The Flawed Logic of a Houthi Terror Designation

The Flawed Logic of a Houthi Terror Designation

Escalation against the Houthis is neither achieving regional stability nor bolstering American credibility.


The U.S. government re-designated the Yemen-based Houthi Movement (Ansar Allah) as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) group on January 17. The decision marks yet another disjointed effort to stop Houthi strikes on maritime shipping through the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait.

Houthi strikes have been ongoing since November 2023 as the group has tried to boost its legitimacy inside Yemen while expressing solidarity with Palestinians under Israeli siege. While Team Biden hopes its move will deter the Houthis from continuing these attacks, the reality is much murkier. It will fail to stop the group’s Red Sea aggression while further hindering international shipping as both actors climb an escalatory ladder that risks a broader regional war.


The (Re-)Designation

The question of re-designating the Houthis has loomed over most of the Biden administration’s term. Former President Donald Trump applied the SDGT and Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designations in the last days of his presidency. Following his inauguration, President Biden removed them. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates originally pushed for a re-designation through advocacy efforts with Congressional offices and the White House, ultimately failing to persuade either. However, while the Arab monarchies struggled to implement their wish list with the then-fresh Biden administration, recent events connected to Israel’s war on Gaza have changed Washington’s thinking.

The decision to subsequently re-designate the Houthis stems from their efforts to disrupt international shipping passing through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait—a small crossing connecting the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Roughly 12 percent of international shipping travels through this route, which connects the Arabian and Mediterranean Seas via Egypt’s Suez Canal. Ultimately, the economic impact of the roughly thirty direct strikes on civilian ships transiting international waters invited a swift response from the United States and some of its allies.

As such, Washington’s announcement is not surprising. The Biden administration is utilizing Executive Order 13224, as amended, which designates terrorists, terrorist organizations, leaders of terrorist groups, and those providing support to terrorists or acts of terrorism. Still, the SDGT designation is not as heavy-hitting as an FTO designation. Further, the designation will not go into effect for thirty days. This suggests U.S. officials hope to avoid battering the Yemeni economy, already struggling from years of war, while also offering a fig leaf to the Houthis—effectively giving them time to stop attacking international shipping and avoid the designation altogether.

Senior U.S. officials made this clear in a phone briefing with journalists on January 16, ahead of the decision. One official made the administration’s approach clear, saying, “The SDGT allows us the possibility of making sure that we are continuing to—in our efforts to resolve the conflict in Yemen to deliver humanitarian assistance, to make sure that there aren’t unintended consequences for the humanitarian situation and the people of Yemen.” They clarified that the thirty-day window allows outreach to establish sanctions waivers while giving the Houthis a chance to reverse their actions, offering the opportunity to re-assess the designation within that thirty-day window if the group does just that.

This language matches earlier Biden administration efforts to re-work U.S. sanctions policy in ways that do not harm unintended targets. However, sanctions waivers have largely failed to address broadly-researched issues arising from the sanctions themselves—namely, bank de-risking, decreased remittance flows, and other logistical concerns facing humanitarian actors. Indeed, history suggests that financial institutions and humanitarian and development actors—two of the most critical stakeholders in humanitarian operations—typically approach already complex U.S. sanctions regimes from a risk-averse position. It further proves that numerous rounds of sanctions and bombings in Yemen have only produced one outcome—war, death, and famine.

A “Policy” Adrift

These are the concerns the Biden administration cited in 2021 when revoking the Trump administration SDGT and FTO designations placed on the Houthis the year prior. While the context obviously changed, it is difficult to justify this move today, especially considering Yemen remains one of the poorest countries on the planet—one facing a fragile truce and ongoing humanitarian crisis amid major United Nations aid funding cuts

Indeed, most of the same factors influencing the 2021 Biden decision exist today—including fragile peace talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. Humanitarian actors continue to condemn any decisions that can harm humanitarian access, just as they did in 2021 and previously. While the Biden administration should be commended for trying to rethink sanctions while collaborating with major stakeholders in Yemeni aid operations, the reality is that Washington is flip-flopping on major campaign issues (i.e., ending the war in Yemen and ending “forever wars” in the Middle East) while bargaining Yemeni lives and wellbeing with its regional geopolitical interests—namely defending Israel at all costs.

The real impact of sanctions on the Houthis will be negligible. The group’s leaders do not hold foreign bank accounts and keep most of their wealth in-country. They are funded through illicit means already heavily sanctioned by the United Nations and most Western countries. Yet these points are largely irrelevant—the Houthis understand no one is coming for them in Sana’a—meaning they will not stop attacking international shipping. United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan acknowledged this at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 16, arguing this administration did not expect previous airstrikes on the group to deter them.

Sullivan’s statements are crucial here as they indicate the White House is making decisions that are not singularly intended to deter the Houthis. A worrying dynamic is emerging where neither party is interested in de-escalating. Worse, U.S. strikes on the Houthis only hardened international shipping concerns, which Washington claims to defend for the sake of regional stability and its own credibility.

Ultimately, the U.S. escalation is not achieving stability or bolstering American credibility. Rather, the decision to sanction the Houthis reflects a series of long-running, knee-jerk actions defining U.S. interventionism around the world. The Biden administration hopes to regain credibility internationally by defending international shipping, completely missing the fact that its efforts are inherently contradictory to such goals because they will not achieve their intended effect and fail to answer a basic question: “How does this end?”

This is the question that senior U.S. officials failed to address in their press briefing on January 16. Houthi actions since the designation—more strikes on international shipping and the U.S. Navy—prove the approach is not working. Meanwhile, the Houthis have gained popularity in Yemen. The group has effectively trapped Washington into supporting its regional goals as a disruptor, something other malign actors will undoubtedly take note of in the future. 

Rather than continue failed regional policies, the United States should consider the one clear action that will end Houthi strikes on international shipping—a permanent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. This would solve multiple problems facing U.S. foreign policy today, should the Biden administration show true leadership by pressuring Israel. Until then, nothing short of an invasion of Yemen will stop the Houthis, who will continue to escalate until something awful happens. Whether the Biden administration wants to risk an even worse outcome—namely, ships sinking in the Red Sea—it should consider sustainable, alternative strategies that have a chance of working.

Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him at @langloisajl.