“If you want to keep a secret,” George Orwell once observed, “you must also hide it from yourself.” The Biden administration’s decision earlier this month to remove the Houthis, the Iranian-backed, Yemen-based militia, from the registry of Foreign Terrorist Organizations is no secret. But it can, perhaps, be categorized as an exercise in self-deception.
The Houthis can fairly be classified as a terror group, and both press and policymakers would do well to note it.
In fact, less than 48 hours after the decision to delist the Houthis as an FTO, the organization sent an armed drone into southern Saudi Arabia. The unmanned aerial vehicle was equipped with bombs and reportedly intended to target “civilians and civilian objects,” according to the Saudi-led coalition that destroyed the drone before any casualties occurred.
The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply troubled” by the attempted attack and urged the Houthis to “immediately cease attacks impacting civilian areas” and to “refrain from destabilizing actions.” But “destabilizing actions” are the group’s raison d’être. Indeed, less than a week after the State Department’s statement, the Saudi-led coalition announced that it had intercepted another armed Houthi drone.
The Houthis themselves aren’t shy about revealing their objectives. The Houthi motto (“Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam!”) is straight out of a terrorist playbook. The slogan is even stamped on the staff and student IDs of universities under the group’s control.
Known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), the Houthis launched an insurgency against the Yemeni government in 2004, eventually overthrowing it and seizing power in Sanaa in September 2015. Fourteen months later, the Houthis declared a government.
It is true, as one analyst wrote in the Washington Post, that “the Houthis aren’t actually Iranian puppets.” But their success in Yemen would have been unlikely without the largesse and support of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. The Houthis have received training and military equipment from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. In 2019, the IRGC was designated as an FTO for, among other things, its long history of aiding and equipping terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
In the Trump administration’s final days, the Houthis were, like the aforementioned entities, designated as an FTO, with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointing out: “If Ansar Allah did not behave like a terrorist organization, we would not designate it as one.” As NPR noted, the FTO designation would have enabled U.S. authorities to “establish steep legal hurdles for anyone seeking to conduct business with the Houthis” and would also bar members of the movement from entering the U.S. and render it unlawful for U.S. nationals to provide them with “material support or resources.”
And while some analysts objected to the designation, it is undeniable that the Houthis act in a manner that is little different from other terrorist organizations. The group has purposefully targeted civilians, cooperated and trained with other FTOs, and tortured and raped villagers. The Houthis have attacked airports in foreign countries, and they have attacked ships in international waterways. They also have a track record of beating and kidnapping journalists — a fact which, lamentably, didn’t stop the Washington Post from publishing an op-ed by Mohammed Ali al Houthi, the head of the group’s Supreme Revolutionary Committee, in 2018.
Some of the objections to the terrorist designation are based on the claim that it could hinder the dispersal of aid in Yemen, which has been ravaged by years of warfare. This could very well be the case. But it must be noted that other Iran-backed groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, have long track records of misusing international aid. There is little to suggest that the Houthis would be any different.
Another salient fact has gone unmentioned in press coverage of the debate over the FTO designation: Tehran arms and equips for a purpose. As Nader Uskowi noted in his 2019 history of the IRGC, Temperature Rising, the IRGC began training the Houthis decades ago. And it expects a return on that investment.
Iran equipped the Houthis “in order to have them seize control of the Mandeb Strait,” enabling the regime to “be able to cripple shipping in the eastern hemisphere,” as the Strait “serves as a shipping route that runs between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.” As Uskowi observed, “more than twenty thousand ships cross this twenty-mile passage annually.” To achieve this end, the IRGC provided weapons and training.
As Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.,-based think tank, said, “If you want to say that aid to Yemen *and* diplomacy with Iran are the issues that need to be prioritized over a Houthi terrorism designation, I will respect your honesty. But if you leave Iran out of this, you are not fooling anyone. In fact, that’s your tell.”
Regrettably, many press reports on the debate have done just that, failing to note both Iran’s objectives and the Houthis’ history. “Political language,” Orwell famously observed, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” However, there is nothing ambiguous about “Death to America.”
(Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared as an op-ed in the Washington Examiner on Feb. 19, 2021)