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TOUGH ON TERROR

Bipartisan group of lawmakers calls Biden to fully reimpose Houthi terror designation

Some lawmakers, mostly Republicans, are arguing the Biden administration is still not getting tough enough with the Houthis

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images

Forces loyal to Yemen's Houthi rebels hold up Palestinian flags as they march in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians on October 15, 2023, in Sanaa.

After a wave of positive initial feedback from top Republicans and Democrats to the Biden administration’s plan to redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist group, some lawmakers are growing less enthused as more details of the strategy have emerged.

The administration designated the Houthis as a Specially Designated Terrorist Group, but not a Foreign Terrorist Organization — a classification that grants separate authorities and penalties — and implemented a series of carve-outs to the sanctions on the Houthis imposed under the SDTG label.

In a Wednesday press conference, John Kirby, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, said the administration sought to preserve humanitarian access inside Yemen. It initially rescinded the FTO designation in 2021, imposed by the Trump administration, out of concern that it would prevent providing humanitarian aid to Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.

“This particular designation gives us more flexibility, but it also gives aid organizations a higher level of comfort, that they’ll be able to provide this assistance without running afoul of sanctions,” Kirby said. He added that the administration is willing to reconsider the SDTG designation if the Houthis’ attacks stop.

Most Democrats on Capitol Hill — even those who had pushed for the FTO label — are standing behind this approach.

But Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) said in a statement to Jewish Insider that the administration should reapply the tougher label as well.

“The Houthis are a terrorist proxy of Iran’s regime, and I’ve called for their designation as a terrorist organization,” Rosen told JI. “While I support today’s designation, we should go further and formally label the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in order to fully crack down on the flow of arms and funding to them.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) also endorsed that course of action.

“We must cut off the illicit funding for Iranian-backed terrorist groups like Hamas and the Houthis, who are attacking civilians on merchant ships,” Brown told JI. “While designating the Houthis as a terrorist group is a necessary step, the administration should go further to cut off their funding and support by labeling them a Foreign Terrorist Organization.”

And Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), pointing to his work on the Intelligence Committee, said he agreed that the FTO designation is a needed step.

“The Houthis are terrorists backed by Iran and as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I have been focused on strategic steps the U.S. can take to eradicate their influence,” he said. “This designation is a step in the right direction, but the Biden Administration needs to formally designate the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization and take additional steps to hinder their ability to terrorize the region.”

Rosen, Brown and Casey are all up for re-election this year.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-FL), who helped author a letter to the administration last year calling for the FTO designation, indicated that he’s satisfied with the steps the White House has taken so far.

“[The president] has designated them as a terrorist organization, something I asked for several months ago,” Moskowitz told JI. “I’m happy to see the administration take such an aggressive posture with the Houthis, not just trying to eliminate their capabilities, but also trying to be proactive to stop the Houthis from taking further actions in the Red Sea.”

Pressed on whether reapplying the FTO designation would have constituted a more aggressive step, Moskowitz praised Biden for keeping the conflict between Israel and Hamas contained.

“I think the president has stood by our ally Israel,” Moskowitz said. “He has been as aggressive as he possibly can, while also balancing the other issues in the region to not give Iran any reason to make this a wider war.”

Republicans on the Hill, meanwhile, argued that the SDTG designation wasn’t strong enough. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) described the move as “continued appeasement.”

That view was shared by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). “Unlike the SDGT designation, an FTO designation bans members of a terrorist group from entering the United States and makes it a crime for any U.S. person to provide assistance to it,” Rubio said in a statement to JI. 

“It’s unconscionable that the Biden Administration still believes groups that aid the Houthis should not be penalized and that they can still enter the U.S., even while it bans them from using our banks and while Houthi rockets target American military and civilian ships.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), had threatened to force a Senate floor vote on reinstating both designations if the administration did not take action on its own. Cruz “doesn’t believe that half-step will work but is evaluating the situation in the region,” a Cruz spokesperson told JI.

Rep. Mike Waltz (R-FL), who co-led the letter with Moskowitz, told JI the SDTG designation is a “half-measure.”

“And as long as the administration continues to deal with the tentacles, and not the head of the snake, we’re going to continue to be in this problem,” Waltz said. “As long as Iran is flush with cash, we’re not going to get out of this problem.”

AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann told JI the group sees the move as a positive step, but said the FTO designation remains necessary.

“We appreciate the administration’s action as a first step in recognizing the Houthis as a terrorist danger to regional stability,” he said. “More action is necessary to designate the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization as we confront its malign activities against our troops, international shipping and our ally, Israel.”

Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has called for the FTO designation to be reimposed, described the SDTG and FTO designations to JI as “complementary, not mutually exclusive” tools that provide different authorities and should be used together.

The FTO designation makes individuals or entities providing material support to the group liable for criminal prosecution and is “very broad… and it’s difficult to create any sort of workaround,” Goldberg explained, “so you create an immediate chilling effect” on business with any individuals who might be involved with the Houthis. It also makes any Houthi members ineligible for U.S. visas.

The SDTG designation, he continued, is “a very fancy way of saying we’re imposing sanctions, under our terrorism sanctions authorities.” It alerts financial institutions and others that doing business with the Houthis could subject them to financial sanctions. 

But Goldberg argued that the waivers to the sanctions that the administration announced effectively “gutted the designation” as a SDTG.

“We are in a very bizarre, convoluted policy environment now, where we consider the Houthis terrorists, but we don’t want economic pressure on them,” Goldberg said. “We’re willing to use military force against them, but we want to ensure that assistance of all kinds can continue to flow to them to legitimize them as an actor in Yemen.”

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