On January 10, 2019, Houthi rebels in Yemen, supported by Iran, used a new type of drone, the Qasef 2k, to attack a military parade organized by the Arab coalition forces at the Al-Anad military airbase in the Lahij province.1 In the past, the U.S. Army used this base to launch drones to attack Al-Qaeda forces in the region.
In this attack, seven soldiers were killed, and several senior officials of the Arab coalition forces were injured, including Yemen’s Chief of Staff Abdullah al-Nakhi and the governor of the Lahj province. Some of the injured senior officials (the Yemeni deputy chief of staff and the chief of Yemeni military intelligence) were flown out of Yemen for medical treatment. The intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Saleh Tammah, died of his injuries.2
The day after the attack, the Houthis used a similar “kamikaze” drone to attack senior officials in the Arab coalition in the Asir region in southern Saudi Arabia, which is close to the border with Yemen.3 They claim that other senior Saudi officials were injured. Sources in Yemen also reckon that the Houthis were behind the bombing of refineries in Aden on January 11.4
Two days later on January 13, Yemeni Information Minister Muammar al-Iryani said that a drone “manufactured in Iran loaded with highly explosive materials” was intercepted on its way to target representatives of Yemen’s government negotiating team participating in the UN-brokered redeployment of forces in the key Hudaydah Province. The minister said that the target was Major General Saghir Bin Aziz, and the “Houthi-Iranian” aim was to derail UN peace efforts and the implementation of the redeployment agreement signed last month in Sweden.5
A spokesman for the Houthis stated that the air force carried out a successful trial of “the new drone that can carry a large quantity of explosive material, which blew up in the air and scattered shrapnel over dozens of meters.” He added that the attacks were carried out after exact intelligence was gathered from the air on the senior officials of the Arab coalition, eventually leading to the attack on them. According to him, the spectacular attack was the opening move of 2019, which will be a year of victory, and during which similar attacks will occur, unless “the forces of the enemy and its mercenaries” take the path of peace and stop their attacks.6
Western weapons experts report that the Qasef drone follows pre-programmed coordinates and are not controlled by a “pilot” using a video link.7 “They’re like slow missiles,” an editor from Jane’s Defense Weekly reported. “Once [the drones] are launched, there is no control. They do have excellent intelligence on the ground. They needed to specifically know when those guys are in the stands to be able to target.”
On social media networks, videos showing the moment of the attack8 have appeared, in which the drone is seen exploding, along with the results of the bombing, shrapnel damage to the building, and the injured among the forces of the Arab coalition.9
Iranian propaganda channels in Arabic, such as Al-Alam, and English, such as Press TV,10 have shown many reports covering the attacks on Saudi bases in Al-Anad and Asir, praising the operations and mocking the fear shown by the Saudi coalition forces after their advanced aerial protection systems failed.
Iran is Behind the Houthis’ Asymmetrical Air Force and Navy
About a year ago (in January 2018), a team of UN experts presented a detailed report to the president of Yemen that assessed the previous model of the Houthi drone, the Qassef 1, as well as the rockets and missiles used by the Houthis in Yemen. They asserted that their origin was Iran and they are exactly the same as Iranian models, despite the Houthi’s claims that they were produced in Yemen:
“The staff identified missile fragments, military equipment, and drones that came from Iran and were brought into Yemen… It has therefore been decided that Iran is in violation of Clause 14 of the UN Security Council Resolution 2216 as it has not taken the necessary steps to prevent the direct or indirect supply of short-range Burkan 2H ballistic missiles (missiles that the Houthis have fired occasionally at targets inside Saudi territory) … and Ababil-T (Qassef 1) drones to Houthi rebels.”11
The Qassef drones used by the Houthis are very similar in their design, size, and attack capabilities to the Iranian Ababil-T, which is produced by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA). This drone can carry between 30 to 40 kg of explosive material over a distance of 150 km. The Qassef 2K, which the Houthis used in their most recent attacks, and the drone/balloon combination that Hamas launched on January 6,12 are very similar to Iranian models, and their origin and/or instructions for assembly come from Iran. It is possible that several improvements have been made to the Qassef 2K from the point of view of the range and the weight of the explosive.
Iranian Field of Experiments
The continuing crisis in Yemen, the end of which does not appear on the horizon in spite of a round of peace talks that were held in December 2018 in Sweden, is an opportunity for Iran to use the Yemen battlefield for experiments for a range of naval, aerialand military weapons. Within this framework, the Houthi rebels are receiving ongoing assistance from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, primarily through the Quds force (IRGC-QF) and guides from the Lebanese Hizbullah, in the fields of the supply and operation of missiles and rockets and the ongoing supply of other means of warfare (such as drones, explosive devices, explosive materials, and other types of weaponry).
Iran is diligently developing asymmetrical air (primarily drones for patrolling and attacks) and naval (GPS-controlled explosive speedboats, WBIEDs) capabilities to compete with the superior naval and aerial abilities of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel and to upgrade its ability to attack ships from the American fleet through swarms of manned and unmanned speedboats, as well as missiles.
The ongoing conflict in Yemen is being waged on land, air, and sea, allowing Iran to assess several military developments and its methods of warfare under combat and attack conditions. The exact operation use of attack drones, such as the attack on the Saudi parade, attacks on oil installations and airports inside Saudi territory, and the dispatch of unmanned explosive speedboats toward targets in the Red Sea, are complex tasks. It would seem that the Houthi rebels are not developing these means themselves but are receiving them (complete or unassembled) from Iran. It is also possible that the drones and the guided speedboats are operated by the naval wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGCN) or Lebanese Hizbullah fighters also helping the missile units of the Houthis. In the past, it was reported that during clashes with Saudi coalition forces, several Iranian “experts” and Hizbullah men were killed.
For these reasons, Iran is interested in continuing the war in Yemen and is working behind the scenes to thwart any UN-mediated peace talks.
Possible Future Usage against Israel
Active Iranian involvement in the conflict in Yemen and the range of weapons that it has presented and assessed in the field also has future implications for the way Palestinian terror organizations and Hizbullah will deal with Israel in future conflicts. Hamas and Hizbullah already use unmanned aerial drones made in Iran or with Iranian know-how in their conflict with Israel, as revealed at the beginning of January 2019. These types of aircraft are very similar to those operating in Yemen and can be used to attack IDF forces or civilian communities, including the communities on the Gaza periphery.
The entrance of unmanned speedboats into the hostilities with Israel that are similar to those used by the Houthis in Yemen may pose a new kind of threat, both to the Israeli navy and Israel’s gas rigs in the Mediterranean Sea. As the conflict in Yemen continues, Iran and Hizbullah continue to gain experience in the use of these means of warfare and they can now implement it in additional arenas of conflict against Israel and also against the United States and Saudi Arabia, in the region of the Persian Gulf.
In the past, Iran developed developed various means of warfare, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in different locations, before deploying them elsewhere. Therefore, the IEDs used against the IDF in Lebanon were later used against U.S. forces and the forces of the coalition in Iraq, and the Houthis are also using them in Yemen. See Col. Richard Kemp’s Killing Americans and their Allies: Iran’s Continuing War against the United States and the West.14
* * *