As much of the United States’ attention is focused on Russia’s war on Ukraine, Yemen starves – and the humanitarian crisis has been worse, by many accounts, in the country since the Houthis’ terrorist designation was lifted on February 16, 2021. Nonetheless, Houthi-instigated drone strikes near an Abu Dhabi airport on January 18, 2022, that killed three people has reignited the debate in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and elsewhere about whether the United States should again officially designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization. The Houthis have been active in the region from the time they emerged from Saada in north Yemen in the 1990s and are among the groups backed by Iran in the fight against the Saudi Arabia-backed government in Yemen. The Houthis have been successful at controlling territory, achieving the group’s goals, and winning a war in the country. However, the Houthis threaten not only Yemen’s national security but also the security of the entire region by launching missiles and drones at targets in Saudi Arabia for being the founder of the coalition forces fighting the Houthis and the UAE for being a member of the coalition.
The ongoing conflict between the Houthis and the coalition has resulted in the combat-related deaths of more than 10,000 Houthi children (including 1,500 child soldiers in 2020 alone) since the war began in 2015. Tens of thousands of adults also have lost their lives in the fighting, while millions have been displaced and face a dire famine.
Yemen has paid an enormous price for being the stage for conflicting interests of regional powers in the Middle East. In the eyes of the Iranian government, the Houthis are insurgents and freedom fighters; in the eyes of the Saudi-led coalition, the Houthis are a terrorist organization. The coalition, which has strong economic and political relations with the United States, wants (and indeed expects) the U.S. State Department to add the Houthis to its list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs).
This article describes the ongoing conflict in Yemen, its consequences, and the parties involved before examining whether the Houthis’ violent acts constitute terrorism and meet the legal requirements for designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization.
Yemen has always been a stage for religious and cultural differences between the northern and southern portions of the country. These differences are the legacy of European colonialism. During the Cold War, for example, the United States and Saudi Arabia backed the northern Yemeni Arab Republic while the Soviet Union backed the leaders in southern Yemen. These alliances ended in 1990 when the northern and southern parts of Yemen united to form a joint state. Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled northern Yemen since 1978, became president of the now-unified state. Separatists from southern Yemen, however, seceded from the state four years later and reemerged in 2007.
When the anti-government uprisings that came to be known as the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, Yemen’s longtime authoritarian president, Saleh, handed over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. However, Hadi inherited a regime beset with problems ranging from attacks by jihadists, the continuing loyalty of security personnel to Saleh, corruption, unemployment, food insecurity, and a separatist movement in the south. Yemen remained relatively peaceful until 2014 and the outbreak of civil war between the Houthis, who are Shiites, and the Sunni-majority government. The Shiite Houthis, who had a history of fighting with and engaging in rebellions against the government, took control of Yemen’s constitutional capital, Sana’a, and demanded lower fuel prices and a new government.
During the early years of the civil war, the Houthis also had support from some of Yemen’s Sunnis. That support most likely made it possible for the Houthi rebels to gain the control of presidential palace in January 2015. Neighboring Saudi Arabia responded to the expansion of the Houthis’ control of the seat of government by forming a coalition force that launched a campaign of economic isolation and military attacks in Yemen. Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah submitted their resignations to the parliament, which did not accept them. Hadi subsequently canceled his resignation and went to Aden, a city that Hadi declared as Yemen’s temporary capital. Fighting in the civil war resumed. Various attempts by the United Nations to broker peace talks stalled and then failed in 2016. That same year, Saleh attempted to form a political council with the Houthis, but Saleh took another course and called on his followers to take up arms against the Houthis. It took only two days for the Houthis to kill Saleh and defeat his forces.
Perhaps emboldened, the Houthis pressed on, leaving in their wake a path of death and destruction and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis to date. According to the United Nations, more than 233,000 people lost their lives – including 131,000 who died of indirect causes such as food insecurity and lack of health services. Almost 25 million Yemenis remain in need of assistance, and 5 million are at risk of famine. An estimated 4 million people have been displaced. Human rights violations and violations of international law have been rampant, with blame going to not only the Houthis but also to all participants in the conflict.
Who Are the Game Players?
The civil war in Yemen has morphed into proxy wars for states and their surrogate organizations to pursue their interests. Much like the ongoing civil war in Syria that involves many parties, the Yemeni conflict involves several states and non-state actors – including surrogate organizations for the states, terrorist organizations, and rebel groups. This diverse mix of participants makes it difficult to determine exactly which states and which groups are involved and what they hope to achieve by inserting themselves in the Yemeni civil war.
The two states that are the most powerful players in the Yemen civil war are Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which have been using the Yemen situation as a proxy for their ongoing cold war of influencing the region. Given that Iran is a predominantly Shiite country, it is perhaps not surprising that Iran supports the Houthis (who are Shiites) in Yemen and that Saudi Arabia (a predominantly Sunni country) opposes the Houthis in Yemen. For its part, Iran sees the conflict in Yemen as an opportunity to broaden its sphere of influence in the Middle East. Iran already plays an influential role on Shiite communities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, Syria, Lebanon, and Latin American countries. Iran also has made efforts to control the governments in Iraq and Lebanon and to maintain the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria.
The partnership between the Houthis and Iran is more complex than a patron-proxy arrangement. The Houthi insurgency began in the 1980s and has continued unabated since then; however, it was not until 2009 that the Houthis received support from Iran. That support included the provision of an increasing number of small arms and more-advanced and more-lethal weapons funneled through complex smuggling and procurement networks. The Houthis also procured technologically advanced weapons components from Iran and combined them with the help of Hezbollah and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps advisers to make short- and long-range drones and missiles capable of striking Saudi Arabia. The weaknesses of the Hadi government – incompetence, corruption, and fragmentation – created a favorable environment for the Houthis to procure weapons of war.
Six years later, Saudi Arabia stepped in and took the side of the Hadi government. The move was one of self-interest, as the Saudis were worried about being next door to a country ruled by Houthis and controlled by Iran. The Saudis therefore cobbled together a coalition of Sunni Arab states composed of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, and the UAE. Eritrea and Pakistan joined the coalition in 2018. The Saudi-led coalition, however, has come under intense criticism for killing tens of thousands of innocent people and leaving millions on the brink of starvation.
The UAE, however, withdrew most of its troops from the coalition in 2019 over a disagreement about whether to back the Southern Transitional Government (STC) that had captured Aden. The UAE supported doing so, while the other members of the coalition opposed the idea. The STC, a secessionist organization in southern Yemen with roots in the country’s southern independence movement, includes the governors of five southern governorates and two government ministers. Their aim is to rule the territory in southern Yemen.
The United States’ involvement in Yemen has been limited, focusing primarily on counterterrorism operations that target Al-Qaeda and ISIS and their affiliates. It should be noted that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, received the most attention from the Western world because the group’s leader and one of its founders, Anwar al Awlaki, inspired individuals in the United States to become lone-actor terrorists and because the group had targeted Americans in incidents that led to fatalities. In one attack on Americans in 2000, for example, a suicide attacker targeted a U.S. Navy warship, resulting in the killing of 17 service members. The response from the United States has been to conduct air strikes and deploy a small team of forces to advise Saudi-led troops on how to retake territory from AQAP. The Obama administration authorized 185 such airstrikes, while the Trump administration authorized around 200 airstrikes. Under both presidents, the airstrikes not only killed several high-level AQAP members but also caused collateral damage in the form of more than 100 civilian deaths. The United States currently supports the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemeni civil war. U.S. interests include the security of Saudi borders, free passage in the Bab el-Mandeb strait (which lies between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa and connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden), and governments in Sana’a that are willing to cooperate on counterterrorism efforts. The U.S. involvement in Yemen also has impacted the civilian population. When civilians have been killed by the Saudi-led coalition, the weapons used most likely had been procured from the United States. In response to those deaths, the United States has limited the sale of its arms to Saudi Arabia.
Yemen has experienced acts of violence by rebel groups, insurgents, separatist movements, and terrorist organizations since 1971. The Global Terrorism Database recorded several incidents every year since then until 2010, when the number of attacks rose to more than 100 (See Figure 1). The number of attacks fluctuated between 2010 and 2020, with a spike in 2014 after intense clashes between the Houthis and Yemeni forces. From there, the number of attacks trended downward with the low point in 2017, followed by a slight increase in 2018, a leveling off in 2019, and a spike in 2020, which surpassed the peak in 2014. Of the 835 attacks in 2020, the Houthis were responsible for all but 35. AQAP was responsible for 30 of the total number of attacks, while ISIS-Yemen was responsible for 5.
Figure 2 shows groups in Yemen that have committed more than 100 attacks each per year between 2010 and 2018. The Houthis were responsible for 1,091 attacks during this period. AQAP was second with 1,030 attacks. ISIS-Yemem was far behind in third place with 108 attacks. Another 1,142 attacks were committed by unknown groups. From these data, it appears that AQAP has maintained its presence in Yemen but lost momentum in 2019 with 16 incidents and 95 fatalities and in 2020 with 30 incidents and 38 casualties. The attacks by ISIS-Yemen represent the activity of various provincial franchises of ISIS. Most of the groups’ attacks occurred in 2014 and 2015 when ISIS was the most popular terrorist group in the world. The attacks were widely dispersed, having occurred in provinces such as Adan-Abyan, Hadramawt, Sanaa, and Shabwah. Similar to AQAP, ISIS lost its popularity in Yemen in 2019 when it was responsible for 13 incidents with 110 casualties in 2019 and in 2020 when it was responsible for 5 incidents and 78 fatalities.
Do the Houthis Fit the Definition of a Terrorist Group?
The Houthis were added to the list of FTOs in a last-minute designation by the Trump administration on January 19, 2021. Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, revoked the designation based on humanitarian concerns; however, the Houthis’ attacks targeting UAE and Saudi Arabia have renewed the debate about listing the group as an FTO.
The Department of State is the U.S. agency tasked with designating foreign groups as terrorist organizations if those groups meet the legal criteria in section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), as amended:
(1) It must be a foreign organization; (2) The organization must engage in terrorist activity . . . or terrorism, . . . or retain the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism; [and] (3) The organization’s terrorist activity or terrorism must threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security (national defense, foreign relations, or the economic interests) of the United States.
The Annex of Statistical Information that was released by the Department of State on June 10, 2020, uses three inclusion criteria to determine whether an incident should be deemed a terrorist incident:
(1) The violent act aims to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal; (2) The violent act includes evidence of an intention to coerce, intimidate, or convey some other message to an audience (or audiences) larger than the immediate victims; [and] (3) The violent act occurred outside the precepts of international humanitarian law insofar as it targeted non-combatants.
Based on the Department of State’s legal criteria, the Houthis meet the first and second criteria because the Houthis are a foreign organization that engages in terrorist activity. With respect to the third criteria, no strong evidence exists to show that Houthis directly targeted U.S. nationals and U.S. national security. Nonetheless, several incidents bear the hallmarks of attacks indirectly targeting Americans. For example, Houthi missile attacks in January 2022 targeted a military base in Abu Dhabi with 2,000 American troops stationed at the facility.
Based on the Department of State’s inclusion criteria, the Houthis meet the first criterion because they are fighting against the internationally recognized Hadi government in Yemen to achieve the following political, economic, religious, and social goals: reverse economic underdevelopment, end political marginalization, and achieve greater autonomy in Houthi-majority regions. The Houthis also meet the second criterion because their violent acts are intended to send a message to the entire county of Yemen and to neighboring countries. As one example of evidence of this intent, the Houthis attacked Saudi Arabia numerous times in 2019, mostly with drones and missile launches from Yemen. Within Yemen, the Annex of Statistical Information shows that the Houthis likely were responsible for 858 attacks with a total of 2,132 fatalities. Finally, the Houthis meet the third criterion. Again, according to the Annex of Statistical Information, it is clear that the Houthis’ violent acts targeted non-combatants because 29 percent of the victims were civilians.
To conclude, given the capacity of the Houthis to commit violent acts and the involvement of regional powers in the conflict in Yemen, it would not be wrong to conclude that the Yemeni conflict and the death of innocent Yemeni civilians will continue. The debate about whether the Houthis should be designated as an FTO also is likely to continue. How the United States will respond is unclear, even though the Houthis clearly meet the Department of State’s legal criteria for designation as an FTO. Moreover, the United States’ removal of the Houthis from the list of FTOs indicates that the United States has started using (officially or unofficially) an additional criterion – humanitarian concerns – that groups must meet to be placed on the list. The move by the United States to add a fourth terrorism-inclusion criterion will only prolong the debate about designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization and do little to stop the political, economic, and humanitarian consequences of Houthi attacks in the region.