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Biden administration again designates the Houthi militants a global terrorist group


The Biden administration has redesignated Houthi militants as a global terrorist organization. It was a Donald Trump decision that President Biden reversed when he took office in 2021. Now Biden puts the Yemeni group back on the list after the U.S. and the U.K. started carrying out attacks on the group in Yemen last week. The strikes, the U.S. says, are aimed at stopping Houthi attacks on commercial and military ships in the Red Sea that have been ongoing now for months, but the Houthis say they'll continue those attacks as long as Israel continues its military operations in Gaza.

For analysis on the situation in the Red Sea, we're joined now by Kevin Donegan. He's a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral that directed Central Command in the Middle East and also an adviser with the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies International Security Project. Admiral, so this terrorist designation, what does this mean for the Houthis?

KEVIN DONEGAN: Well, I don't know what it means for the Houthis specifically. I think what it means is it places the Houthis internationally in a place that you would expect them to be placed, as a terrorist organization as opposed to a nation state. They did overthrow the government of Yemen by force, and so that designation is rightfully placed. And it labels, really, what they're doing as not a nation state activity but an attack on international shipping in the Red Sea, which is terrorist activity.

MARTÍNEZ: So I guess, I mean, for lack of a better term, admiral, I think what I'm asking is does it give them street cred, so to speak, in the region?

DONEGAN: Well, I think the direct answer to that question, A, is that the population of Yemen has always been extremely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, as you would expect, and anti-Israel. So I don't know that it changes that. If anything, for the Houthis, it deflects from them, their, really, inability to govern Yemen in a way that the people of Yemen would expect and give them the things they need just to survive. But what it also does, though, is these - not the designation, but the designation in combination with these attacks - is it decreases their capability to take these acts into the Red Sea, to do these terrorist acts on international shipping.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, the people in Yemen, they're experiencing famine, ongoing humanitarian crisis. I mean, what does this mean for them?

DONEGAN: Well, for decades they've been experiencing that, right? And part of what's going on is - you know, and even the reason the Houthis came to power - is frustration with the ability to give the Yemenis that basic life support that you would expect anyone to be able to have. And so famine and strife and trouble in Yemen historically has happened now for decades. And I don't think the Houthis have been able to change the course of that and really make the situation better for the Yemenis. They haven't been able to govern legitimately.

MARTÍNEZ: And the Houthis get financial support, weapons, training from Iran. What's Iran's role in these actions in the Red Sea?

DONEGAN: Well, I think that's been pretty clear, to be honest. There's been some debate in the press that maybe Iran is not implicated in this. And you saw in the recent sea interdiction of weapons that they are directly supporting it. But to be very frank, the U.N. has a resolution that says you're not supposed to give weapons to the Houthis. It's U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216. And now, since 2011, the Iranians have been violating that restriction. And the U.N. panel of experts has determined on multiple cases - very directly showed Iran is supporting the Houthis. And they'd have no capability to do these attacks if the Iranians weren't giving them these sophisticated, essential items to put these weapons together.

MARTÍNEZ: So is that still a question, though?

DONEGAN: Is it a question, in other words, that the Iranians are supporting them, A?


DONEGAN: The answer there is no. They are absolutely supporting them, as we just saw in an interdiction of warheads for these types of missiles being delivered at sea on dhows to Yemen from Iran.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the Houthis control part of Yemen. They've maintained a very fragile truce with the internationally recognized government of Yemen. So what effect could this designation by the Biden administration have on that peace process?

DONEGAN: Yeah, I think it's less what effect this has alone. It's more that we need to see the international community come together and hold the Houthis accountable for these attacks diplomatically and pressure them, and the same with Iran, because together, the free flow of commerce is the core interest of all nations. And what we're looking for here is to pressure them to stop these attacks.

MARTÍNEZ: Kevin Donegan is a retired vice admiral and an adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies International Security Project. Admiral, thanks.

DONEGAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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