Yemen’s Houthis and the Terrorist Designation System

Lucy van der Kroft 10 Jun 2021

In its last hours in office, the administration of former US president Donald Trump designated Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO), prompting uproar that the resulting sanctions would worsen Yemen’s dire humanitarian situation. Trump’s successor Joe Biden swiftly reversed the move amid fears of imminent famine, but the policy shift caused consternation elsewhere among those who argued it would embolden the rebel group. This article examines what an FTO listing (and other categories in the current US designation system) means in both practical and symbolic terms. It discusses the challenges that arise when listed groups control territory, both in terms of the impact on civilian populations and the way in which designations can reduce rather than increase the prospects for workable peace negotiations. The article goes on to discuss the particular dynamics of the Houthi case, which provides a compelling illustration of the intensely political and symbolic nature of the terrorist designation system.

Keywords: Yemen; Houthis; terrorist designation; FTO; sanctions; peace process