Recently, the usefulness of implementing foreign terrorist organization designations (hereafter, FTO designations) has become contested at the highest levels of the United States government. This conflicted stance is evident in the State Department’s 2021 FTO designation of Yemen’s Ansar Allah (aka, Houthis) which it subsequently revoked only a month later.
Furthermore, the former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper commented on FTO designations describing them as “symbolic,” elaborating that he could not “think of a case where somehow that [designation] facilitated our ability to track them better.” What is not undergoing debate in FTO designations is their respective impact on humanitarian aid. FTO designations often have the unintended consequence of obstructing the flow of humanitarian aid getting to the people who need it the most.
How FTO Designations Hamper Humanitarian Aid: Mozambique
On March 11, 2021, the State Department designated ASWJ or al-Shabaab (aka, ISIS in Mozambique) as an FTO in consideration of the ongoing widespread violence the group is responsible for in Cabo Delgado province. After this FTO designation, humanitarian aid workers ran into a myriad of new problems with legal, physical and logistical complications. As for the legal ramifications of FTO designations, humanitarian workers can experience long wait times in obtaining their visas for travel. At times, visa delays can take months and can prevent these aid workers who otherwise would be helping out on the ground from providing relief.
As for physical and logistical problems, FTO designations impede communications between humanitarian aid workers and armed groups. This lack of communication between humanitarian aid organizations, Mozambican forces, private military contractors and ASWJ places humanitarian aid workers in more danger. Restricting communications leaves uncertainty with armed groups who may mistakenly identify and attack aid workers seeking safe passage for their personnel and humanitarian supplies.
Although communications between humanitarian organizations and FTO designated groups are not grounds for FTO designation, the “knowing standard” puts relief organizations at high risk of being in the State Department’s crosshairs by mistake. In practice, the risk inherent to the “knowing standard” is that it requires humanitarian organizations to administer dangerous vetting procedures. Armed groups on the ground could interpret the vetting procedures as an indication that these humanitarian organizations are working on behalf of governments the FTO designated groups find hostile.
FTO Designation on the Yemeni Houthis: Revisited
On January 11, 2021, the outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated the Houthis as an FTO. However, the State Department revoked this designation shortly after Pompeo left. Current Secretary of State Antony Blinken advocated removing the FTO designation is that it had “achieved nothing.”
Blinken formally removed the Houthis from the FTO designation list on February 16, 2021. He cited recognition of the appalling humanitarian situation in Yemen. A coalition of governments and NGOs brought the situation to the State Department’s attention. Specifically, the international community lauded the revocation of the FTO designation as a step forward in the right direction to ensure that crucial humanitarian assistance reaches those who need it most.
However, recently renewed calls have emerged from the Biden administration for designating the Houthis as an FTO once again. This consideration of re-designating the Houthis as an FTO has raised similar concerns to those in 2021. Specifically, Ansar Allah (the Houthis) controls more than a third of Yemeni territory, encompassing nearly 70% of the population. If the Houthis were re-designated an FTO, the flow of humanitarian aid would immediately deteriorate. Additionally concerning are the prospects of a re-designation of the Houthis as an FTO potentially emboldening the group to act with further impunity.
In response to the Biden administration’s calls to re-designate the Houthis as an FTO, a coalition of 20 NGOs including Oxfam, Mercy Corps and International Rescue Committee (IRC), have sent a letter in opposition to this re-designation. The coalition of NGOs maintained that they stood united alongside the Biden administration in its decision in 2021 to remove the Houthis from the FTO designation list. The coalition cited an agreement with the Biden administration’s initial reasoning for removing the designation, as it was worsening a dire humanitarian situation.
In this letter, the coalition has called for the Biden administration to avoid a re-designation to preserve and continue the progress made thus far. A promising development going forward is now the international community at large has a greater understanding of the pitfalls of FTO designations, they can hurt the wrong people and they often do. What is even more promising is that the NGOs are not alone anymore. On February 23, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, alongside eleven other Congresspeople, called on the Biden administration to not pursue a designation because it would have a minimal impact on Houthi leadership and a catastrophic impact on the Yemeni people.
– Chester Lankford