Photo: Tribal fighters loyal to Yemen’s government during fightings against Houthi rebels
On Sunday 10th January 2021, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated the Houthi rebels as terrorists.
The Houthis are fighting a civil war in Yemen – with roughly 70% of the population living under their control – both to win power across the country and to resist Saudi Arabia’s influence. Pompeo’s decision to label the Houthis as terrorists has major consequences for the future trajectories of this conflict.
It is unclear exactly what the Houthis did to irk the US to change its official stance on the group. The likeliest explanation is that it was not what the Houthis did, but what Joe Biden did – win the US election.
In recent weeks, Pompeo has embarked on what has been described as a round-the-world tour of diplomatic vandalism. He began official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, declared Iran to be the new Al-Qaeda base, and has now labelled the Houthis terrorists. Officially, the decision is part of the “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. In reality, these last-minute foreign policy changes are nothing more than thinly veiled attempts to sabotage the incoming administration.
If Biden reverses these decisions, the response from Republicans will be painfully predictable. End diplomatic relations with Taiwan and you’re soft on China, correct Pompeo’s fictional Al-Qaeda story and you’re soft on Iran, reverse the decision on the Houthis and you’re soft on terrorism.
The decision to brand the Houthis as terrorists has very real repercussions for the Yemeni population who live under Houthi control. These people rely on humanitarian aid to survive, but humanitarian aid becomes extremely difficult to deliver in areas considered to be governed by terrorists. The Yemeni people living under Houthi control have no choice but to rely on outside help to access food and water. The extent of the damage to Yemen’s water infrastructure has resulted in two cholera outbreaks since 2015. In addition, Yemen imports 90% of all its food. Pompeo’s decision has created the conditions for what the UN predicts will be “The worst famine in 40 years”.
This potential calamity demonstrates the destructive potential that declaring a group as terrorists has on a chronically vulnerable population. It also highlights the inherent hypocrisy of the Trump administration. Trump labelled the Houthis terrorists in the same week that he described a mob of white supremacists who carried out an attack on Capitol Hill to be “very special people”.
The terrorist label has real consequences and should not be used lightly. This change in US foreign policy demonstrates how terrorism is constructed to meet a political end. Terrorism has been heavily theorised since the declaration of the War on Terror. One theory is that terrorism is a socially constructed term deployed by states to exercise further social control or to justify policy changes.
When declaring a group as “terrorists” the state has actively identified an existential threat that can only be overcome through greater social control, thus legitimising measures such as increased surveillance, immigration controls, and indefinite detention. To justify these further controls, the state must continue to identify threats that it must protect its citizens from.
For years, the Trump administration has actively constructed threats to justify state control. The list of threats is seemingly never ending: Muslims, Mexicans, BLM, Antifa, Democratic Party pedophile rings in pizzeria basements – the list goes on. In the case of Yemen, the end goal of labelling the Houthis terrorists seems far pettier than state control. Instead, it’s a case of state sabotage.
Now, we shouldn’t romanticise the Houthis, who have been responsible for serious human rights violations in recent years, including persecuting minorities and using civilians as human shields15. However, Pompeo’s declaration demonstrates that the terrorism label can be constructed not only out of security concerns, but out of a desire to deliberately cause instability. If the US were motivated by human rights violations, then it certainly wouldn’t support the Saudi-led coalition. It is now up to Biden to pick up the pieces of the Trump administration’s recklessness by reversing this decision.
Yemen is experiencing the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis. By carelessly playing with the terrorism label, the US is wilfully deepening this disaster.