Part-time terrorists: How US interests decide terror designations

The politics of pragmatism has characterised US foreign policy for decades and can be seen as the White House reverses its own recent decision defining who is, and who is not, a terrorist.

Part-time terrorists: How US interests decide terror designations

Three years ago, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the removal of Yemen’s Houthi group from the US terrorism list. This was to allow for unimpeded humanitarian relief to the war-torn country and reversed a decision by the previous Trump administration.

In recent weeks, Blinken’s decision has itself been reversed, with the Houthis now back as a designated “global terrorist organisation.”

He said this was to put pressure on the Houthis to distance themselves from Iran, which provides the group with much of the advanced weaponry that they use in their attacks, including missiles and drones.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the designation would be reconsidered if the Houthis were to end their attacks on merchant shipping in the Red Sea — a vital global maritime route. These attacks have caused significant economic disruption, extending supply lines by up to ten days by forcing ships to redirect around Africa.

They have also prompted multiple air strikes in response by the US and UK, hitting Houthi-affiliated sites. This retaliation reflects a broader shift in the US stance towards the region.

Whose terror is it anyway?

From February 2021 to January 2024, the Houthis carried out numerous terrorist acts in Yemen and against targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, resulting in civilian casualties and damaging critical economic and oil infrastructure.

However, during this period, the US issued no threats, nor did it consider reevaluating the group’s status as a non-terrorist actor.

When the Houthis conducted numerous terrorist acts in Yemen and abroad, the US issued no threats and did not return it to its terrorism list.

Now, militias aligned with Iran, including the Houthis, are focusing their activities against American interests, not only in the Red Sea but in Syria and Iraq as well.

While Iran and its proxies claim to be retaliating against Israeli aggression in Gaza, they have primarily targeted American interests and, before that, Arab nations' interests, along with Iraqi and Syrian citizens.

While Tehran's tactics are not new, this is the first time US President Joe Biden's administration has launched a military response.

It is a far cry from the statements made by the early Biden White House administration in 2020-21 when there were suggestions that the US could rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump abandoned.

With US presidential elections looming, Biden appears to be leaving his option open, as indicated by Sullivan. This approach, accompanied by limited public condemnation, allows for reversible designations and shows a muted reaction to attacks in other areas.

Tactical designations

This tread-carefully approach has led to speculation about a possible US-brokered deal between Lebanon and Israel, with some wondering if it would remove Hezbollah from its terrorism list in exchange for a broader agreement with Iran.

Could the Biden administration sideline Hezbollah's human rights concerns and overlook its history of violence, often against Americans? Such a reclassification could help Lebanon address its current financial crises.

Biden could also ease sanctions on Syria as part of a broader deal with Iran, similar to the one struck during Barack Obama's presidency.

During Obama's tenure, Bashar al-Assad's regime used chemical weapons to kill 1,500 Syrians in a single incident, which crossed a US "red line". Despite this, Obama declined direct intervention in exchange for al-Assad's commitment to relinquish his stockpile of chemical weapons. Some reports suggest that al-Assad, in fact, continued to use such weapons thereafter.

The region continues to grapple with the lasting impacts of Obama's foreign policy decisions. Biden appears to be largely adhering to Obama's framework.

The definition of terrorism, particularly concerning Iranian-backed groups, seems increasingly subjective and politically motivated.

For instance, Washington is unlikely to remove Al-Qaeda from the terrorism list, even if it were to stop targeting American interests. Yet there seems to be a greater flexibility when it comes to Iran-aligned militias.

The definition of terrorism, particularly concerning Iranian-backed groups, seems increasingly subjective and politically motivated. 

This overlooks the detrimental effect these groups have on neighbouring countries and raises questions about the reputation of the US and its commitment to stated American values.

Countries may therefore feel compelled to seek alliances beyond Washington, particularly if they experience the consequences of Iran's satellites first-hand.

In terms of consistency in foreign policy, the US can point to its commitment to Israel's security and its help maintaining Tel Aviv's qualitative edge.

Other considerations — such as the security and welfare of the region's people — often appear secondary, subject to the kind of pragmatic compromise that has characterised US diplomacy since World War II.

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