Yemen’s Iran-backed rebels have dismissed the US move to designate them a terrorist organisation in the final days of the Trump administration, while aid agencies warn such a designation would deal another blow to the war-torn nation.
On Sunday, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo announced that he will designate the Houthis as a “foreign terrorist organisation” with the designation taking effect one day before president-elect Joe Biden takes office.
It was not clear whether Mr Biden will overturn the decision.
The announcement comes as Mr Pompeo and his top aides rush to complete actions they believe will cement their legacy and the president’s.
On Saturday, Mr Pompeo angered China when he declared restrictions on US diplomatic contacts with Taiwanese officials to be null and void.
In addition, the secretary of state plans before leaving office on 20 January to draw explicit links between Iran and al Qaeda and hit more Iranian entities with sanctions, officials said.
The administration had been weighing the formal designation of the Houthi rebels as a “foreign terrorist organisation” for months.
However, that effort had been bogged down in internal disagreements over whether sanctions could be effectively enforced without worsening the dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Objections from the US Treasury department were apparently overcome last week after certain exemptions to the sanctions allowing for aid work to continue were arranged.
On Sunday, Mr Pompeo announced that he was proceeding with the designation of the Houthis, also known as Ansarsallah, along with separate terrorist designations of three senior rebel leaders.
“These designations will provide additional tools to confront terrorist activity and terrorism by Ansarallah, a deadly Iran-backed militia group in the Gulf region,” he said.
Terrorist designations of Ansarallah in Yemen confront its terrorist activity and seeks to deter further malign activity by the Iranian regime in the region.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) January 11, 2021
“The designations are intended to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.”
Hours later, several senior rebel figures slammed Mr Pompeo’s announcement.
“We are not fearful,” tweeted Mohammed Ali al Houthi. “America is the source of terrorism. It’s directly involved in killing and starving the Yemeni people.”
Others said the designation was an attempt to deflect attention from the US political crisis in the wake of the deadly Capitol rioting and efforts to impeach President Donald Trump.
“We are honoured to be terrorists and the world’s gangsters,” tweeted the Houthis media official Abdel-Rahman al Ahnoumi.
Consideration of the designation had already prompted complaints from relief organisations concerned the sanctions could prove catastrophic for efforts to help starving Yemeni civilians who have been caught in the conflict between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, which is backed by Saudi Arabia.
“The United States recognises concerns that these designations will have an impact on the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” Mr Pompeo said in his statement.
“We are planning to put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen.”
Those measures will include the issuance of special licenses by the Treasury to allow US assistance to continue to flow to Yemen and for humanitarian organisations to continue to work there, he said.