Houthi spokesman: Attacks on ships will continue

US slaps terror label back on Yemen’s Houthis, partly restoring Trump-era sanctions

Washington intensifies response to Iran-backed rebels over post-Oct. 7 disruptions to Red Sea shipping, stops short of applying more far-reaching label due to humanitarian concerns

Houthi fighters and tribesmen stage a rally against the US and the U.K. strikes on Houthi-run military sites near Sanaa, Yemen, on January 14, 2024. (AP Photo)
Houthi fighters and tribesmen stage a rally against the US and the U.K. strikes on Houthi-run military sites near Sanaa, Yemen, on January 14, 2024. (AP Photo)

The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it was re-designating Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization, partially restoring sanctions it lifted three years ago on the Iran-backed militia group whose repeated attacks in the Red Sea since Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught have significantly disrupted shipping in the key maritime corridor.

The US State Department announced that it was re-designating the Houthis as a “specially designated global terrorist” entity in a step aimed at blocking the group’s access to the global financial system, though it falls short of the more far-reaching option at the Biden administration’s disposal — re-labeling the Houthis as a “foreign terrorist organization.”

The Iran-backed group said it would continue to target ships using the vital Red Sea shipping lanes.

The Houthis have launched dozens of attacks since November on vessels in the Red Sea, in what they claim is an effort to support Palestinians during Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

However, many of the ships targeted have had no ties to Israel whatsoever. Over the past week, US and British forces have responded by carrying out air and sea strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen, though, they did not deter further attacks from the rebel group.

The attacks are part of a broad response to the Gaza conflict by a so-called Axis of Resistance, which includes the Houthis, Hamas, and Hezbollah — all of whom are backed by Iran.

The Houthis, who rally under the banner “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam,” have also launched a number of drones and missiles directly at Israel.

“We will continue to counter and blunt Iranian malign influence wherever we can. So of course the choice to move away from Iran is now in the hands of the Houthis,” said a senior US official briefing reporters, adding that Washington would consider lifting the designation if the attacks on shipping cease.

The bulk carrier Gibraltar Eagle is seen off Kristiansand, Norway, June 29, 2023. (AP Photo)

Responding to the US designation, Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam said it will not affect their operations to prevent Israeli ships or ships heading to Israel from crossing the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

“We will not give up targeting Israeli ships or ships heading towards ports in occupied Palestine… in support of the Palestinian people,” the group’s spokesman he told Al Jazeera TV, adding that they would respond to new strikes on Yemen by the United States or Britain.

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas Greenfield said last week that since November, 2,000 ships have been forced to divert thousands of miles to avoid the Red Sea. The attacks have caused significant disruptions to global trade with oil prices on the rise in recent days.

A Yemeni youth holds a mockup rocket during a protest following US and British strikes, in the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa on January 12, 2024. Behind him, people hold up signs with the Iran-backed rebel group’s slogan, ‘God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory for Islam.’ (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)

In 2021, US President Joe Biden removed terror designations that had been applied to the Houthis by his predecessor, Donald Trump, toward the end of his term in office.

The Biden administration argued that the Trump-imposed sanctions blocked efforts to get humanitarian aid into war-torn Yemen.

According to senior US officials, concerns for ongoing humanitarian efforts stood behind the administration’s decision to stop short of applying the “foreign terrorist organization” label on Wednesday. The label carries stricter prohibitions on providing material support to blacklisted entities, in addition to coming with automatic travel bans for those on it.

A clan-based rebel movement, the Houthis seized Yemen’s capital in 2014 and withstood a years-long Saudi-led campaign aimed at returning the government to power. Two-thirds of Yemen’s people live in territory now controlled by the Houthis, who are backed financially and militarily by Iran.

This picture shows the damage following overnight airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition, targeting the Houthi rebel-held Yemeni capital Sanaa, March 26, 2022. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

War and chronic misgovernment have left 24 million Yemenis at risk of hunger and disease, and roughly 14 million are in acute need of humanitarian assistance, the United Nations says. Yemen imports 90 percent of its food.

The Biden administration had opposed the Saudi campaign in Yemen, which was a factor in frayed ties between Washington and Riyadh at the time.

The US officials briefing reporters said the sanctions would exempt commercial shipments of food, medicine, fuel, and humanitarian assistance. The US will wait 30 days to put the sanctions into effect, officials said, giving shipping companies, banks, insurers, and others time to prepare.

Critics say US sanctions will have little effect on the group, which has few known assets in the US to be threatened. There is also concern that designating the Houthis as terrorists may complicate international attempts to broker a peace deal following the conflict, which was widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

This is a locator map for Yemen with its capital, Sanaa. (AP Photo)

Republicans and some moderate Democrats have pressed for the foreign terrorist designation to be reimposed, ever since the Biden administration lifted it. Calls for tougher action against the Houthis and their Iranian backers have grown louder since the Israel-Hamas war.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan acknowledged Tuesday that the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea as well as groups allied to Iran carrying out attacks in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen pose concerns that the Israel-Hamas war could escalate even as Israeli officials have indicated a shift in intensity in their military campaign.

“We have to guard against and be vigilant against the possibility that, in fact, rather than heading towards de-escalation, we are on a path of escalation that we have to manage,” Sullivan said at the World Economic Forum.

In 2022, two officials familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that Israel had been pressing the Biden administration to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terror group, at the United Arab Emirates’ behest.

This undated photograph released on January 16, 2024, by the US military’s Central Command shows what it is described as Iranian-made missile components bound for Yemen’s Houthi seized off a vessel in the Arabian Sea. (US Central Command via AP)

There was no immediate comment from the Israeli government to the US announcement on Wednesday.

When Biden was asked last week whether the Houthis were a terrorist group, he replied, “I think they are.”

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