In recent weeks, Houthi attacks against military and civilian targets within Saudi territory have markedly escalated. The Houthi campaign came at a time of elevated tensions in the region between Iran and the United States and its Gulf Arab allies.
The US and some of its European and Middle Eastern allies have accused Iran of supporting the Houthi rebels, including by providing arms, in an effort to expand its influence in the Arabian Peninsula and build a proxy force similar to the Lebanese Hezbollah that could serve as a source of power and deterrence against Saudi Arabia.
Iran and the Houthis are conducting a “drone offensive” against Saudi Arabia and at the same time implementing an air defense strategy against American drones in Yemen and the Strait of Hormuz.
On June 6, 2019, the Houthis in Yemen shot down a US MQ-9 drone with assistance from Iran. Lt. Col. Earl Brown, a spokesman for the US Central Command (CENTCOM), said the altitude at which the MQ-9 drone was shot down marked “an improvement over previous Houthi capability,” a fact that led the military to conclude the group had help from Iran.
A week later, on June 13, Iran tried to shoot down a US drone over the Gulf of Oman in an effort to disrupt surveillance of Iran’s attack on Kokuka Courageous, one of two oil tankers attacked on June 12.
On June 20, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard force said it intercepted a US spy drone that violated the country’s air corridor. Amirali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards aerospace division, said on June 21 that Iran gave two warnings before downing the US drone over the Gulf of Oman. Iranian TV IRIB aired pictures showing what Iran says are debris from the US drone.
The Pentagon confirmed that a US Navy Global Hawk surveillance drone was downed but claimed that it was intercepted over international airspace. US President Donald Trump said Iran made a “big mistake” by shooting down a US drone.
Houthi Drone Attacks against Saudi Arabia
On June 22, 2019, fighter jets of the Arab Coalition intercepted and destroyed two drones in the Yemeni airspace. The drones were launched by the Houthi militia from the Sanaa Governorate.
On June 19, 2019, the Arab Coalition said it destroyed a drone carrying explosives in Yemen’s Hajjah Governorate, heading toward Jazan, Saudi Arabia. The drone was shot down in Yemeni airspace after the Houthis launched it from Hodeidah province.
The operation was a breach of the Hodeidah ceasefire deal reached in Sweden in December 2018 between the rebels and Yemen’s government. However, the rebels denied carrying out the attack, with the Houthi-run Al-Masirah TV quoting a spokesman as saying “no such operation has been conducted in the past 12 hours.”
On June 18, 2019, Saudi air defenses intercepted and destroyed two bomb-laden drones launched by Houthi militia. One drone targeted a residential area in the city of Abha and the other drone targeted the city of Khamis Mushayt.
On June 15, 2019, Saudi Arabia’s air defense forces intercepted a drone launched by the Houthi militias targeting the city of Abha.
On June 14, 2019, Saudi air defenses shot down five drones launched by Houthi terrorists against targets in the Kingdom’s southern border region of Asir. The drones were targeted at Abha airport and the city of Khamis Mushayt.
On June 10, 2019, Saudi air defense forces intercepted two drones launched by Houthi militias from Yemen. The drones targeted the city of Khamis Mushayt and caused no damage or casualties. Masirah TV reported earlier that day that the group had carried out attacks on an airbase near Khamis Mushayt.
On May 23, 2019, the Arab Coalition’s spokesperson said that Saudi air defenses intercepted a drone carrying explosives that was launched by Houthis in an attempt to target Najran airport. Masirah TV reported they targeted a Patriot missile system near the airport in the Saudi Arabian city of Najran.
On May 21, 2019, Masirah TV said that the Houthis launched a bomb-laden drone to hit what it described as an “arms depot” at the Najran airport.
On May 13, 2019, two oil-pumping stations for the East-West pipeline had been hit by explosive-laden drones. Masirah TV had cited a military official saying seven drones staged attacks on vital Saudi installations.
Iran and the Drones in Yemen
Iran is considered the main source of drone proliferation in the Middle East. Attack and surveillance drones are the latest sophisticated weapon that Iran appears to have sent to its Yemeni Houthi proxy group.
Houthi rebels have used these drones for intelligence-gathering missions and offensive operations against the Yemeni legitimate government and the Saudi-led coalition forces, including disabling coalition missile defenses and conducting cross-border attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis claimed that they had manufactured the drones domestically. However, a report issued by the Center for Armed Conflict Research in London proved that these drones were Iranian-made and were smuggled in for the Houthi militias, along with other weapons, including long-range ballistic missiles.
The Qasef-1 Drone
One of the weapons used by the Houthis to conduct attacks in Yemen and Saudi Arabia is a suicide drone named Qasef-1. The Qasef-1 is a copy of the Iranian-made Ababil-2 drone, produced by Iran’s Airca Manufacturing Industrial Company and armed with a 30-kg warhead.
The Houthis said in 2017 that they had manufactured four types of drones domestically; one of them is the Qasef-1. The Houthis could have outfitted them with explosives or used them for surveillance.
The Saudi-backed Yemen government said the drones are made in Iran, adding Yemen’s military did not possess such aircraft and it was “impossible to manufacture them locally.”
The Saudi-led coalition claimed that Iran has transferred suicide drone technology to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. They based their analysis on seven drones captured in Marib governorate.
Six partially-assembled Qasef-1 drones were intercepted by the UAE armed forces in Marib on November 27, 2016, after allegedly being smuggled through Oman into Yemen. The smuggled drones were missing their nose cones as well as their engines. This may indicate that different components are sent separately. The seventh drone crash-landed near Aden’s airport, according to UAE forces.
The serial number prefix of the intercepted drones was identical to the prefix of Iran’s Ababil variants. The gyroscopes in the drones had a serial number close to an Iranian Ababil drone used by Iranian-backed militia forces in Iraq.
The Missile Attack on Abha Airport
A Houthi cruise missile hit the arrivals hall of Saudi Arabia’s Abha International Airport on June 12, 2019, injuring 26 civilians and causing damage to the building.
Houthi-run Masirah TV reported that the militias targeted the airport with a cruise missile. It was the second time the Houthis had fired a cruise missile. The first reportedly targeted a nuclear power plant under construction in Abu Dhabi in 2017. The UAE’s al-Barakah site is about 1,100 km from the closest possible launch site in Yemen.
In December 2017, Masirah showed footage of a cigar-shaped missile with a strap-on jet engine and booster rocket launched from what seemed to be a mobile platform. The missile bore the shape of a Soumar cruise missile, Tehran’s copy of the Russian Kh-55.
In 2005, senior officials in Kyiv confirmed that Ukraine had sold a dozen Kh-55 missiles to Iran in 2001. Ukraine held the missiles after the Soviet Union disintegrated. Since the missiles were delivered, the Iranians have been trying to reverse-engineer the Kh-55 to produce a local version. The Kh-55 from which the Soumar is copied has a maximum range of 2,500 km and can travel at speeds up to 860 km/h. The missile can be launched from ships, aircraft, and submarines.
The missile’s first field test was conducted in January 2015, during which it flew 600 km. Iran’s defense minister inaugurated the Soumar production line in the spring of 2015.
The United States has vowed to continue its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran that was rolled out after US President Donald Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw from the nuclear deal brokered between Iran and world powers.
The US recently deployed forces including an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers, Patriot air defense batteries and additional troops to the Middle East.
Washington and Riyadh blame Tehran for a spate of attacks on critical oil-related assets and infrastructure, including two tankers in the Gulf of Oman and four ships off the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Both incidents took place near the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has denied responsibility for the attacks.
The Houthi rebels in Yemen have stepped up their drone and missile attacks on cities in neighboring Saudi Arabia in recent weeks as tensions have risen between Iran and Gulf Arab states allied with the United States.
There are several explanations to the Houthi terror campaign against Saudi targets. Firstly, the campaign is part of a secret, asymmetric proxy war conducted by the IRGC and Iranian proxies against the United States and its allies in response to US-led sanctions and the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
Secondly, the Houthis as an Iranian proxy are delivering a message from Tehran that any conflict between the US and its allies and Iran risks igniting a regional war.
Another possible explanation could be that after the Stockholm agreement (December 2019) and the implementation of the Hodeidah accord, the Houthis shifted the operations from Yemen to Saudi territory (that is not included in the agreement) to maintain the pressure on the Saudi Arabian coalition.
The Yemen conflict is seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the current escalation is raising fears of a potential confrontation between the United States and its allies and Iran. Despite the rising tensions, the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia have all said they do not want a war to break out in the region.
[Sources: Al Jazeera, Arab News, Al Arabiya, The Washington Post, Policy Alert, Haaretz]