ATbar The Houthi Drone Threat in Yemen

The Houthi Drone Threat in Yemen

03/02/2019 | by Shay, Shaul (Dr.)  

Proliferation of armed drones throughout the world and the use of drones by militant groups have become commonplace in modern asymmetric warfare between armed non state actors and states.

Iran has developed a drone arsenal and considered as the main source of the proliferation of drones in the Middle East. It has transferred reconnaissance and armed drones to Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthi militia in Yemen.

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, Brigadier General Saleh Tamah was injured in the attack and later died of his wounds.[1] Footage of the attack showed a drone exploding over a podium around which dozens of military personnel were standing.[2]

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.”[3]

Yahya Sarea, a Houthi spokesman, said that the drone attack was a “legitimate operation against aggression, "and threatened to increase the frequency of their drone attacks.  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.[4]

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.[5]

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 "substantial progress" was needed on the ground before full-blown negotiations could be launched on ending the civil war.[6]

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 l drones have been shot down in December 2018 in different Yemeni fronts. [7]

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. Yemen’s 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.
  • To conduct cross border attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis claimed that they had manufactured domestically the drones, 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.[8]

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.[9]

The “Qasef-1” drone

The Houthis are using a type of suicide drone named “Qasef-1” to conduct attacks in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The Qasef-1 is a copy of the Iranian-made “Ababil-2” drone, produced by Iran’s Airca Manufacturing Industrial Company, armed with 30kg 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. [10]

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".[11]

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 found in the lorry 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.[12]

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.[13]



Houthi drone attacks in 2018

"False" drone attack on Dubai Airport (August 2018)

On August 27, 2018, the United Arab Emirates, said air traffic was normal after "false" reports that the Houthi militia in Yemen had targeted Dubai Airport with a drone.[14]

Houthi-run media said earlier that a Sammad-3 drone had targeted the facility, but did not provide any evidence and there were no reports of damage or casualties.[15]

In July 2018, the militants made a similar claim about targeting Abu Dhabi airport, which was denied by the UAE.

On August 26, 2018, the Yemeni army in al-Bayda has shot down a drone belonging to the Houthi militias. The army managed to shoot down the drone through a medium- machine gun.[16]

The drone attack in Aden (July 5, 2018)

 The Arab Coalition air defenses have shot down on July 5, 2018, a Houthi drone after it tried to bomb  its headquarters in al-Braiqa north-west of the city. No casualties resulted from shooting down the drone.[17]

The drone attack in Hodeidah  (July  3, 2018)

On  July 3, 2018,, around 50km south of Hodeidah, the official Houthi media site released video which appeared to show a drone dropping bombs on Emirati troops below them, and striking their target.[18]  It is possible that this is a new variant of UAV from those that have previously documented in Yemen.  However, even if it does represent a technological upgrade for the Houthis, the bombs they used against Emirati forces appear to be low-tech, unguided ones.

The drone attacks in the battle of Hodeidah (June 18 – 29, 2018)

The Yemeni army shot down on June 18, 2018, an Iranian-made drone belonging to the Houthi militia over Hodeidah province. Brig Gen Abdel Rahman Al Lahji, a commander in the army's former elite Al Amalikah brigades, said the drone was carrying explosive devices.[19]

On June 21, 2018, the Yemeni Army shot down another Iranian-made drone belonging to the Houthi militias near Hodeidah airport, the second incident in few days.

The Yemeni al Amalikah brigade said in a statement that the drone was shot down near Hodeidah International airport, publishing pictures of the Iranian made-drone used by the Houthis to spy on the Yemeni legitimate army positioned in liberated Hodeidah airport.[20]

On June 29, 2018, the legitimate Yemeni forces shoot down an Iran-made Houthi drone, carrying explosives in the Durahemi district in Hodeidah. The army forces tracked down and targeted the drone, before it crashed in an empty area in the district and exploded.[21]                                





The drone attack against Abha airport in Saudi Arabia (May 2018)

The Saudi-led Arab Coalition has foiled an attempted drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport on May 26, 2018. According to the coalition, they have intercepted and destroyed a drone that approached Abha airport. The Abha airport is not far from the military airport near Khamis Mushait.[22]

The Iranian backed Houthi rebels said its drones have bombarded Abha International Airport in the kingdom’s southwestern province of Asir, inflicting damage upon it. The Houthis warned that they would increase such retaliatory attacks against Saudi bases and facilities in near future.[23]

The spokesman for the Coalition fighting to support legitimacy in Yemen, Col. Turki al-Malki  said that the coalition targeted and destroyed  a Houthi drone  warehouse in Yemen and that they recently targeted and bombed an Iranian-made Ababil drone inside Yemeni territories.[24]

UAE army intercepted Houthi drone in Yemen (April 2018)

The UAE military, on April 18, 2018, said it had “intercepted” an “explosive-laden” Qassef-1 Houthi drone , of Iranian manufacture , in the skies over Yemen. The drone had been targeting Yemeni army positions along Yemen's Red Sea Coast.[25]

The drone attack on ARAMCO facility in Saudi Arabia (April 2018)

On April 11, 2018, the Houthi rebels launched a drone strike on a facility belonging to oil giant Saudi Aramco in southern Saudi Arabia. Saudi Aramco is building a 400,000-barrel-per-day refinery in Jizan, part of a new economic city on the Red Sea. The refinery is expected to become fully operational in 2019.[26]

The Houthis’ Al-Masirah TV channel said that: “The air force announced the execution of air strikes with the Qasef-1 aircraft on Aramco in Jizan [province].”


Security in Yemen has become an international concern because of its proximity to Saudi Arabia, the strategic Bab al Mandeb 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 also targets in Saudi territory.

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.[27]

The presence of Iranian-designed and manufactured drones  in Yemen, not only confirms Iran’s materiel support to Houthi forces, but also its role in enabling the groups 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. [28]

In spite of the efforts of the Saudi coalition the Yemeni legitimate 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.

[1] How the Houthis attacked Yemen’s airbase in Lahij by drone, Al Arabiya, January 13, 2019.

[2] Six killed in Houthi drone attack on Yemen military parade, Arab News, January 10, 2019.

[3] Yemeni Information Minister: Attempt to assassinate Hodeidah redeployment team thwarted, Arab News, January 13, 2019.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Houthi drone control center destroyed in Yemen as US condemns Lahaj attack, Arab News, January 12, 2019.

[6] Six killed in Houthi drone attack on Yemen military parade.

[7] Yemeni army shoots down Iranian-made Houthi drone in Marib, Al Arabiya, December19, 2018.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Houthi forces appear to be using Iranian-made drones to ram Saudi air defenses in Yemen, report says, The Washington Post, March 22, 2017.

[11] Yemen claims Iran supplies Houthi rebels with drones, Arab News, April 15, 2018.

[12] Ami Rojkes Dombe,  Iran Provides Suicide Drones to Houthi Rebels in Yemen, Israel Defense, March 22, 2017.

[13] Ibid.

[14] UAE denies 'untrue' reports that Houthis targeted Dubai airport, Arab news, August 27, 2018.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Yemeni army shoots down Houthi drone in al-Bayda province, Al Arabiya, August 26, 2018.

[17] Arab Coalition shoots down a Houthi drone in Yemen’s Aden, Al Arabiya, July 5, 2018.

[18] Yemen’s Houthis May Have Drones with Bombs, and they’re using them against the Saudi coalition, Albawaba, July 5, 2018.

[19] Yemen army shoots down Iranian-made ‘spy drone’ in Hodeidah, Al Arabiya, June 18, 2018.

[20] Yemeni army shoots down Iranian-made drone near Hodeidah airport, Al Arabiya, June 21, 2018.

[21] Arab Coalition shoots down a Houthi drone in Yemen’s Aden, Al Arabiya, July 5, 2018.

[22] Arab Coalition foils attempted terrorist drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abha, Al Arabiya May 26, 2018.

[23] Yemen’s Arabic-language al-Masirah television network,  May 26, 2018.

[24] Coalition targets, destroys Houthi militia drones factory in Yemen, Al Arabiya, May 29, 2018.

[25] UAE army intercepts Houthi drone in Yemen: News agency, Anadolu Agency, April 18, 2018.

[26] Yemen’s Houthis claim drone attack on Saudi Aramco facility, Gulf Business, April 11, 2018.

[27] Yemen’s Houthis claim drone attack on Saudi Aramco facility, Gulf Business, April 11, 2018.

[28] Yemen’s Houthis may have drones with bombs, and they’re using them against the Saudi Coalition, Albawaba, July 5, 2018.

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