The Houthi movement, officially known as Ansar Allah, is a militant Zaidi-Shi’a movement in Yemen that has been locked in a civil war since late 2014. While the conflict is rooted in internal Yemeni divides, it has become a zone of competition for Iran, which backs the Houthis, and Saudi Arabia, which supports the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In an apparent attempt by the Trump administration to tighten the screws of the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran before Joe Biden takes office, the State Department last week announced the designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), a measure that takes effect on Jan. 19.
As a group, the Houthis are sui generis, and the terrorist designation has been deeply controversial within the foreign policy community. Yemen specialists in the U.S. generally find them unsavory, if not odious, but the designation will hamper the delivery of humanitarian aid to Houthi-controlled areas in a country devastated by famine, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other public health threats, including cholera and diphtheria. By pushing them further into Iran’s hands, the designation may even incentivize the Houthis to attack the United States directly.
One underrecognized aspect of Houthi operations that this brings under scrutiny is their online presence. Ansar Allah maintains accounts on YouTube and Twitter, with 26,300 followers and 16,800 followers respectively. It also has an active group with over 22,000 participants on Telegram, an instant messaging service legally headquartered in London with servers in Dubai. The group even has its own official website. (The links are deliberately not provided here.)
According to whoishostingthis.com and hostingchecker.com, their website is hosted by San Francisco-based Cloudflare. In 2017 Cloudflare made the difficult decision to terminate its contract with the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, despite its fervent belief in free speech and opposition to de-platforming websites under political pressure. Now that the U.S. has designated one of its clients, Ansar Allah, as a terrorist organization, that pressure will be not just political but legal: Providing material support or resources to a designated FTO is a crime. That scrutiny could apply to any of the aforementioned companies that allow them a platform.
That the Houthis have been able to maintain these platforms for so long, even prior to the group’s designation as a terrorist organization, is remarkable. Their flag, which in Arabic says, “death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews,” is routinely presented triumphantly without issue, whereas use of the Nazi flag in documentary or antifascist contexts frequently results in content takedowns on platforms like YouTube. Yemen used to be home to a substantial Jewish population — today all but about two dozen have been driven out, kidnapped, or spirited away to Israel. For those final few in Houthi-controlled areas, being discovered trying to escape may cost them their lives.
Many foreign policy experts, in particular humanitarian activists, oppose the Houthis’ designation as a terrorist organization and either expect or hope that the incoming Biden administration will roll back the decision. If the designation is quickly rescinded, Cloudflare, YouTube, Twitter, and Telegram may get off the hook without experiencing U.S. scrutiny for platforming terrorists. But if that happens, it begs the question for these companies: How low is the bar?
Michael Sexton is a Fellow and the Director of MEI's Cyber Program. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images