Sana’a (MPN) – Yemen’s Houthis, bloodied and besieged by three years of a brutal Saudi bombing campaign, are taking the offensive and forcing Saudi Arabia to confront its war on its own soil.
Saudi Arabia’s bloody war on Yemen has killed and injured over 600,000 civilians, including more than a quarter of a million children, since it’s onset in March 2015, and it shows no signs of letting up. On April 2, Saudi warplanes targeted a refugee camp in Yemen’s Hodeidah province, leaving piles of dead children in its wake. Fourteen people were killed in the attack, including seven children and three women. On Sunday, April 9, Saudi warplanes launched a series of air raids on a farm in Taiz, killing a family of 12. And few Yemenis could forget October 2016, when Riyadh targeted a funeral in the capital city of Sana’a, killing over 160 and injuring 600. Funerals, weddings, markets, and other large gatherings are routine targets for airstrikes, along with cemeteries, mosques, and archaeological and cultural sites, including the ancient Marib Dam and a number of museums.
It is in this context that, following three years of war, Yemen’s Houthi military leadership announced a new wave of retaliation for the ongoing Saudi-led coalition’s campaign against the country.
Despite the odds against it, Yemen’s military has given no indication it plans to cede to Saudi pressure. It began this week with a campaign of retaliatory strikes against the Gulf Kingdom and its allies, using unmanned drones and a barrage of domestically produced long-range ballistic missiles to hit vital facilities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The strikes are the latest evidence of a long-running effort to shore up domestic military capability, including missile production, since Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their Western backers began their assault in March of 2015
Yemen’s domestic military capability is largely absent from coverage of the conflict in English-language media, which often portray the Houthis as a group of ragtag rebels able to secure only a limited number of long-range ballistic missiles (ostensibly smuggled into the country by Iran). But, over the past three years, military institutions in the capital Sana’a have devoted considerable time, energy, and resources to advancing the country’s missile program.
Officials and citizens alike consider the domestic missile program a vital component of national defense against the well-equipped Saudi military, which receives unfettered access to advanced U.S. and British arms. “Yemenis see the missile program as a human right to self-defense just as any other nation would — especially a nation under daily airstrikes on civilian areas,” Ali Al Quhom, a member of The Political Bureau of Ansarullah (Houthis) told MintPress News.
To better understand the impetus for the missile program, and the motivations behind it, MintPress spoke to Yemeni Brigadier-General Aziz Rashid, Supreme Political Council Secretary Dr. Yaser Al-Houri, and a retired Yemeni Army brigadier.
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Early days of the Saudi Assault
Almost as soon as the Saudi war on Yemen began, Houthi leadership scrambled to retain some sort of retaliatory capability. In the first days of the war, a Saudi airstrike destroyed a weapons-storage facility containing many of Yemen’s domestically developed ballistic missiles and anti-aircraft guns. Less than three months later, domestic missile production was operational again and on June 6, 2015, Yemen’s Missile Force launched its first homegrown ballistic missile — a Scud with a range of more than 800 km — toward the King Khalid Bin Abdulaziz Airport in southern Saudi Arabia.
Three months later, the Yemeni Air Force launched its newly created “Tochka” ballistic missile against a Saudi military base in Safer, eastern Yemen, causing a huge blast and inflicting numerous casualties on coalition troops. Fifty-two Emirati, 10 Saudi, and five Bahraini troops, as well as dozens of Saudi-backed mercenaries, were killed in the attack.
On September 7, 2016, a new ballistic missile dubbed the “Borkan H-1” (or “Volcano H-1”) was unveiled. The Borkan is a modified Scud, and was used to strike a military base near Riyadh, more than 800 km from Yemen’s northern border. Later, the Yemeni Air Force unveiled the “Borkan H-2”, which was able to evade U.S. Patriot missiles defenses and land near the King Khalid International Airport near Riyadh.
In February 2017, the Houthis unveiled four domestically manufactured drones — the Qasef-1 (Striker-1), the Hudhud-1 (Hoopoe-1), the Raqib (Observer), and the Rased (Surveyor) — all of which perform a variety of tasks, including aerial monitoring, battlefield observation, and geophysical surveying.
The Houthis have also modified Soviet missiles for use in the war, including the Qaher 2, which is a domestically modified Soviet SA-2 missile that boasts a range of over 300 km. This Qaher 2, which contains a 200-to-400 kg warhead, struck a military base located 966 km south of Riyadh on April 1, 2018, making it the very first Yemeni rocket to reach such a distance.
Hesham S. Al-Kibsi, a journalist in Sana’a, told MintPress:
“When the Saudi-led/U.S.-backed aggression first started, they [the aggressors] were sure they would occupy the whole of Yemen in a few weeks just like they announced. Little did they know that Yemenis would build drones and missiles that would shower their military and economic installations deep in the heart of Saudi territory.”
Yemen goes on the offensive
Living under the constant threat of Saudi and coalition airstrikes has not deterred Yemen from building its burgeoning domestic military capability. “In the coming period, we will launch missiles every day and Saudi Arabia will not be safe from Yemeni missiles, no matter how they plan their defense systems,” President Saleh Al-Sammad announced shortly before he was killed by a coalition airstrike.
Brigadier-General Sharaf Ghalib Luqman echoed al-Sammad, stating “rocketry operations will continue as long as the aggression continues to commit crimes against the Yemeni people. The latest was its mercenaries’ assault of a woman in the West Coast.” referring to the rape of a Yemeni woman in Hodeidah by a Sudanese Janjaweed mercenary employed by the Saudi coalition.
And that is exactly what the Houthis are doing. While the missile program began in earnest almost as soon as the conflict began, the most recent campaign against the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition includes the development of a new line of short- and long-range ballistic missiles capable of attacks against military sites and economic targets inside of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
According to a recent statistic MintPress obtained from the Yemeni Army’s Military Media Department, the Air Force has already launched a total of 102 long-range missiles — including 31 Qaher 1 and 2 (Subdue 1 and 2), five Scud missiles, 57 Borkan, 14 Tochka, two Cruise-type missiles, in addition to 44 Zelzal, and 46 Badr-1, as well as 17 short-range ballistic missiles.
The Houthis also possess short-range tactical missiles, including the domestically manufactured “al-Najim al-Thaqib,” which is Arabic for “The Piercing Star.” The Piercing Star 1 is 3m long and has a range of 45 km and holds a 50 kg payload. Its second iteration, The Piercing Star 2, is 5m long and has a range of 75 km with a 75 kg payload. Both versions have fixed stabilization grid fins and are launched from rails rather than tubes.
On April 11, the Houthis launched a major attack on the Saudi army. The attack began with artillery shelling directly striking ranks of the Saudi military and was followed with a barrage of Borkan 2 long-range ballistic missiles against the Saudi Defense Ministry building in Riyadh, an Aramco oil facility in Jizan, as well as other undisclosed targets inside Saudi territory.
Although Saudi Arabia claims its American-made Patriot missile defense system intercepts most of Yemen’s ballistic missiles, a large crop of videos and photos circulating on social media, as well as assessments by military analysts suggest otherwise.
A barrage of Yemeni missiles was also launched against Saudi targets on the third anniversary of the Saudi-led war, weeks before the attacks on Riyadh and Jizan. Yemen’s Missile Force also struck King Khalid Bin Abdulaziz International Airport in southern Saudi Arabia a total of three times with Borkan missiles — the most recent strike taking place on March 26.
Houthi leadership has not reserved its missile-centric strategy for Saudi Arabia alone; the Gulf’s kingdom’s closest Arab ally in the war, the UAE, has not been immune to missile attacks. Yemeni forces targeted the $20 billion Barakah nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi’s far western desert with a winged cruise missile — though the UAE denied the attack, later saying the country “possesses an air defense system capable of dealing with any threat of any kind.” In a statement, authorities in the UAE told residents “not to pay attention to such rumors disseminated by media agencies issuing false news that question the UAE’s capabilities, strength and security.”
The Houthis have stated they now consider high-value economic sites to be legitimate military targets, adding that impacting Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s sources of capital — their lifeblood — is an appropriate defensive response to the siege and blockade that has devastated Yemen’s economy and adversely affected the value of Yemen’s currency, the Rial.
On the anniversary of war against Yemen, AbdulMalik al-Houthi (leader of the Houthi movement running state affairs in the absence of an official administration) vowed to step-up use of long-range weaponry and recruit more fighters in a bid to confront the Saudi-led war effort against his country:
“In the fourth year of the war, we will use more developed and more diverse missile systems, which will penetrate all American and non-American air defense systems to target Saudi Arabia.”
Awash in weapons
Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies have been quick to lay blame on Iran for providing the Houthis their ballistic missile arsenal — a move they claim violates Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Yemen, which has been denounced by both the United Nations and Human Rights Watch for its devastating humanitarian impact, as well as a violation of the ‘spirit’ of the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA). However, documents from the Yemeni Ministry of Defense reveal that both the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) purchased ballistic missiles from the Soviet Union and Korea during the Cold War in the 1980s and 2000s.
In fact, the late Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh was a close ally of former U.S. President George W. Bush during the early years of the “War on Terror.” During that period Saleh received substantial military assistance — at least $400 million worth of weapons and equipment — from the United States. Saleh then handed Yemen’s arsenal of ballistic missiles, as well as other weapons and equipment, to Abdrabbuh Mansour al-Hadi’s government in 2012. The Houthi movement and its allies took control of the storage facilities housing those weapons during the 2014 revolution. As for small arms, Yemen ranks in the top three for the number of weapons per capita — second only to the United States and Serbia.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a retired Yemeni Army brigadier who participated in arms deals during the 1980s told MintPress:
“We purchased hundreds of Scuds and Tochka missiles from the Soviet Union during the Cold War and from [North] Korea as well. . . .
A typical Scud missile, a Soviet-era missile with a limited range that Yemeni forces have based their domestically developed Borkan-2 missile on, is more than 11 meters long and weighs between 4 and 6 tons depending on its type. Smuggling such a large and heavy piece of weaponry into Yemen is impossible.”
The Houthis reject Nikki Haley’s claims that Iran smuggled missiles into Yemen. Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, dismissing these claims, told France 24 TV:
“If we had the alleged Iranian support, we would have been in Riyadh today. If we had the Iranian technology, we would have used it to target the enemies starting from the first day. … We are developing and manufacturing our own missiles on the basis of Russian and North Korean technologies. The projectiles have no Iranian know-how incorporated in them.”
Army spokesman Sharaf Ghalib Luqman confirmed Yemen’s Missile Force developed the Badr-1, the Qaher 1 and 2, as well as the Borkan 1 and 2 to strike high-value targets inside Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The need for and right to national self-defense
U.S. media coverage of the conflict often tends not to veer far from the Saudi line, portraying the Houthis as aggressors and violent rebels and underplaying the support Washington provides to Saudi Arabia, including intelligence and logistical support for devastating Saudi airstrikes. Houthi military leadership sees this as an affront to their right to self-defense, but also view the nature of the coverage as an attempt to disguise Riyadh and Washington’s military failures, as the well-equipped coalition has failed to conquer one of the poorest nations on Earth.
As Dr. Yaser Al-Houri, Secretary of Supreme Political Council, the highest authority in the country, explained to MintPress:
“Nikki Haley’s claims are a terrible failure. She does not want to admit the U.S. fiasco in Yemen despite using sophisticated surveillance systems. Her claims are also to distract attention from the failure of the U.S. Patriot missile defense system vs. Yemeni rocket attacks. These missiles have been produced or developed by the Yemenis and our military industry, so whatever they believe, we will defend ourselves. We have the right to possess all means to do so as long as the Saudi-led coalition continues bombing Yemen with internationally prohibited weapons.
Ebrahim Abdulkareem lost his daughter in a Saudi air strike, his tragic photo along with his dead daughter has spread throughout the world.
Meanwhile no one condemned the Saudi massacre; instead the White House and Haley issued a statement condemning the Yemeni missile attack targeting Saudi military sites; the U.S. is full of duplicity!”
Former Houthi President, the late Saleh Ali al-Samad, echoed these sentiments on April 2, when he told a group of graduating cadets in Sana’a:
“The Yemeni Army would not hesitate to buy weapons if it could bypass the siege, for it has the right to face the Saudi aggression. We do not necessarily need to purchase weapons because we have manufactured them.
We are ready to buy weapons from any state that has the willingness to sell us any, whether it is Russia or Iran. But that is only in one case: if they are capable of entering them.”
Brigadier-General Aziz Rashid also denied the allegations, telling MintPress:
“These claims are made in order to mislead public opinion and are one part of a media war launched by Arab and Western media against us.
We’ve managed to upgrade these missiles here, by ourselves. We are besieged from all sides on land, water and air. In these conditions, it would be impossible to receive missile shipments from Iran.”
According to senior Houthi leaders we spoke to, the retaliatory military operations will continue — and escalate — as long as the Saudi-U.S. war and siege continue. The country has unified and organized to defend itself — the ballistic missile program and growing military advancements are a reflection of this.
Sana’a journalist Hesham S. Al-Kibsi explained the grassroots unifying nature of Yemen’s missile program and resistance movement:
“This is the only way they will feel the consequences of their atrocities. People from all walks of life have sent their sons and their savings to Yemen’s Military and Popular Committees to fend off this aggression. Doctors, engineers, lawyers and other workers are all contributing to the war effort in various aspects so that they can live with their families free and safe.”
This post originally ran on MintPress News.
Ahmed Abdulkareem is the editor of YemenExtra based in Sana’a, Yemen. Randi Nord is the founder of Geopolitics Alert based in Pontiac, Michigan.