February 17, 2022 | Policy Brief

Bipartisan Support Builds for Re-Designation of Iranian-Backed Houthis as a Terrorist Organization

February 17, 2022 | Policy Brief

Bipartisan Support Builds for Re-Designation of Iranian-Backed Houthis as a Terrorist Organization

Seventeen members of Congress from both sides of the aisle sent a letter last week to President Joe Biden requesting that he re-designate Yemen’s Iranian-supported Houthis, formally known as Ansar Allah, as a terrorist organization. Renewed sanctions on the Houthis could have a significant effect on their operational capabilities if aggressively implemented and enforced by the Biden administration.

In January 2021, the outgoing Trump administration designated Ansar Allah as both a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that if Ansar Allah “did not behave like a terrorist organization, we would not designate it as an FTO and SDGT.”

An FTO designation institutes a visa ban, requires U.S. banks to block the assets of the designated organization, and establishes a broad, extraterritorial application of criminal prohibitions on any U.S. person who provides the FTO with material support.

The SDGT authority enables the United States to target terrorist financiers who access the U.S. financial system. In 2019, the Trump administration strengthened and expanded the effect of an SDGT designation to include secondary sanctions on individuals or entities, including businesses, that allow an SDGT to use their services. Taken together, FTO and SDGT designations are two very potent tools of economic statecraft.

Upon taking office, Biden almost immediately reversed his predecessor’s decision to designate the Houthis, yet did not dispute that Ansar Allah’s conduct merited designation. Rather, Biden lifted the designations because of the putative risk that sanctions pose to the provision of humanitarian aid to Yemen. However, Ansar Allah has continued to engage in conduct that fits the respective statutory and administrative criteria for its re-designation as both an FTO and an SDGT.

In particular, Ansar Allah has repeatedly and deliberately targeted civilians, recently killing three in the United Arab Emirates. The group has threatened international shipping and attacked civil aviation facilities, including ones frequently utilized by U.S. citizens. Ansar Allah also continues to rely heavily on military and financial support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and has reportedly used the international financial system to facilitate the group’s malign behavior. These activities would qualify the Houthis for designation as an SDGT and FTO.

Thus, in addition to last week’s congressional letter, other lawmakers, including Democrats such as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, have expressed concern about Ansar Allah’s actions. In the face of this feedback, the administration now appears to be debating internally whether to reverse its delisting of the Houthis.

The United Nations and humanitarian groups have claimed that re-designating the Houthis would further aggravate Yemen’s humanitarian plight by making it less likely that aid organizations will be able to reach those in need. But there are ample administrative and statutory mechanisms to manage those risks and encourage the flow of humanitarian assistance to Yemen. For example, the Treasury Department and State Department could issue exemptions allowing humanitarian assistance to continue unobstructed, and both departments could streamline interagency processes to handle requests from aid groups.

The rescission of Ansar Allah’s FTO and SDGT designations — based not on a change in the group’s conduct but on a misapplication of U.S. humanitarian policy — was a mistake. The Biden administration should correct that mistake. If it refuses to do so, Congress should force the issue through appropriate legislation mandating the application of sanctions on the Houthis while promoting the free flow of humanitarian aid.

Matthew Zweig is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Iran Program and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Matthew, the Iran Program, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Matthew on Twitter @MatthewZweig1. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_Iran and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Gulf States Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Sanctions and Illicit Finance