The Trump administration classified the Houthi movement as a ‘foreign terrorist organisation’

Print edition : February 12, 2021

Outside the closed U.S. embassy in the capital, Sanaa, on January 18, supporters of the Houthi movement demonstrating against the U.S.’ decision to designate the Houthis a “foreign terrorist organisation”. Photo: Mohammed HUWAIS/AFP

Humanitarian aid provided by the World Food Programme in the northern province of Hajjah on January 12. Dennis Beasley, the head of the WFP, told the U.N. Security Council that the terror designation “amounted to a death sentence to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people in Yemen”. Photo: ESSA AHMED/AFP

At a makeshift camp for people who fled fighting between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government forces in the city of Taez, on January 18. Photo: AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP

The outgoing Trump administration classifies the Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organisation, unmindful of the ramifications of this on a population already reeling under the effects of the six-year-long war, devastating pandemics and a looming famine.

Less than a week before United States President Donald Trump demitted office, his administration was busy implementing its nefarious international agenda. After fulfilling Israel’s wish list for the West Asian region, the Trump administration announced in the second week of January that it was classifying the Houthi movement in Yemen, also known as the Ansar Allah (partisans of God), as a “foreign terrorist organisation”. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that new economic and travel sanctions on the Houthi-led government in Yemen would come into force from January 19, the day before Joseph Biden was sworn in as President. Pompeo claimed that the action was initiated “to advance efforts to achieve a peaceful, sovereign and united Yemen, that is both free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbours”.

According to the American political commentator Doug Bandow, Pompeo spent his last days in office committing political terrorism and “planting foreign policy landmines” to hinder the incoming administration. In the second week of January, the U.S. State Department redesignated Cuba as a state sponsor of terror. President Barack Obama’s administration lifted the dubious terror tag in 2015 as he sought to normalise relations with Havana. President Ronald Reagan’s administration was the first to impose the terror tag on Cuba. Since coming to office, Trump has reimposed many of the sanctions and travel restrictions that Obama had removed. The move on Cuba was done mainly to please Trump’s right-wing Latino vote bank in Florida.

The move on Yemen was done at the behest of the Saudis though Pompeo claimed it was part of the “maximum pressure” on Iran campaign. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the main architect of the war in Yemen, had right from the beginning of the Trump administration been pressuring it to categorise the Houthi movement as a “foreign terrorist organisation”. Pompeo was in Riyadh a month before the Crown Prince’s request was finally granted.

Also read: Missile attack on Saudi oil facilities: Game of drones

The U.S. has characterised the Houthi movement as a puppet of Iran. The Americans and the Saudis have claimed that the Houthi-led army was supplied with huge quantities of arms from Iran. Yemen has been under a tight air and sea blockade for the last six years, which makes it impossible for any large-scale smuggling of either arms or fighters. Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a senior member of the group, said that the terror designation of his organisation would only result in more “killing and spreading hunger”.

A spokesman for the incoming Biden administration said that the “terror” designation could be immediately reversed. The left wing in the Democratic Party has called on the Biden administration to make the ending of the war in Yemen a priority. When Biden was on the campaign trail, he had said that he would block arms supplies to the Saudi government and hold the Crown Prince responsible for the war in Yemen and the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi two years ago.

The U.S.’ hypocrisy

The scale of the U.S.’ hypocrisy is illustrated by the fact that the government has provided the Saudi-led military coalition arms and ammunition worth billions of dollars to virtually bomb Yemen into rubble. According to the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Armed Conflict Location and Event Project, more than a 100,000 Yemenis have died in the last five years, most of them civilians, as a result of the devastating war that has been imposed on them. The Ministry of Defence of the United Kingdom has admitted that the Saudi-led military forces have launched at least 516 air strikes against civilian targets. The real number of air strikes that violated international humanitarian law is said to be many times higher. The Saudi coalition forces, which use logistical aid and munitions provided by the U.S. and its allies, are estimated to have so far launched more than 275,000 air strikes on Yemen and have targeted factories, hospitals, food production centres and schools.

Also read: Humanitarian crisis in Yemen

In September last year, a report of the United Nations Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen stated that the U.S. and the U.K. could be held responsible for the breach of international humanitarian law, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for striking at civilian targets in Yemen. It concluded that “the parties to the conflict continue to show no regard for international law or the lives, dignity and rights of the people of Yemen, while third states have helped to perpetuate the conflict by continuing to supply the parties with weapons”. The most important “third state” is the U.S. Supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE had become one of the cornerstones of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.

The U.K. is the second biggest arms supplier to Saudi Arabia and the UAE after the U.S., having sold more than $10 billion’ worth in the last five years. The British Campaign Against Arms Trade, however, estimates that the real value of British arms sales exceeds $25 billion. France, Germany and other Western countries have also made a lot of money in weapons sales to the Saudis and the Emiratis. According to the U.N. and international aid agencies, the war has caused one of the worst humanitarian tragedies the world has witnessed in this century. More than 75,000 children have died from acute malnutrition. Three years ago, Yemen faced one of the worst cholera epidemics the world has seen, with more than 1.2 million people getting infected. Now the country is facing a raging COVID-19 pandemic, which according to the NGO Doctors Without Borders is sweeping across the war-ravaged country like “a desert storm”. There has been no accurate count of either those infected or the casualties, but according to reports the pandemic has affected nearly every family in the country. Without access to basic medical facilities, most of the patients have died suffocating in their own homes. The Saudi air force’s indiscriminate targeting of the primitive health facilities in the country has not helped matters.

Around 24 million of the country’s 28 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid; 3.6 million people are internally displaced. Even before the war started, Yemen was among the poorest countries in the world. The U.N. said that Yemen was on “a countdown to a catastrophe”. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said recently that Yemen “is now in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades”. Guterres requested “everyone” to avoid taking action that would make the existing situation worse. The Trump administration not only chose to ignore that plea but also gave short shrift to the U.N.’s request for the withdrawal of the terror designation of the Houthis. The U.N. said that the Trump administration’s move would effectively stop the distribution of emergency food aid to Yemen. Dennis Beasley, the head of the World Food Programme, which won the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, was even more blunt in his warning. He told the U.N. Security Council that the terror designation “amounted to a death sentence to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people in Yemen”. Yemen imports 90 per cent of its food requirements. The new sanctions will make it almost impossible for the country to meet its basic food requirements.

Also read: Yemen: The last straw

The terror tag will make it even more difficult for international agencies and financial institutions to deliver much needed humanitarian aid, including essential drugs and emergency medical help, to the beleaguered people of Yemen. Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks, Chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that that the terror designation “makes it harder to deliver life-saving assistance in a country already experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”. “The consequences will be felt acutely across a country also hit hard by extreme hunger, cholera and COVID-19, as banks, business and humanitarian donors become unable or unwilling to take on the risk of operating in Yemen,” said a statement from the charity group Oxfam.

David Miliband, chief executive officer of the International Rescue Committee, said that the U.S.’ action was “pure diplomatic vandalism”. He pointed out that the Trump administration’s move came after “four years of failed war strategy that has created the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe”. The last thing the people of Yemen wanted, Miliband said, “is a further interruption of aid and economic flows”. The U.N. Relief Agency said that mere rumours of an impending terror designation in November had reduced the availability of food supplies by 25 per cent.

Pompeo claimed that the U.S. would issue waivers for the flow of humanitarian aid and licences for the continuation “of certain humanitarian activities” in the Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. The U.S. media reported that the U.S. Treasury Department had opposed the “terrorist” designation on the grounds that issuing waivers would be difficult because of the situation on the ground created by the war.

While trying to justify the branding of the Houthis as a terrorist organisation, the lame-duck Secretary of State said that the group targeted civilian centres in cross-border attacks. The Houthis have insisted that they only targeted legitimate military targets across the border in Saudi Arabia in response to the Saudi-led military coalition’s continued attacks on civilian infrastructure and population centres in Yemen. Pompeo specifically mentioned the rocket attack on December 30 against the airport in Aden, the major port city in the south of Yemen.

Also read: ‘The end of the oil state era in West Asia is approaching fast’: Patrick Cockburn

An Emirati plane carrying members of a new Cabinet of the puppet “unity government” the Saudi-led alliance had installed was the target of the attack as it landed in Aden; 22 people were killed in the attack. None of the newly appointed Cabinet members were hurt. Those killed were airport workers and five employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Houthis were immediately blamed for the attack despite prompt denials from them. Now the Saudis are shifting the blame on the secessionist Southern Transitional Council, which the UAE backs, and have ordered the arrest of one of its senior leaders, Abdel Nasser al-Bawa.

The UAE virtually withdrew from the Saudi-led war last year and is instead helping the southern separatists in their breakaway bid. The separatists have been clashing with the forces of the Saudi-backed Yemeni government based in Aden. The Emiratis are reportedly building a base in the strategically located Yemeni island of Socotra and have made it out of bounds for Yemeni forces even those the Saudis back. Given the close security cooperation that exists today between the UAE and Israel, there is fear that Israel will use the island for intelligence-gathering purposes.

The Houthis are only fighting to keep the sovereignty of their country intact. Ever since Saudi Arabia launched its war on Yemen, moves have been afoot to partition the country once again. The UAE, which actively partnered the Saudis in the war for more than four years, is now busy financing and arming the separatists in the south. Meanwhile, genuine terror groupings such as Al Qaeda and the Daesh (Islamic State) are being allowed to proliferate in the parts of Yemen that were “liberated” from the control of the central government in the capital, Sanaa. Both the Daesh and Al Qaeda have been active in Aden.

The Houthi-dominated government remains firmly in control of Sanaa; Hudaydah, the country’s main port; and the most populated parts of Yemen. More than 70 per cent of the country’s population resides in territory the Houthis control. Despite the brutal U.S.-supported, Saudi-led war, the Houthis remain defiant and undefeated. The country, however, has been devastated almost beyond repair as a result of the six-year-old war. Hopefully, Trump’s departure will bring an end to the war and some tranquillity to the region.