February 21, 2024

Houthi supporters hold up rifles as they rally to protest the killing of Saleh al-Samad, a senior Houthi official, by a Saudi-led coalition air strike in Hodeidah, Yemen April 25, 2018.

Abduljabbar Zeyad | Reuters

The U.S. State Department on Wednesday designated the Iranian-backed, Yemen-based Houthi rebels as specially designated global terrorists, or SDGTs, in an effort to deter further attacks against commercial ships crossing the Red Sea.

The SDGT designation triggers an asset freeze aimed at cutting off Houthi financing, but will not take effect until mid-February. The SDGT sanctions specifically do not apply to food, medicine, fuel and other humanitarian assistance going to the Yemeni people.

“If the Houthis cease their attacks, we can consider delisting the designation,” a senior administration official said Tuesday on a call with reporters.

It is the next move in the U.S. pressure campaign to weaken the Houthis’ Red Sea siege, which the official called “a textbook definition of terrorism.”

An aerial view shows Yemenis lift Palestinian-Yemeni flags, Lebonon’s Hizballah flag, and Houthi group emblems while protesting against violating Yemen’s sovereignty through aerial attacks launched by jet crafts of the U.S. and U.K. on spots in the capital Sana’a and some provinces on January 12, 2024 in Sana’a, Yemen. 

Mohammed Hamoud | Getty Images

The State Department under President Joe Biden revoked the Houthis’ designation as a foreign terrorist organization, or FTO, in Feb. 2021, just a month after it issued the label under former President Donald Trump.

The reversal came in response to calls from the United Nations and humanitarian groups who said that the terrorist classification and its associated sanctions were “accelerating Yemen’s slide into large-scale famine.”

Three years later, after months of Red Sea attacks, the Houthis have regained their spot on a U.S. terrorist list.

This time, the U.S. has chosen the SDGT label, as opposed to the stronger FTO designation, in order to better minimize unintended consequences to Yemeni civilians while still deterring the Houthis, the senior administration official said.

“The people of Yemen should not pay the price for the actions of the Houthis.”

The latest Houthi terrorist label is “one piece of a broader effort” to stabilize global trade in the Red Sea and prevent regional war in the Middle East, the official added. Since the Houthis began their strikes shortly after the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October, major shipping giants like Maersk have paused Red Sea business activity due to safety concerns.

The U.S. has so far used trade restrictions, military pressure and international coordination to combat the Houthis, who have pledged to target any Israel-associated naval entity until the violence in Gaza ends.

A grab from handout footage released by Yemen’s Huthi Ansarullah Media Centre on November 19, 2023, reportedly shows members of the rebel group during the capture of an Israel-linked cargo vessel at an undefined location in the Red Sea. 

– | Afp | Getty Images

On Jan. 11, the United States and U.K. carried out strikes against 16 Houthi militant locations, a step that some experts feared would escalate a wider conflict in the region. The White House rejected that assessment.

“By taking away, degrading some of their capability, [that] certainly makes it harder for them to conduct these strikes,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said at a press briefing Tuesday.

The U.S. in December also launched Operation Prosperity Guardian, a joint defense force with dozens of countries dedicated specifically to protecting the Red Sea.