• Anoushka Jha

Humanity vs Policy: Biden's Possible Re-designation of A FOREIGN TERRORIST GROUP & ITS CONSEQUEnces

What happens when you have to choose between labelling a group a foreign terrorist organisation, and choosing to continue humanitarian aid to an impoverished country being oppressed by the same organisation?



This has been the question for the Biden Administration since January of this year.

One of Biden’s first moves in office was reversing Trump’s designation of the Houthis, the Iran-backed rebels inflicting unimaginable destruction on Yemenite citizens, as a foreign terrorist organisation. This was because criminalising the Houthis, and thus cutting Washington off from Yemen, had a net negative on the humanitarian space. Yemenite citizens who are currently caught in the seventh year of the war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen , and already one of the poorest nations, could not access foreign aid or resources, thus leaving themselves vulnerable to further Houthis attacks. Trump’s labelling of the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO), meant the Administration cut off weapons and funding, but they did not address the war through a political solution, leading to a humanitarian crisis. Upon entering office in 2021, Biden froze Saudi arms sales (as the Houthis had earlier attacked Saudi civilian airplanes) , ended US military aid to Saudi Arabia, and reversed the Houthis FTO designation.


However, missile attacks by the Houthis rebels on January 18th and 24th in Abu Dhabi, means that the National Security Council and American Congress members are exploring the possibility of re-labelling the group as an FTO. The fine balance between what the administration can and cannot do to avoid remaining complicit is demonstrated by this potential policy. Experts have warned that such designations could be fatal for the Yemenite civilians. Bruce Riedell of the Brookings Institution holds this view, as does Trita Parsi of the Quincey Institute. Parisi realises the dubious motives behind the possible designation, referring to the Saudi-led military coalition in the UAE, which has already recently dropped drone and air strikes in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.


“The Emirates and the Saudis have managed to make this our fight, when it never was [the United States’ fight in the first place,” Parsi, of Quincy Institute.


Moreover, officials at the State Department and the Agency for International Development have opposed the move. For some, it marks the futility of US withdrawal, and for others, it is a sign of the US’ lack of concern for civilian aid. Scott Paul, senior manager for humanitarian aid at Oxfam America, reveals that since Trump’s labelling of Houthis as an FTO in 2021, contracts for food and medicine imports to Yemen have dropped sharply. It is significant that the Houthis also act as a de facto government in Yemen, and private/government companies must interact with them to provide sufficient foodstuffs for the civilians.


This policy reflects a series of dismantling political concerns for the Yemenite war. For example, in October 2021, the UN Human Rights Council, under pressure from Saudi Arabia, voted to end the mandate for the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, which documents violations in international law. Additionally, previous US administrations have supplied $36 billion in arms sales to the Saudi-led military, leading to over 90 indiscriminate airstrikes, as documented by the Human Rights Watch. This is striking, as the US law prohibits sales to abusive governments, yet appears complicit in Saudi war crimes.


This also reveals the fatal flaws in Biden’s original policy reversal in 2021. The reversal was not an actively beneficial policy, as the Saudi attacks in Yemen are inherently offensive, not defensive. Between 2015 and July 2021, over 23,251 air raids were instigated by the UAE, killing 18,1616 Yemenite civilians. Saudi-led blockades also cut off vital resources to Yemen through the Hodeida port. This meant that any incoming fuel or resources had to travel through the Aden and Mukalla ports, controlled by the Hadi government, which taxes fuel imports, making it unaffordable for many. This complexity of the region’s political, military and economic networks has largely been ignored by various American administrations.


Whether to term it ‘complicity’, ‘hard diplomacy’ or ‘geopolitical naivety’ is in itself a debate. However, it is evident that the possibility of re-designating the Houthis as an FTO, due to the pressure of the oil-rich Saudi Leaders, brings larger humanitarian consequences on the vulnerable Yemen population. The administration must re-orient its policy towards protecting Yemen’s citizens, not satisfying the Saudi government, who has carried out various deadly attacks as an offensive operation.