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Biden administration to remove Yemen’s Houthi rebels from terrorism list in reversal of Trump-era policy

President Biden announced in a Feb. 4 speech that the U.S. would be ending its remaining support for a Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations in Yemen.
President Biden announced in a Feb. 4 speech that the U.S. would be ending its remaining support for a Saudi-led coalition’s offensive operations in Yemen. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Bloomberg News)
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The Biden administration has formally notified Congress that it will remove Yemen’s Houthi rebels from the U.S. government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, according to a State Department official, reversing an 11th-hour Trump administration decision that aid groups said would worsen the dire humanitarian situation in the country.

The State Department added the rebel group to a list of official terrorist groups on the day before President Donald Trump left office despite an outcry from humanitarian organizations that said it would make it harder to get food, medical assistance and other basic goods to people in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.

The Trump administration defended the move as part of a broader pressure campaign against Iran, which backs the Houthis against Yemeni forces supported by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other regional powers.

“We have formally notified Congress of the Secretary’s intent to revoke these designations,” a State Department official said in a statement. “This decision has nothing to do with our view of the Houthis and their reprehensible conduct, including attacks against civilians and the kidnapping of American citizens.”

“We are committed to helping Saudi Arabia defend its territory against further such attacks,” the official added. “Our action is due entirely to the humanitarian consequences of this last-minute designation from the prior administration, which the United Nations and humanitarian organizations have since made clear would accelerate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

On Saturday, a senior Houthi official said the “American administration backing down from this designation is a positive thing and a good thing,” adding that “the decision was wrong in the first place.”

“If this decision was to be effective, it would have affected the Yemeni people,” said Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a senior member of the rebels’ supreme revolutionary committee. “We don’t have money accounts outside, and we don’t have relations outside. Therefore, it would not have affected us.” 

“They cannot have designated us as terrorists,” he continued. “For they are the terrorists who have been attacking our country and people during the past six years.”

The reversal marks one of the first major shifts in U.S. foreign policy by the Biden administration as it reviews a range of Trump-era polices on Afghanistan, North Korea, Russia, China and beyond. In his first week in office, Biden returned the United States to the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization.

The Trump and Biden administrations granted exceptions to legal and financial penalties associated with the designations, which also included naming the Houthis to a list of “Specially Designated Global Terrorists.” But aid groups have said in recent weeks that those steps would not fully prevent the designations from deterring aid and trade.

“This purely counterproductive designation had caused months of uncertainty as aid organizations, banks and importers of critical commodities like food and fuel were left in limbo,” said Scott Paul, humanitarian policy lead for Oxfam America. “As the Biden administration has made clear, it is the humanitarian consequences of the designation, not the conduct of the de facto authorities, that warrants this reversal.”

Biden administration officials say they will renew engagement with Iran in a bid to constrain its civilian nuclear program and take a tougher line with Saudi Arabia, which has been fighting the Houthis since 2015.

On Thursday, President Biden ended the remnants of U.S. support for the Saudi coalition’s offensive operations in the conflict, pledged to intensify diplomatic efforts to halt the fighting and named a new special envoy to the country.

A White House spokesperson said a chief focus would be on the peace talks led by the Yemen envoy, Tim Lenderking.

“Our primary objective is to bring the parties together for a negotiated settlement that will end the war and the suffering of the Yemeni people,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “This will be challenging, but we have to make it our priority.”

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive policy issue.

In unveiling a new approach to the war in Yemen, the administration indicated a different stance on future arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Immediately, that means that two arms sales that the Trump administration notified Congress about in December, which included up to 3,000 GBU-39 bombs from Boeing and more than 7,000 Paveway munitions from Raytheon, are no longer expected to proceed.

Peter Salisbury, senior analyst for Yemen at the International Crisis Group, said the high-level interest in Yemen was “exhilarating” after what he characterized as “drifting” policy discussions during the previous administration.

The administration’s moves this past week on Yemen are not expected to have an immediate effect on the U.S. military mission in Saudi Arabia, where several thousand troops have been stationed since 2019 as part of efforts to protect regional allies against Iran.

Sudarsan Raghavan in Cairo and Ali Al-Mujahed in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.