Supporters of Yemen's Houthi rebel movement carry a mock rocket as they demonstrate in the capital Sanaa to denounce a reported air strike by the Saudi-led coalition on a prison in the country's rebel-held north on January 21, 2022.

Supporters of Yemen's Houthi rebel movement carry a mock rocket as they demonstrate in the capital Sanaa to denounce a reported air strike by the Saudi-led coalition on a prison in the country's rebel-held north on January 21, 2022. MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images

Redesignate the Houthis as Terrorists

The Biden administration made a mistake. “Diplomacy first” has failed in Yemen.

President Joe Biden last week said that after Houthi missile attacks on allies in the Middle East, his administration was considering returning the group to the State Department’s list of designated terrorist organizations. We believe he should, and the case is clear. 

The Houthis are on the march. On Monday, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates again were attacked by the Iranian-backed rebels. The UAE’s response was immediate. In the early morning hours, an Emirati F-16 jet destroyed a launcher in Al Jawf, Yemen, that had launched two ballistic missiles at Abu Dhabi. Thankfully, those missiles were intercepted mid-air, preventing any casualties. 

Saudi Arabia was not as fortunate, as one Houthi-fired missile injured two foreigners in the south and remnants damaged vehicles and property.

The attacks come only days after another devastating attack on UAE—the first time an adversary’s attack on its homeland killed civilians. Explosions from at least five Quds missiles and a number of drones rocked Abu Dhabi. And the damage could have been worse. Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE’s ambassador to the United States, said several more Houthi missiles and drones had been intercepted by Emirati air defenses, including the country’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. The THAAD intercepted a mid-range ballistic missile that appeared to target an oil facility near Al-Dhafra Air Base, which hosts the U.S Air Force’s 380th Air Expeditionary Wing and about 2,000 American military and civilian personnel.

Only hours after the deadly UAE strikes, the Houthis claimed responsibility.

The Houthis, whose official name is Ansar Allah, are a Shiite force originally derived from the Houthi clan in Yemen. Over the last decades, the Houthis have evolved into a terrorist organization and Iranian proxy. The group receives arms, drones, missiles, and training from Tehran. Many analysts believe that the Houthis also are assisted directly in their operations by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, and that given the sophistication of the missile attacks and the distance to Abu Dhabi, Iran could have been involved directly in their planning and execution.

Yet the Biden administration would have us believe that the Houthis are not terrorists. 

One of President Joe Biden’s first moves after entering office was rolling back the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization. The decision to remove them from the list made no sense then and makes less sense now.

First, there is ample evidence of the Houthis’ terrorist intentions. The attacks against the UAE are similar to recent ones against oil and other infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. In fact, the Houthis cross-border attacks into the Saudi Kingdom doubled last year. 

Last month, the Houthis hijacked a UAE-flagged ship and its 11 crew members off the coast of Yemen. While the Houthis allege the ship was carrying military equipment and released videos that they claim state support that allegation, the Saudi-led coalition reported that the ship was carrying supplies used to operate a Saudi hospital on the island of Socotra. That vessel and its crew members remain hostages of the Houthis.

Second, the Houthis have made clear their intentions to harm American interests, and we should not wait until the death of a U.S. citizen to re-recognize the movement for what it is. In two separate incidents last year, the Houthis kidnapped people who worked at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, and the current status of these and other U.S.-affiliated people in-country remains unclear.   

Third, according to the Critical Threats Project, at a minimum, Iran likely encouraged the UAE attack as part of its broader opposition to deepening UAE-Israeli ties. Lest there be doubt that Iran played a role, Iranian media tied to the IRGC almost immediately released an article detailing a complete account of the attack, including an explanation for why it occurred, and the Houthis’ and Iran’s next steps. That article claimed that the attack on the UAE is the direct result of Emirati actions in Yemen. It reported that the Houthis will continue launching attacks on the UAE if it makes “any wrong move” there. Asaib Ahl al-Haq – an Iranian proxy militia in Iraq — congratulated the Houthis on the UAE operation. 

Last week, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed called Secretary of State Tony Blinken to request the U.S. redesignate the Houthi as a terrorist organization. 

The call underscores an important inflection point: Biden’s “diplomacy first” approach in Yemen has failed. It certainly has had no demonstrable successes. At best, the most tangible result of unconditionally removing the Houthis from the State Department's list of terrorist designations appears to be Washington’s loss of any leverage against it. The administration only empowered the Houthis, who have shown no indication that their removal from the list will ever have any impact on their regional aggression. And while the Biden administration argued that their removal would result in desperately needed humanitarian relief to at-risk Yemenis, there is little evidence that civilians have benefited in meaningful ways. On the contrary, Yemenis remain at tremendous risk from unprecedented starvation as a result of being driven from their homes. 

Redesignating the Houthis as terrorists would reassure our allies and signal to the Houthis, Iran, and its proxies at a time when U.S. support and interest in the Middle East is perceived as wavering. Last year, the Biden administration withdrew important anti-missile batteries from eight Middle Eastern countries. And the chaotic and disastrous departure from Afghanistan and ambiguity about our intent to remain in Iraq have only exacerbated concerns. 

Finally, if for no other reason, the administration must recognize that the safety and security of American military, business, and citizens are at risk. America shares security concerns with our Gulf partners who are increasingly under deadly attack by our mutual adversaries. A timely redesignation of the Houthis as terrorists coupled with immediately improved missile defense and counter-drone measures in the Gulf is a good start toward enhancing our mutual security.   

Mary Beth Long is the founder of Askari Associates, LLC, with nearly two decades of experience in government and intelligence. She previously served as assistant defense secretary for international security affairs and chair of NATO’s High Level Group.

Emily Milliken is the senior vice president and lead analyst at Askari Associates, LLC.