The United States will designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist group, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday, a late-term move that aid groups fear will worsen a humanitarian crisis.
With just 10 days left before US President-elect Joe Biden takes office, the action appeared aimed at complicating the new administration’s efforts to restart diplomacy with Iran, which has ties to the Houthis and other terror groups in the region, and to reassess the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has led a brutal offensive in Yemen.
“The designations are intended to hold Ansar Allah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure and commercial shipping,” Pompeo said in a statement, using the official name of the Houthi movement.
It has led a brutal campaign that has “killed many people, continues to destabilize the region and denies Yemenis a peaceful solution to the conflict in their country,” he added.
Terrorist designations of Ansarallah in Yemen confront its terrorist activity and seeks to deter further malign activity by the Iranian regime in the region.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) January 11, 2021
Pompeo pointed to a December 30 attack on an airport in Yemen’s second-largest city Aden, which killed 26 people and was blamed by the Saudi-backed government on the Houthi.
The rebel group controls much of Yemen and is already under US sanctions.
But a designation as a terrorist group is expected to scare away outside actors from many transactions with Houthi authorities, including bank transfers and buying food and fuel.
Aid groups as well as members of Biden’s Democratic Party have warned that the move will severely impede efforts to address what the United Nations calls the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
Pompeo insisted that the designations — which will come into effect a day before Biden takes office on January 19 — will not impact relief work.
“We are planning to put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen,” Pompeo said.
“We have expressed our readiness to work with relevant officials at the United Nations, with international and non-governmental organizations and other international donors to address these implications.”
Earlier this month, the Israeli military deployed air defense batteries around the southern city of Eilat amid concerns of an attack from the Houthi militia.
Iran has indicated plans to exact revenge for the United States killing of Qassem Soleimani, the influential head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary Quds Force, and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of Iran’s military nuclear program, assassinated, allegedly by Israel.
The Israeli military assessed that such retaliation was likely to come from an Iranian proxy, potentially from the Houthis.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.