Designating the Houthis as Terrorists Would Be a Mistake
This commentary was originally published by Defense One on November 25, 2020.
The basic strategy of judo is to use an opponent’s strength and inertia against himself, allowing weaker fighters to defeat stronger ones. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been using the logic of judo in Yemen for the last several years, inflicting blows against its adversaries while suffering little on its own. The Trump administration’s floated initiative to designate the Houthi movement as a Foreign Terrorist Organization would play right into the Iranians’ hands. It would advance Iranian interests rather than American ones, and it would contribute to the suffering of millions of Yemenis. The Houthis are a challenge, and they are a threat, but designating them as terrorists does a lot of things wrong and very few things right.
The Houthi movement, or Ansar Allah (God’s Partisans) as its members prefer to be called, is a homegrown Yemeni organization that is partly sectarian, partly regional, and partly tribal. Initially led by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, and now by his descendants, the group arose in the 1990s in northern Yemen to protest what it saw as twin evils: a corrupt Yemeni government and a corrupting Saudi government that were in league with each other, indifferent to the needs, desires, and ambitions of Yemen’s northernmost cities. The Houthis battled both governments to a stalemate several times in the early years of this century. After an elaborate national dialogue process produced a new government that the Houthis felt was little better than the one it replaced, the Houthis rose up again. The new Yemeni government was no match for them, and the Houthis campaign swiftly led to control of two-thirds of Yemen’s population.