Biden admin missing mark as it redesignates Iran-backed Houthis to terror list, critics say

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The Biden administration’s decision to redesignate Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis as a terrorist group still misses the mark and undermines the point of the designation, an expert told Fox News Digital. 

“This is a bait and switch,” said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former National Security Council official. “Get the media to write that they’re relisting the Houthis as a terrorist group while obscuring their decision not to relist the group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).”

“They know FTO status would put maximalist pressure on the Houthis, which is why they won’t do it,” Goldberg explained. “Why avoid FTO? It’s the same reason they delisted in the first place.”

“They want the Houthis legitimized enough to be a part of the governing structure in Yemen,” he said. “They’ll issue all kinds of OFAC licenses to mitigate the SDGT designation, which they couldn’t do with an FTO designation.”

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The Biden administration announced that it would relist the Houthis as a terrorist group on Wednesday by adding them to the specially designated global terrorist (SDGT) list in response to the repeated Houthi attacks on international trading ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

The administration called the attacks “a clear example of terrorism and a violation of international law” as well as “a major threat to life, global commerce and … the delivery of humanitarian assistance.”

The Houthi attacks on commercial ships have not stopped even after the U.S. and the United Kingdom launched strikes against Houthi assets in Yemen. The group said the attacks served as a response to Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. 

The Trump administration in January 2021 designated the Houthis as an FTO after an attack on the airport in Aden, Yemen – the oldest airport on the Arabian Peninsula. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said of the designation that if the Houthis “did not act like a terrorist organization, we would not designate it as an FTO.”

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Upon replacing Pompeo the following month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that he would reverse the decision and revoke the designation of Ansarallah, “sometimes referred to as the Houthis,” as an FTO, citing a “dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.”

“We have listened to warnings from the United Nations, humanitarian groups and bipartisan members of Congress, among others, that the designations could have a devastating impact on Yemenis’ access to basic commodities like food and fuel,” Blinken said of his decision at the time.

Yemeni Coast Guard boats

“The revocations are intended to ensure that relevant U.S. policies do not impede assistance to those already suffering what has been called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” he added. “By focusing on alleviating the humanitarian situation in Yemen, we hope the Yemeni parties can also focus on engaging in dialogue.”

The U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued a press release Wednesday, saying that the department would provide several counterterrorism general licenses following the Houthi change in status. 

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Helicopter approaching the vessel

These licenses, which allow for certain actions in exception to the sanctions that were implemented as part of the terrorist designation, relate to “the provision of agricultural commodities, medicine, medical devices, replacement parts and components or software updates,” “telecommunications mail and certain internet-based communications,” “personal remittances” and “refined petroleum products,” among others.

Goldberg noted that the Biden administration early in its tenure tried to similarly move Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the FTO to SDGT lists, but the move fell through when Congress blocked the effort.

Posters of Qassem Suleimani, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Mahdi al-Mashat in Sanaa

“Rob Malley was spinning that removing the IRGC from the FTO list wouldn’t matter because it would remain an SDGT, but Congress pushed back hard, knowing the political and economic relief that would come from such a move,” Goldberg said. “Biden had to back down, and the IRGC remains an FTO today.”

On a background call about the decision, senior administration officials argued that the designation was “the appropriate tool at the moment to pressure the Houthis.”

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“As with all sanctions, we are looking to make sure that our sanctions are effective in putting pressure on an actor to cease activity that … is problematic to achieve the foreign policy goals,” one official said. “We think the SDGT does that in a number of ways, including cutting off Houthis from financing, putting pressure on them and calling out their terrorist behavior in a clear manner.”

“Where we’ve come to is, I think we do think that the SDGT provides better flexibility to achieve the aims that we have in terms of carving out and safeguarding humanitarian assistance, as well as the broader well-being of the people of Yemen, and targeting the action towards the Houthis while still achieving our foreign policy aims, which is to call out the Houthis’ actions for what they are, which is unacceptable terrorism,” the official added. Another official on the call said the administration would “continue to calibrate its response accordingly, if we choose to do so.”

Aircraft takes off to conduct strikes on Yemen's Houthis

When pressed as to why the administration didn’t try to create similar carve-outs instead of delisting the group in the first place, the officials insisted that to revoke the terrorist designations in 2021 was “the correct step” and that “there are a couple of things that have changed in the situation at this moment,” chiefly the shipping of “crucial goods” to Yemen. Any action beyond the SDGT designation would potentially “set back the humanitarian situation” in Yemen.

The decision to relist the Houthis as terrorists – but not on the FTO list – has already faced criticism from some congressional members.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner, R-Ohio, slammed the administration for removing the Houthis from the FTO list in the first place and for using the SDGT designation, which he said “avoids taking any real action.”

 

Houthi terrorist designation

“It’s time to lead and protect and call [the Houthis] what they are – a Foreign Terrorist Organization,” Turner wrote in a statement that was published after the Biden administration’s announcement.

The State Department did not respond to a Fox News Digital request for comment by time of publication.

Fox News Digital’s Chris Pandolfo contributed to this report.

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