Conflict Crisis Management Defense Policy Extremism Israel Middle East National Security Security & Defense Terrorism Yemen


December 11, 2023

Threats from Yemen are increasing. It’s time to redesignate the Houthis.

By R. Clarke Cooper

When the Joe Biden administration reversed the Donald Trump administration’s 2021 Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation and the Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) designation of the Houthi rebels, the stated intent was to support peace efforts, enable humanitarian relief, and deliver aid. Unfortunately, while the near-immediate reversal of the FTO status was meant to assist the millions of impoverished Yemenis dependent on foreign aid, this move emboldened the Houthis. Counter to de-escalation or peace, since the 2021 lifting of the FTO and SDGT status, there has been a steady and deadly escalation of Houthi attacks on civilian targets, regional partners, and United States interests in the Middle East. Efforts to deter the threatening posture and capabilities of the Houthis are not working.

The Houthi rebels are funded and trained by Iran. As non-state proxies of the Islamic Republic, the Houthis remain a pernicious threat to regional stability, security, and global commerce. Through their Houthi proxies, Iran has purposefully targeted civilians across borders to project their power in the Middle East against Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The pattern of threats from the Iran-backed Houthis has even forced sanctions from the United Nations Security Council in response to the systematic targeting of civilians.

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Ever since the 2021 lifting of FTO status, the world has witnessed the increased threats emanating from Yemen, which include recent repeated attacks on commercial ships with drones and missiles, the seizure of a cargo ship in November, and the launching of missiles toward Israel. On December 3, the US Navy disabled and shot down three Houthi drones during a persistent drone and missile attack on several commercial vessels in the Red Sea. In response to the latest attacks, US officials have emphasized consideration of “appropriate actions” and declared that “the entire world needs to step up together.” 

When the Houthis fired at US Navy ships in 2016, the US aptly responded with a barrage of Tomahawk missiles, destroying three Houthi-controlled radar sites. Today, however, as President Biden and his top cabinet members are assessing the conditions of increasing risks to Americans in the Middle East, they are also factoring in the regional sensitivities associated with the increasingly unstable United Nations-mediated truce among the warring parties in Yemen. Such assessments will include a posture review of the Houthis’ threat capability to American interests since 2021 and how to counter their associated risks.

There are perennial US measures to disrupt terrorist facilitation, such as the targeted sanctions announced on December 7, but they are not enough to address the Iran-sponsored threats emanating from Yemen. Yes, further US and international diplomatic pressure, targeted sanctions, and precision counterterrorism operations can be applied, but more needs to be done. The immediate actions the Biden administration can take now—absent a US military response—include the FTO re-designation of the Houthis

Such an FTO re-designation will keep Houthis firmly accountable for their transregional attacks on civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping. Further, with the FTO designation applied, the president can be publicly steadfast in clarifying that the US will not fail to protect its interests and that it will aggressively support its partners in the defense of their sovereign territory from the Houthis’ terrorist attacks. Short of FTO designation, the president can also re-designate the Houthis as an SDGT entity. This would at least allow the Treasury Department to freeze any US-held assets of the Houthis and their backers and restrict Houthi backers’ access to US financial institutions. Biden can also implore the international community to support collective naval efforts to keep the Bab el-Mandeb Strait—linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden—open and navigable for commercial shipping.

The strong and decisive action of FTO designation is clearly not the only foreign policy tool available for the US to disrupt support to terrorist facilitation, but it is a timely one that can be immediately deployed concurrently to the considerations for other courses of action.

R. Clarke Cooper is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and is the founder and president of Guard Hill House, LLC. He previously served as assistant secretary for political-military affairs at the US Department of State.

Further reading

Image: Armed men stand on the beach as the Galaxy Leader commercial ship, seized by Yemen's Houthis last month, is anchored off the coast of al-Salif, Yemen, December 5, 2023. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah