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As President Trump’s stay in the White House winds down, the series of misguided terrorist designation decisions his foreign policy team have made, especially those related to Iran, look to continue unabated. According to November 16, 2020 Foreign Policy Magazine reporting, the Department of State will soon add the Houthis to the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). The Houthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah, was founded in the 1990s and has vied for influence in Yemen against Saudi Arabia and its proxies. The movement gained power in 2014-2015 and has taken on a dominant role in Yemen, especially in northern and western portions of the country.
The war in Yemen is a messy battle by proxy, pitting the Iranians and Houthis on one side, fighting against a coalition of UAE and Saudi forces on the other. In the middle: the Yemeni civilian population suffering from a famine while also facing indiscriminate death from Saudi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iranian, and Houthi bombs and bullets.
The United States is also culpable for the death in Yemen. The Trump Administration has doubled down in supporting the Saudi/UAE coalition by supplying arms to the Saudis (with another mega arms deal to the UAE hanging in the balance), despite congressional objection.
While the Houthis are infamous for their anti-US and anti-Semitic slogan, material support from Iran, and carrying out acts of violence that may meet the legal criteria for FTO listing, affixing the terrorist label to the Houthis would result in no gains and many negative consequences.
First, the FTO designation of the Houthis may contribute to the famine in Yemen. On November 20, 2020, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Gutteres said, “Yemen is now in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen in decades.” The Secretary General’s concerns come on the heels of intense lobbying against the Trump Administration’s proposed action. On November 16, according to Foreign Policy Magazine, the UN began the process of relocating American workers engaged in relief efforts on behalf of the UN due to perceived legal risk if aid delivery is diverted to the Houthis.
An important consequence of any FTO designation is that it criminalizes material support provided to sanctioned groups. Since the inception of the FTO list, the non-governmental community and other government related humanitarian aid providers have raised concerns about FTO designations in areas in which they have delivered critical life saving aid. In the case of Yemen, the concern among the humanitarian community is that the United States government may pursue criminal prosecutions against the aid workers who were involved in the diversion of aid to the Houthis – even if the diversion was inadvertent. While there is no case law of a legitimate aid worker being prosecuted for forcibly diverting aid to a designated FTO; the fact is the provision of humanitarian aid in areas where FTOs operate is not without legal risk. In the past, the United States government, specifically the State and Justice Departments, have been reluctant to issue waivers that would immunize the aid community from possible material support charges. The absence of such a waiver creates an environment of ambiguity in which legal counsel for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will urge their workers to adopt a cautious approach to aid-delivery – often resulting in organizations pulling out of zones where humanitarian aid could end up in the hands of designated terrorists.
Second, if the State Department designates the Houthis as a terrorist group, the U.S. Treasury Department could issue a general license to make the operating environment more permissible for aid delivery. However, the processing of a license, as I noted to the Washington Post recently, can be time consuming. Nor is it likely to satisfy all NGOs operating in Yemen, many of whom would like to receive iron-clad protection from FTO prosecution. No matter the final U.S. decision on licensing and waivers related to the impending Houthi designation, only one thing is clear: the job of staving off the world’s worst humanitarian disaster will be unnecessarily complicated by a terrorist designation that lacks efficacy.
Third, the U.S. FTO designation of the Houthis will damage the chances of reaching a diplomatic agreement between the warring parties (Saudis/UAE vs. Iran/Houthis). Slapping the FTO label on the Houthis and calling it a terrorist group will, at least in the short-term, destroy chances of bringing the group to the negotiating table. While UN efforts to create traction between the warring parties has sputtered, the FTO designation will completely upend the peace process. In fact, reports indicate the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, German and Swedish governments requested that the U.S. government reconsider the Houthi FTO designation.
Fourth, once a group is designated as an FTO it can take years to rescind a group’s listing. It takes years, as I recently wrote in Foreign Policy, to remove even defunct groups from U.S. terrorist lists, much less a group like the Houthis that effectively runs Yemen and is allied with Iran. There are three pathways to delist FTOs – all of which come with their own set of challenges. First, the Department of State is legally required to remove a group from the FTO list if there has been a ‘change of circumstances’ since its listing (or in the course of its five-year review). This is the most common pathway for delisting groups but in practice only defunct organizations, like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and Algeria-based Armed Islamic Group, have been removed using this approach.
The second pathway is a Secretary of State determination that an FTO delisting would be in U.S. national security interests to pursue. Using this pathway could imply the United States sees that a working relationship with the listed FTO could be possible. In practice, this pathway has never been used for an FTO delisting. The third pathway for an FTO delisting is discretionary. The Secretary of State could delist any FTO based on a discretionary decision. This delisting pathway has only been used once when Secretary of State Clinton removed the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) from the FTO list. In this case, the decision to remove the MEK from the FTO list was based on a desire to resolve a humanitarian situation where remaining members of the MEK were being bombarded in Camp Ashraf, Iraq, by the Iranian government. That, coupled with the fact that the Iraqi government considered the MEK interlopers prompted the State Department to remove the MEK from the FTO list so the remaining members of the group could be relocated to Albania where they would largely be beyond the reach of the Iranian government.
Fifth, the Houthis are not an especially ideal candidate for FTO delisting under any of these three scenarios with only a discretionary decision being viable. The sanctioning of the Houthis, however, is in fitting with President Trump’s determination to box in the Biden Administration from the start in Iran. The Trump team desire to pursue “a flood” of sanctions against Iran, however, is unlikely to achieve any meaningful national security objective. Heretofore, Trump’s maximum pressure sanctions campaign against Iran has failed — the best metric of the policy failure came in mid-November when the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium has significantly increased under President Trump’s watch. The Trump Administration’s contorted sanction policies, like that of the impending Houthi designation, will be difficult for the Biden team to unwind.
Boxing in the Biden team on Iran, of course, is the primary point. In pursuing these empty designations, the Trump team is trying to create an atmosphere where the impending Biden administration will need to think twice before delisting Iranian linked groups like the Houthis because doing so may make it more challenging to work with what it appears will be a Republican controlled Senate. The Trump team’s bet is that Biden, especially early on, will not risk looking weak on Iran when his political hold in Washington is so tenuous, especially when he will need the Republican Senate to support his domestic policies. It is a cynical and poorly timed move, but in keeping with the Trump Administration’s preference for theatrics over the pursuit of substantive policies.
If the Houthi FTO designation netted positive outcomes and was appropriately timed (not during an epochal famine), the logic behind pursuing the initiative may be worthwhile. However, that would require the tangible benefits of the designation – preventing abuse of the formal financial system by bad actors and the prosecution of nefarious (not legitimate aid workers) individuals for providing material support to the designated FTO – to be likely. In the case of the Houthis, it seems highly unlikely that the entity has accounts open with the Bank of America. Nor has there been any evidence of U.S. citizens conspiring to provide material support to the Houthis in Yemen.
The Houthi FTO designation will represent one of the final examples of Trump’s foreign policy legacy – an indifference to human suffering. The designation’s many negative effects are overwhelming and pursuing it during a war and famine is a tragedy.
Jason M. Blazakis is Professor of Practice at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS), where he also serves as the Director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC). He is also a Senior Fellow at the Soufan Center. You can follow him on Twitter @jason_blazakis.