The US will re-designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as “global terrorists”, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan announced on Wednesday.
The decision will require US financial institutions to freeze Houthi funds and its members will be banned from the US.
A Houthi spokesman said the decision would not stop the group trying to interrupt Israeli shipping operations.
Mohammed Abdulsalam told Reuters the Houthis will still aim to prevent Israeli ships or ships heading to Israel from crossing the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Bab al-Mandab Strait.
On Wednesday evening, a Houthi spokesperson said the group had targeted the US-owned vessel “Genco Picardy” resulting in a “direct hit”, according to Reuters news agency.
Earlier, the UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) said it received a report of an unnamed vessel being hit by an “uncrewed aerial system” in the Red Sea south of Yemen, and that a fire onboard had been extinguished.
The move to re-designate the Houthis reverses Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s 2021 decision to remove the rebels from the US Specially Designated Global Terrorist List (SDGT).
In a statement, Mr Sullivan said the recent Houthi attacks in the Red Sea “fit the textbook definition of terrorism”, as they have put US personnel in danger and jeopardized global trade operations.
“If the Houthis cease their attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the United States will immediately re-evaluate this designation,” Mr Sullivan added.
In the waning days of the Trump administration officials imposed the SDGT and foreign terrorist organisation (FTO) labels on the Houthis.
This action was taken despite warnings from the UN and aid groups that it could push war-torn Yemen into a large-scale famine.
But in 2021, shortly after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, that decision was reversed by Mr Blinken, the newly installed Secretary of State. He cited the dire humanitarian situation faced by the people of Yemen.
Speaking to reporters ahead of Wednesday’s announcement, senior administration officials defended the decision to reinstate the SDGT designation but not the FTO designation, which they said had been taken to ensure the continued flow of aid into Yemen.
“It was the correct step to revoke,” one official said, arguing that it was a move taken in “recognition of a very dire humanitarian situation” in the country and to ensure that “US policies weren’t impeding” civilians’ access to urgent aid.
But they accepted that the Houthis’ campaign of attacks on commercial shipping, which has now seen dozens of missiles fired at vessels in the Red Sea, has become “unacceptable”.