Saudi Arabia has temporarily closed some of the largest civil airports because of several Iranian/Yemeni Shia rebel attempts to attack these airports and destroy airliners and kill civilians. Two ballistic missiles and four UAV cruise missiles were apparently sent after the largest airport in the country, outside the capital Jedda. This is city is 800 kilometers from Yemen, which is why the Saudis feared another attack directly from Iran. None these strikes have got past Saudi air defenses but the Saudis realized one cruise or ballistic missile warhead hitting any part of an airport or near one would be a major blow to the Saudi reputation for security from airstrikes or Islamic terrorist attacks. This is more important now because in 2019 the Saudis made changes to their visa laws and allowed access to tourist attractions by all foreigners. This program was interrupted by the covid19 crises but that is less of a problem now and more tourists are beginning to arrive. The Saudis assume that this is why Iran has shifted its efforts to Saudi airports. The Iranians realize that many attacks can fail against such high-profiles targets but if one missile gets through, all the failed attacks are worth it. This sort of thing is a standard part of the Iranian playbook, as it the preference for using proxies (mercenaries or foreign clients) rather than make the attacks from Iran or using easily identifiable Iranian personnel.
The Saudis have consistently demonstrated the ability to detect and intercept ballistic missiles and its air defense personnel are now have the most combat experience of any in the world when it comes to cruise and ballistic missile attacks. The same skills have been quickly acquired for dealing with the growing number of Iranian cruise missile attacks from Yemen and Iran. The Saudis don’t release many details but civilians near potential targets have captured on videophone cameras recent incidents of Saudi jet fighters using air-to-air missiles to take down the cruise missile shaped Iranian UAVs that Iranians and Yemeni rebels use as one-way as cruise missiles. This means these improvised cruise missiles can reach targets just about anywhere inside Saudi Arabia. Given the Saudi success this year at detecting these UAVs and shooting them down, Iran had its Shia rebels try concentrating on targets close to the Saudi/Yemen border. This revealed that the Saudis had developed an early warning system that could detect the small, low flying UAVs soon after they took off from locations in northwest Yemen, which contains the Shia rebel tribal homeland, or Sanaa, the national capital, farther south. The rebels have occupied Sanaa since 2014, which triggered the continuing civil war.
The most frequently used UAV/cruise missile is the Iranian Ababil. These are made in Iran and provided to several Islamic terror groups in the region. Ababil is an 83 kg (183 pound) UAV with a three meter (ten foot) wing span, a payload of about 36 kg (80 pounds), a cruising speed of 290 kilometers an hour and an endurance of 90 minutes. That means a one-way flight can reach any target within 400 kilometers of a launch site in northern Yemen or southwestern Iran. There are larger Iranian UAVs that can travel up to a thousand kilometers on one-way missions, but Iran has found that the longer these UAVs are in the air over enemy territory, the more likely they are to be spotted and shot down.
Meanwhile, Iran provides the Shia rebels with lots of Ababils. These are smuggled disassembled, into Yemen, or anywhere else, the Ababils are then reassembled by locals under the supervision of Iranian technicians. Sometimes minor cosmetic modifications are made so the locals can give their Ababis a new name and claim it as their own. That doesn’t work for long because once UN inspection teams were available to visit the site of an attacks to collect fragments of Ababils, it was not long before some of the components were identified as coming from Iran and the exploded UAV an Iranian design.
In Yemen the Ababils are most often used to go after targets at a specific GPS location. While Ababil can be controlled by an operator on the ground via an onboard vidcam, they can only do that when the UAV is within a hundred kilometers of the operators. The GPS-based guidance system of the Ababil means you can send the UAV, armed with an explosive warhead, on a one-way flight to destroy or damage any target within range. When these Ababil attacks began in 2017 they were successful because no one expected them. The Israelis had experience with defeating these attacks and they had already shared that with the Americans, and the Americans have long supplied trainers of and advisors to Saudi air defense personnel. It was not surprising that the Saudis quickly adapted the Iranian/Shia rebel UAV cruise missile attacks and more frequently intercepted or hit them with an airstrike before they could be launched.
The Ground War
For the last two months most of the actual fighting has taken place in central Yemen (Marib province), where a Shia rebel offensive continues despite higher and higher casualties. In the last week there were some days where losses reached levels rarely seen during this seven-year-old civil war. There were at least two days when total daily casualties were in the hundreds with at least a hundred dead. The Marib fighting began in February and, rather than that being intense for a few days or weeks and then fading, the Marib combat kept escalating. Calling the fighting a rebel “offensive” was misleading, most of the time, because most of the “fighting” involves artillery and mortar fire as well as dozens of cruise and ballistic missiles. The government forces respond with even more artillery fire and air strikes, all provided by the Arab Coalition. During the first six weeks of this “intense” fighting the dead and wounded amounted to nearly 500 fighters from both sides as well as a few civilians. In the last three weeks those totals have doubled.
The rebel offensive was all about pushing government forces out of the province completely, and it failed. Some of these attacks temporarily weakened the rebels in Marib sufficiently for the government counterattacks to force the depleted rebel forces back. The February offensive became more likely when the UAE forces left Marib in early 2020 because of disagreements with Saudi Arabia over strategy and to concentrate all their military forces in the UAE where they were needed to discourage any Iranian aggression. For that reason, the UAE took their missile defense systems with them and that made government military bases more vulnerable to rebel ballistic and cruise missiles attacks. The withdrawal of Arab coalition forces from Marib enabled the rebels to successfully regain control of much territory in the province. But the early on the rebels suffered hundreds of casualties in failed efforts to capture the provincial capital, which is 120 kilometers east of the rebel held national capital Sanaa. Another objective was the oil fields in Marib. Yemen has some oil resources and, even though they are tiny compared to what Iran and the other Arab states in the region have, they were enough to supply internal needs as well as provide some for export. Production and exports were halted several years ago but possession of Yemenis oil resources is a prestige thing. The Yemeni government and the Arab coalition also wanted to use Marib as a base area for a possible ground advance in the rebel held national capital Sanaa.
April 10, 2021: In the north, Shia rebels sent two another explosives laden UAVs into southwest Saudi Arabia. One of the UAVs was apparently programmed to attack the main airport outside the Saudi
Red Sea port of Jazan near the Yemen border. The other UAV was headed for the King Khalid Air Base which is inland and near the border city of Khamis Mushait. Both UAVs were intercepted
April 9, 2021:
In the southeast (Hadramawt province) the third largest airport in Yemen was reopened for regular commercial flights for the first time since 2016. The two largest airports, in Aden and Sanaa were never shut down although the rebel-controlled Sanaa airport is one limited use because of the aerial blockade imposed by the Arab coalition since 2015.
April 6, 2021:
In the south (Shabwa Province), al Qaeda took credit for a rocket attack on an Arab Coalition base. There were no casualties or property damage. This incident was more of a “we’re still here” reminder. There are two active Islamic terror groups in Yemen. The much larger and more active one is
(Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and a much smaller, and less active ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) affiliate. Both these terrorist groups have been keeping their heads down in rural hideouts since 2017. Most of these hideouts are in central Yemen
and areas to the east. Some are believed to be in rebels held territory. Baida province used to be a major AQAP base area but not so much now as more AQAP factions disperse to other areas in central and eastern Yemen. Anywhere an Islamic terrorist can find a hospitable tribe, they can usually arrange refuge
. AQAP has few active members left in Yemen and the only remaining local support is from some separatist Sunni tribes in the south and east.
Since 2017 AQAP has been under heavy attack by the Americans and the Arab coalition and the Islamic terrorists have responded by shifting more of their attacks from Shia rebels to the government and Arab coalition forces. ISIL and AQAP were fighting each other a lot after mid-2018 but since early 2020 ISIL has not been very active. ISIL lost this war and some ISIL factions are known to be hiding out in Shia rebel territory. That requires offering some cooperation with the Shia rebels and that apparently includes useful intel on what is going on in the rest of Yemen, where ISIL still has fans. ISIL and AQAP are both trying to rebuild, especially after the losses (including defections) during its battles with each other. That’s another reason why
Yemen is a slow-motion war made slower by hunger, disease and poverty. AQAP began making attacks again in late 2020 and three or four have been noted since late 2020.
In the Red Sea, off Yemen, Israeli commandos placed a limpet mine on the side of a stationary Iranian freighter (the Saviz) and cause minor damage, including a fire that was quickly extinguished. The Saviz has been anchored in international waters 150 kilometers northwest of the Yemeni port of Hodeida since 2017 and Iran insists it is there to keep that portion of the Red Sea safe from pirates. Everyone has gone along with that fiction. In mid-2019 a Saudi military transport helicopter paid a visit to pick up an ill Iranian sailor who was flown to a Saudi hospital for emergency treatment. The Iranian request for a medical evacuation was done via the UN because the Saudis and Iran have no diplomatic relations. This is one of those curious situations so common to the cultures of the region. The Saviz has been anchored (outside the shipping lanes and in plain sight) for years. Apparently, the ship, which is regularly resupplied by other Iranian merchant ships, is unarmed but there are also several speedboats on the deck and men in IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) uniforms are regularly seen out in the open as well. In reality the Saviz serves as a mothership for small, fast, smuggling boats that can carry limited quantities of small items ashore and get away with it. The Saudis have not shut down the Saviz because of some unofficial understanding that as long as Iran does not resume putting naval mines in the shipping channel and firing missiles at passing military and commercial traffic, the Saviz would be left alone. The Saviz may well be the main source of the additional UAVs the Shia rebels have been getting and using since 2017. But as long as none of these UAV attacks do any serious damage, the Saviz will be left alone. It was believed that eventually the truth about the Saviz would come out, and join that many other strange tales of mysterious Middle East. Israel moved this story forward with the limpet mine attack and the Saudis may follow with a seizure of Saviz, especially considering the growing number of Iranian UAVs used by the Yemeni Shia rebels to attack Saudi Arabia.
March 30, 2021: In central Yemen (Marib province) a Shia rebel ballistic missile aimed at a military base went off course and landed in residential area just before noon. One civilian died and six were wounded. The rebels denied responsibility.
March 26, 2021: UN investigators revealed that they had confirmed that the
December 30 2020 attack on the Aden airport by three Iranian cruise missiles was carried out by the Shia rebels. Part of the evidence was cellphone videos taken by local civilians where the missile launches in rebel territory took place and later hit Aden airport. The Shia rebels are now regarded as an oppressive occupying force in most areas they control. The Shia rebels no longer seek to hide the Iranian support and increasingly exercise control over civilians with threats of violent retribution for those who cooperate. This has been a major intel victory for government and Arab coalition forces because there is a steady stream of accurate information on rebel activities coming out of rebel territory.
The December 30 attack hit the airport shortly after members of the new Yemeni government arrived from Saudi Arabia. The officials were not harmed but the missiles killed 22 and wounded 110. The airport remained closed until January 3rd. These Iranian missiles are used by the Shia rebels more frequently indicating that the Iranian smuggling network is growing again. The rebels denied that they were responsible for the airport attack and blamed it on Saudi Arabia. Fragments of the three missiles were collected so that precise identification of the cruise missiles could be made. UN investigators are involved in the identification process and have confirmed the Iranian origins of the rockets and missiles (cruise and ballistic) used by the rebels. Also employed are Iranian UAVs equipped with explosives but these are being replaced by Iranian cruise missiles. One such UAV was shot down on December 30th as it headed for the Presidential Palace in Aden. Saudi Arabia responded with several air strikes against rebel facilities, including at least one involved in assembling cruise missiles using Iranian components.
March 22, 2021: Saudi Arabia proposed a new round of peace talks with the Yemeni Shia rebels and offered some concessions to show good faith. This met with approval from UN personnel who have also been trying to revive peace talks. After two weeks of preliminary discussions went nowhere because of disagreements over what could be negotiated. The Shia rebels are apparently following their Iranian advisors’ advice in this respect and not only demanding far more than the Saudis can provide but also increased the number of cruise and ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. The UN mediators believe the Shia rebels are taking orders, not just advice, from their Iranian patrons. There are a growing number of Yemeni Shia who are willing to make peace but for the moment remain an intimidated minority. Some Shia and Sunni tribes in the north have ceased to support the war and with nearby Saudi help and got away with this.
March 18, 2021:
In the south (Abyan Province) al Qaeda gunmen attacked rural checkpoint, killing eight soldiers and four civilians.
Al Qaeda has been relatively quiet during 2020 but there have been a few attacks in late 2020, most of them insignificant.