What the designation of ‘terrorist’ means for Yemen’s Houthis

Experts say that Biden’s re-designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group is unlikely to curb Red Sea attacks.

In February 2021, less than a month into his presidential term, US President Joe Biden formally delisted Yemen’s Houthis both as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (FTO) and as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists” (SDGTs) to enable more humanitarian aid for Yemen.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration re-designated the Houthis as SDGTs amidst the group’s clashes with the US in the Red Sea. Here is more about what the re-designation means:

What does ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorists’ mean?

Organisations with the SDGTs designation are those which are considered to “threaten the security of the US”.

SDGTs is a designation that concerns the finances of an individual or a group. In the Houthis’ case, the tag means it is illegal for American citizens to provide any financial or material support to the Yemeni group. Additionally, it will freeze any assets the Houthis may have in the US.

Since the designation places curbs on funds the Houthis receive from American citizens, experts say it is unlikely to have much impact.

This [SDGTs designation] is sort of a minimal: restricting access to funds from abroad, access to international markets. These are things that Houthis don’t have and never had. They don’t own stock on the New York Stock Exchange,” said Nabeel Khoury, a former deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Yemen.

How is SDGTs different from ‘Foreign Terrorist Organization’?

FTOs are foreign organisations that have also been identified as a threat to US national security. There is a publicly accessible list of such organisations compiled by the US Bureau of Counterterrorism.

The Houthis are likely to view Wednesday’s move as an affront which could lead to further escalation, Khoury said.

There are some key legal differences between the FTO designation and the SDGTs designation, with the SDGTs definition being narrower in scope than FTO.

The US started designating organisations as FTOs in 1997 while the creation of the SDGTs designation came in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Individuals affiliated with an FTO are automatically barred from entering the US, whereas this does not apply to individuals on the SDGTs list.

US citizens providing funding to FTOs can be convicted of a crime if it is proven that they knew they were providing funds to a terrorist organisation. Meanwhile, for SDGTs, the standard of proof is higher: For a US person to be convicted of a crime, proof is required that they “wilfully” funded a terrorist organisation.

US citizens who are victims of terrorist attacks by FTOs can file lawsuits against them, meanwhile, this does not apply to SDGTs.

The US can carry out extraterritorial application – or prosecute anyone in any country – in the case of FTOs. Meanwhile, individuals or entities can only be prosecuted for violating sanctions against SDGTs deliberately or inadvertently if the conduct occurs in the United States or was committed by a US citizen.

The criminal penalty for providing material support to an FTO can be as high as life in prison. In the case of SDGTs, the penalty is up to 20 years in prison.

What does the new designation mean for Yemen?

Biden delisted the Houthis from the two designations in 2021 after the UN and other humanitarian agencies warned that the designations were preventing much-needed humanitarian relief from going into Yemen.

More than half the Yemeni population – 18.2 million people – require humanitarian aid, according to the UN, as the country grapples with starvation, displacement and economic crisis.

This decision could impact ordinary families living in Yemen by possibly making it harder for humanitarian aid to reach them, said Afrah Nasser, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, and who previously worked as a Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Could it stop the Houthi attacks?

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Wednesday that the re-designation had been implemented by the US in an attempt to curb the Houthi attacks on the Red Sea.

However, US officials also stated that the designation will not take effect for another 30 days. “If the Houthis cease their attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the United States will immediately re-evaluate this designation,” White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said.

However, experts doubt that the move will curb attacks by the Houthis who have vowed to continue in protest over Israel’s war on Gaza.

“It seems highly unlikely to have any positive effect on the behaviour of the Houthis,” said Brian Finucane, a senior US programme adviser at the International Crisis Group think tank.

“I think it’s a form of ‘do-something-ism’,” he told Al Jazeera. The reimposition of the SDGT designation, he added, is a reflection of Washington’s refusal to recognise that recent Houthi attacks are linked to the war in Gaza.

Afrah Nasser from the Arab Center Washington DC added that the designation could further embolden the Houthis and “contribute to radicalising some parts of the population and strengthen the Houthi recruitment system”.

The Houthis themselves have announced they will not back down following this designation.

The Yemeni group’s spokesperson, Mohammed Abdulsalam, said the designation would not affect the group’s operations to prevent Israeli-linked ships or ships heading to Israel from crossing the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait.

The group will “not back down in its position in support of the Palestinian people”, he said.

What are the geopolitical implications?

The designation “will trigger sanctions for anyone or any state or entity that now tries to provide material support for the Houthis. We know that they are an Iranian-backed group, so Iran, for example, could be now subject to more sanctions,” reported Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett from Washington, DC.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies