The “Drone Wars” in Yemen

After the US has been increasingly using drones against al-Qaeda targets in Yemen in the last few years, the Houthis are now escalating their use of UAVs against the Saudi-led coalition and may be embracing drone bombings as a new tactic

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition displays wreckage from Iranian-Huthi suicide drones, April 2018 (Photo: AP)

On January 10, 2019, a Houthi drone attacked a Yemeni government military parade in Al-Anad airbase in Lahaj province some 60 kilometers north of Aden, killing seven people and injuring 11 others. A high-ranking Yemeni intelligence officer, Brig. Gen. Saleh Tamah was injured in the attack and later died of his wounds. Footage of the attack showed a drone exploding over a podium around which dozens of military personnel were standing.

The country’s Information Minister Muammar Al-Iryani said that members of the Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) loyal to the legitimate Yemeni government were targeted by a Houthi drone. Al-Iryani added that the attack was an “attempt to hinder the Stockholm agreement, and impede UN and international community efforts to resolve the crisis.”

Yahya Sarea, a Houthi spokesman, said that the drone attack was a “legitimate operation against aggression,” and threatened to increase the frequency of the drone attacks. The Houthis are stockpiling locally-made drones, and soon will have enough aircraft to conduct several drone operations in different locations at the same time, Sarea added.

The Arab coalition supporting the legitimate government in Yemen responded to the drone attack destroying a Houthi communications center controlling drones. The location of the drone control center was formerly occupied by a Yemeni communications company but was then taken over by Houthi militia who turned it into an operations center.

The attack is the latest and most deadly challenge by the Houthi militants to the ceasefire agreement for Hodeidah agreed in Sweden in December 2018. The attack came one day after UN envoy Martin Griffiths warned: that “substantial progress” was needed on the ground before full-blown negotiations could be launched on ending the civil war.

The Houthis said in November 2018, they were halting drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government. However, the Saudi-led Arab coalition reported that several drones have been shot down in December 2018 in different Yemeni fronts.

Iran and the Drones in Yemen

Iran has transferred surveillance and suicide drones to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The aerial attack drones are the latest sophisticated weapon that Iran appears to have sent to the Houthis whom they support. Houthi rebels have used them to collect intelligence on the Yemeni legitimate government and the Saudi led coalition forces, to attack the Yemeni legitimate government and Saudi led coalition forces, to disable Saudi-led coalition missile defenses, and to conduct cross border attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis claimed that they had manufactured the drones domestically, which they called the Qasef-1, but later it was proved that these drones were Iranian-made and were smuggled in for the Houthi militias, along with other weapons, among them ballistic long-range missiles.

A report issued by the Center for Armed Conflict Research in London explained that Iran’s military technology had reached the Houthi militias by helping them use the drones they had previously said were homemade and which were smuggled to the Houthis with other weapons, including ballistic missiles.

The US Drone Strikes in Yemen

Washington has long viewed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as the global terror network's most dangerous affiliate. Before 2014, US forces have been training and arming Yemeni Special Forces and exchanged intelligence with the central government. In the years 2011-2014, the US has conducted 87 airstrikes against AQAP targets. Since 2014, there is a fear that al-Qaeda's powerful branch in Yemen could make new gains from the political vacuum.

Since March 2015, in prosecuting the war, the Saudi-led coalition has relegated confronting AQAP and ISIS to a second-tier priority. Its stated primary rationale has been to roll back Houthi gains and reinstate the Hadi government, which requested the military intervention.

Saudi motivations to enter the war were based on their perception that the Houthis, as alleged Iranian proxies, posed an existential threat, and on internal political dynamics in which a successful intervention in Yemen would boost the prospects of its main architect, Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman.

The US has carried out strikes in Yemen from bases in Djibouti. The American target list focused almost exclusively on AQAP. Some additional strikes were conducted in support of counterterrorism operations by the special forces of the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. By October 2017, the US military counterterrorism operations grew to include strikes and missions against the Islamic State group.

Drone attacks against AQAP intensified after US President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. The increased level of activity has killed AQAP commanders and fighters, eviscerated AQAP's propaganda network, cut off external support and enabled UAE partners to regain territory.

On January 1, 2019, Jamal al-Badawi, one of the main plotters behind the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole that left 17 American servicemen dead, has been killed in Yemen. He was killed in a precision strike in the Marib Governorate, Yemen.

On November 25, 2018, a US drone strike killed five suspected al-Qaeda militants, including a local commander, in central Yemen's Bayda province on November 25, 2018. The five suspects were armed and in a car when the drone targeted them, and included a local militant leader known as Dahab.


Security in Yemen has become an international concern because of its proximity to Saudi Arabia, the strategic Bab al-Mandab straits and the discovery of terrorist plots being hatched against the US and Britain.                                                                                                                

Yemen’s Houthi militia has begun employing drones to strike positions affiliated with the Yemeni government and a Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen, and since April 2018 they attempted to strike targets in Saudi territory as well.

The Houthis claimed that the Qasef-1 drone is an indigenous design and construction but experts said that the drones were supplied by Iran – charges the group and Tehran deny.

The presence of Iranian-designed and manufactured drones in Yemen, not only confirms Iran’s material support to Houthi forces but also its role in enabling the group to conduct increasingly sophisticated asymmetric operations.

Just as the battle for Yemen is reaching a turning point, the Houthis are escalating their use of UAVs against the Saudi-led coalition and may be embracing drone-based bombing raids as a new tactic.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is seen by Washington as the most active branch of the jihadist network. It was formed in January 2009 as a merger of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of Al-Qaeda.

In the last years, the United States has increased its support to the Yemeni and Saudi coalition security forces and the use of drones and Special Forces against al-Qaeda targets in Yemen.

In spite of the efforts of the Saudi coalition the legitimate Yemeni government and the American support, the terror attacks are likely to continue and even increase in frequency as long as there is no strong political settlement and the military-security services of Yemen remain divided and weak.


[Sources: Al Arabiya, Arab News, NBC News, The New Arab, Gulf Business, Albawaba]

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