“There’s a sense that the only view worth having on the Middle East is the long view.” — A senior State Department official to Politico‘s Michael Crowley, March 26, 2015
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Aldous Huxley
“Yemen will face a famine, which will be the largest the world has seen for decades with millions of victims.” Mark Lowcock, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator
“Only those who risk going too far, can possibly find out how far one can go.” T.S. Eliot
“Yemen is now in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades. In the absence of immediate action, millions of lives may be lost.” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres
Let’s get back to global security matters in this week’s edition of “More than Meets the Eye.” There is much talk about a decision that President Trump and Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo made in the last week of Trump’s administration, to designate the group known as the Houthi’s, in Yemen, a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).
First, in order to bring clarity, let’s answer the questions: Who are the Houthi’s? Are they, by legal definition, a Foreign Terrorist Organization? What are the consequences of being labeled an FTO by the US Government? Lastly, what would the consequences be, of the Biden Administration, de-labeling them as an FTO?
Once again, I will hammer the idea that, “words mean things.” Words are powerful. The lives of millions are at stake, because of the labels we place on certain groups of people as a whole. A simple label such as: FTO, affects the lives of millions, 16 million, to be more exact. The same children, women and men who make up this constituency, have the potential to live or die because of this label.
I am not saying that the FTO designation is exactly right or wrong. Certainly it is more significant than “potato vs potahto.” What I want to hold out however, is that the classification of FTO is no small matter, and that the destiny of millions weigh in the balance as to how it unfolds at this point.
I will provide over 30 sources this week to present the variables at play. I will attempt to portray them in such a way that we should all be able to conclude why the situation is so important, and whether it is something we need to further consider. There is for certain, more than meets the eye concerning this matter in Yemen.
Who are the Houthi’s?
The Houthis (also known as Ansar Allah, or Friends of Allah) belong to the Zaydi school of Shiite Islam, named after Imam Zaydi Ibn Ali, who led a revolt in the eighth century against the Umayyad Caliphs. The Umayyad Caliphate ruled the Islamic Empire from 661-750 AD.
Although considered a branch of Shiite Islam, the Zaydis are sometimes referred to as the Sunnis of the Shiites. Why? There are substantial differences between the Shiite Twelver imamate doctrine that is dominant in Iran and Zaydism, whereas the doctrinal gap between Zaydism and mainstream Sunni Islam is relatively narrow. While all Houthis are Zaydis, not all Zaydis are Houthis.
The current conflict in Yemen has produced a new breed of Houthi. Today, the Houthi crowd is an amalgamation of groups—an unruly quasi-coalition spanning religious, geographic and political spaces and hierarchies allied in their opposition to the Saudi-led intervention and Sunni al Qaeda.
Authority for the Houthi’s resides in the “Sa’dah Core,” who survived the Sa’dah wars and whose ideologies lean closer to Twelver Shi’ism, which is practiced in Iran but historically alien to Yemen. Twelver Shiite practices that are novel to Yemen are increasingly being incorporated into religious practice; for example, the commemoration of Ashura was publicly celebrated by Houthi supporters en masse for the first time in 2017, and Yemeni Shiites now openly observe Eid al-Ghadir, a Shiite religious celebration rumored to have been practiced mostly in secret, previously. For an interesting discussion of the differences between Twelver, Zaydi and Ismaili shi’a Islam click here.
Religious extremists on both sides of the conflict consider the war to be over—a matter of life or death for their faiths. This framing of the conflict, perpetuated by both Houthi jihadis and Salafi jihadis, has produced widespread sectarianism throughout the country.
Victims of their own success?
The Houthi’s political ambitions are still somewhat ambiguous and changing. At a basic level, they are driven by the need to protect themselves from what they view as a state that has marginalized and attacked them in the past. How much they want to control national-level decision-making has expanded exponentially as they have been successful militarily. “The Houthi’s are victims of their own success,” says April Longley Alley, a Dubai-based researcher at the International Crisis Group.
They are “victims of their own success,” because they have consistently won battles, taken terrain and complete cities, but they have no experience in governance. Once an army takes control of this size of a population, in excess of 20 million people, they are doomed to failure if they can’t feed them, provide basic services such as communications, health-care, transportation, security and education.
Already Yemen is considered as the most advanced humanitarian crisis in the past 100 years, with over 16 million of its citizens living in extreme poverty and on the brink of complete starvation.
Are Houthi’s a Terrorist Organization?
In preparing to write this weeks analysis of the Houthi’s as a potentially Foreign Terrorist Organization, I decided to revisit the story of the American Revolution. I think it is insightful to understand the historical development of nations, and to examine the similarities as well as the differences. In a sense, I was asking myself, if Britain were classifying groups such as the American Continental Army as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), would they have justification to do so?
Without going into a complete re-write of American Revolutionary history, we might find that the British under its parliamentary government and King George III had plenty of reasons to designate the Continental Army as an FTO. There is a wonderful quote by the notorious Nazi General of World War II, Hermann Göring, “Der Sieger wird immer der Richter und der Besiegte stets der Angeklagte sein,” which more or less translates to “The victor will always be the judge, and the vanquished the accused.” History will probably be the best judge as to whether or not the Houthi’s are an FTO or not.
Certainly if we were to judge, the Continental Congress’s attitude by Thomas Jefferson’s opinion as he opined in a letter to James Madison, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” we might conclude that he himself perceived their actions as justifiably terrorist in a sense.
Once again, without going into depth as to what actions the Houthi’s are talking, a couple of things are clear. They have proven themselves as capable fighters on the battle field. Not only have they stood toe to toe against a Saudi-backed coalition, they have also, handily dealt al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS, a terrible blow through courageous sectarian fighting. There have been atrocities committed by Houthi fighters. Their unwillingness to yield in any way has caused a humanitarian crisis of gargantuan proportions. This is not to say that the Coalition embargoes are any less culpable for this crisis.
I would have to agree with April Longley Alley of the International Crisis Group, “The Houthi’s are victims of their own success,” and they are way in over their heads. The sooner they understand that, the sooner they will be able to provide some form of humanitarian relief to the millions that are starving and suffering under the weight of their struggle. If they do not soon understand this, they may discover that what they have won is a Pyrrhic victory, a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat.
One last word, does the United States designation of Foreign Terrorist Organization assist in solving this massive dilemma, either politically or from a humanitarian perspective? From my reading of the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation policy, one of the primary deterrences captured by the FTO list is: providing material support to any organization on the list—including volunteering to join a group—is a criminal activity. There are other mechanisms that the US government uses to fight against terrorist activity as well. Executive Order 13224 applies financial sanctions to around 7,700 foreign persons and entities classified as “specially designated global terrorists,” and the Terrorist Exclusion List allows immigration authorities to bar individuals who provide material support to designated organizations from entering the country.
In my analysis, President Trump’s administration’s designation of the Houthi armed group in Yemen as a “foreign terrorist organization” could certainly threaten humanitarian aid on which millions of Yemenis rely for survival. Human Rights Watch reports that over 20 million people in Yemen – nearly two-thirds of the population – require food assistance.
The US State Departments designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, provides that anyone in the United States or abroad suspected of providing support or resources to the armed group could be prosecuted under various federal laws, including those banning material support for terrorism. This could prevent numerous nonprofit groups and humanitarian aid organizations from operating in areas under Houthi control, where the bulk of the country’s population lives. The material support restrictions could also create serious obstacles for outside mediators involved in peace negotiations between the Houthis and other parties by making it a criminal offense to provide any property or service – including expert advice or assistance – to a designated organization.
“Many Yemenis are already on the brink of starvation, and US actions that would interfere with the work of aid organizations could have catastrophic consequences.”
The war in Yemen is often misunderstood, and the consequent ongoing humanitarian crisis is disregarded. Many analyses reduce the conflict to a proxy war between the Arab coalition—led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—and Iran. However, the proxy war is only one layer of a multidimensional conflict that includes many factions, some of which are uncomfortable partnerships. US policy has been mostly bound to the country’s alliance with Riyadh and their shared goals of fighting Tehran, which has been an obstacle to grasping the complexities of the conflict.
One of my take-aways from this edition, is that we must be careful about looking at massive catastrophes such as the Yemen war, uni-dimensionally. There are always many layers of variables in these situations. Seldom is the struggle simply, good guys vs bad guys. The blanketing of designations often carries with it grave consequences for many people. This is such a case. Yemen is in desperate need of international assistance, immediate cessation of hostilities, negotiated representative government and the immediate implementation of national infrastructure development. Apart from this, the world will be forced to look upon this tragic situation with little resources to make a difference in the lives of millions who could very quickly perish under the weight of this gross miscalculation.
Frankly, I feel at a loss as to what action can be taken. It is time for businesses, organizations and individuals to do something. This situation is not an isolated one. There is increasing suffering in the world today. I have been writing about it over the past few weeks. Writing is good. I have tried to understand and help others to understand. It is time for action. It is time for regular people to stand up and do something. Millions of lives are currently at risk. What will we do?
Kashmir’s Silent Suffering: New Anguish in the Midst of an Old Struggle… https://publicseminar.org/essays/kashmirs-silent-suffering/
Is Ethiopia the Next Yugoslavia?… https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/12/31/is-ethiopia-the-next-yugoslavia/
For your comments or questions about any of our digests, please feel free to write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org