region.

As a middle ground, the defenders of this perspective favor a US approach that provides additional support to affected allies, exerts more political and moral pressures on the movement to stop its dangerous practices, and endeavors further to surround maritime and land routes and ports through which Iranian missile and drone components reach the Houthis’ areas of control, in order to limit their ability to harm allies to the extent possible.

Yemeni fighters loyal to the Iran-backed Houthis raise their weapons during a rally in the capital Sanaa, on May 20, 2021. (AFP)
Yemeni fighters loyal to the Iran-backed Houthis raise their weapons during a rally in the capital Sanaa, on May 20, 2021. (AFP)

Those who promote this viewpoint prefer for Washington to keep threatening to blacklist the movement until the nuclear talks with Tehran come to an end, as this would be the best timing to take the final decision while keeping various and gradually intense options open.

That the Biden administration is weighing the reinstatement of Houthis on the terror blacklist clearly means that it is trying to decide between the two viewpoints dividing the State Department, intelligence agencies, and the National Security Council. Therefore, things could take a while.

It is widely known that the mere instatement of a party, be it a person, institution, country, or organization, on the US terror blacklist could have direct effects on the positions of many states and international institutions that normally fall in line with the US position and abide by its sanctions for fear of falling victim to US sanctions in turn.

It is also widely known that the inclusion of an entity in the US List of State Sponsors of Terrorism is endorsed through either a law or a presidential decision. The former is usually more powerful, as it requires law enforcement institutions to show no leniency in implementing the relevant sanctions and forbids removal from the list unless certain conditions are met.

Furthermore, both the State Department and the Treasury must submit periodic reports to Congress to ensure the law is being implemented firmly. Should circumstances change and justified reasons to remove the entity from the blacklist arise, the State Department must present lawmakers with solid justifications for the removal and the texts upon which the decision is based.

For instance, Sudan was only removed from the List of State Sponsors of Terrorism after 25 years, when Omar al-Bashir’s regime fell. Washington’s step came last March in support of the political shift in Sudan toward a new political system that approaches international and reginal relations differently. This removal from the list was coupled with a US court settlement that forced the Sudanese Government to pay $335 million in damages to those affected from a terror act attributed to al-Qaeda. The act in question is the twin US embassy bombing in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, when the leader of al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden was taking refuge in his Sudanese safe haven under Bashir’s regime.

The Sudanese case shows that the removal of entities, particularly states and large entities, from Washington’s terrorism sponsorship list requires radical changes in the behavior of the entity in question, as well as tons of funds.

In this vein, a key question remains regarding the Houthis’ instatement on the terror sponsor list: what conditions must be fulfilled to de-list the movement at a subsequent stage? And before we get there, would the Houthis be interested in having their name removed in the first place, and will they be keen to keep the channels of communication with Washington open? Moreover, to what extent is the Houthi decision independent from Iran’s influence?

The Houthis’ previous decisions and their ideological beliefs make it hard to reach a definitive answer to these logical questions, or rather political and practical dilemmas. However, we are inclined to conclude that the Houthis do not care much for international positions toward them and are hardly concerned with who labels them as a terrorist organization, who prefers to wait before taking such a stance, and who ignores the whole thing entirely. All the Houthis care about is complete control and authority over Yemen and its people, especially in the so-called North Yemen, which they consider to be an exclusive legacy of the rule of Hashemite imams to which they are the most entitled.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, Egyptian newspaper al-Watan.

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