September 23, 2020

September 2020 Map Update: Al Houthi “Balanced Deterrence” Campaign

Contributor: Matthew Eady

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

The al Houthi movement has waged a self-declared “deterrence” campaign against Saudi Arabia for the past year as a messaging effort to present an al Houthi victory against the Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni rivals as a fait accompli. The al Houthi movement’s military spokesman has claimed four attacks on Saudi Arabia since August 2019 as part of a “balanced deterrence” campaign framed as a response to the coalition’s continued air campaign and blockade in Yemen. These claimed attacks occurred in August 2019, September 2019, and February and June 2020. They included drones and ballistic and cruise missiles. The most serious attack in this series was the September 2019 attack on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq, which the al Houthi movement claimed but it did not conduct.

The al Houthis launched the balanced deterrence campaign to secure concessions from Riyadh at a time when Saudi Arabia was under particular strain in Yemen. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a key Saudi-led coalition partner, reduced its forces in Yemen in late spring 2019, reducing the coalition’s operational capacity. When tensions between southern Yemeni factions and Yemen’s internationally recognized government escalated in August 2019, the coalition had to draw some of its resources away from fighting the al Houthis in northern Yemen. That same month, the al Houthis attacked a Saudi oil field, claiming their largest attack yet on Saudi soil. The following month, the al Houthis claimed responsibility for the Abqaiq attack, which US intelligence assessed was conducted from inside Iran, not Yemen. The al Houthi movement nonetheless sought to capitalize on Abqaiq’s effect on Saudi Arabia and declared a unilateral halt on cross-border drone and missile attacks that September. Saudi Arabia accepted a partial cease-fire in Yemen the same month.

The al Houthi movement breached its unilateral pause in cross-border attacks four months later, setting the stage for resumed high-profile attacks on Saudi Arabia. The al Houthi movement targeted Saudi oil facilities with rockets and drones in late January before resuming a high-profile attack on the kingdom in February. The February drone and missile attack targeted the kingdom’s oil facilities, signaling a continued effort to pressure the kingdom to accept a détente as Saudi Arabia sought to exit Yemen’s war. The al Houthis also conducted an attack targeting the kingdom’s security infrastructure in June, which included the Ministry of Defense. This attack *marked an expansion of the balanced deterrence campaign’s targets beyond Saudi oil facilities in an attempt to degrade the kingdom’s military capabilities.

The timing and nature of the balanced deterrence attack claims indicate that the campaign also has a domestic audience. The al Houthi movement has sought to control the information space in its territory, including by persecuting journalists. The balanced deterrence attacks may be timed as retaliation against Saudi-led coalition air strikes that cause high civilian casualties in Yemen.

The al Houthi movement appears to launch attacks under this campaign within weeks of Saudi-led coalition air strikes that cause higher-than-average civilian casualties. The al Houthi movement has not connected balanced deterrence claims to particular air strikes in Yemen, however. Coalition air strikes in summer 2020 have caused civilian causalities just below the number of casualties that appear to have prompted al Houthi retaliation in the past. These air strikes did not prompt the al Houthi movement to claim a fifth attack under this campaign, warranting further analysis.

The al Houthis’ claim of responsibility for the September 2019 attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq, which US intelligence assessed was conducted from Iranian territory, may also be projecting strength to a domestic audience, given that such a claim could not have been expected to fool an international audience for long. The al Houthi movement’s decision to include a false attack claim in the balanced deterrence campaign may indicate possible Iranian coordination, but open-source information to support al Houthi–Iranian coordination on Abqaiq is lacking.

The al Houthi movement can threaten critical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and possibly the UAE, even if the al Houthis’ own claims of their operations are overstated. Iran has enabled the development of the al Houthis’ advanced capabilities since 2015.[1] The al Houthi movement’s evolution and its position inside Yemen will remain key concerns for Saudi Arabia, particularly if the al Houthi movement grows closer to Iran.

Timeline of the balanced deterrence campaign

  • August 17, 2019: First balanced deterrence attack. The first attack *targeted Saudi Aramco’s al Shaybah oil field. The al Houthi movement claimed using 10 drones, stating that this was the “largest” al Houthi attack on Saudi territory since the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen in 2015.
  • September 14, 2019: Second balanced deterrence attack. The second attack originated in Iran and targeted Aramco’s Abqaiq and Khurais oil refineries in eastern Saudi Arabia. The attack temporarily reduced the kingdom’s oil production by half. The al Houthi movement falsely claimed the attack, *stating that it used 10 drones. US and UN investigations have assessed that Iran conducted the attack from its territory using drones and missiles.
  • February 21, 2020: Third balanced deterrence attack. The third attack targeted Aramco and “other sensitive targets” in the kingdom’s western Yanbu province. The al Houthis *claimed using 12 Sammad-3 drones, two Quds-1 cruise missiles, and a Zulfiqar ballistic missile. The al Houthi movement claimed the attack successfully hit its targets, but Saudi Arabia claimed to have intercepted the attack.
  • June 23, 2020: Fourth balanced deterrence attack. The fourth attack targeted royal palaces, the intelligence headquarters, the Ministry of Defense, the headquarters of aviation, and the headquarters of King Salman Air Base in Riyadh. The attack also targeted unspecified military structures in the southwestern Saudi cities of Jizan and Najran. The al Houthis *claimed *using an unspecified number of Quds-1 cruise missiles, Zulfiqar ballistic missiles, Sammad-3 drones, and a “new long-range winged missile,” which it has not yet revealed. The al Houthi movement claimed damaging the Ministry of Defense. Confirmation of such damage remains inconclusive.

Al Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE: 2016–2020

Updated as of September 17, 2020

[Note: This map does not include six reported al Houthi attacks between August 16, 2020 and September 7, 2020 that occurred in unspecified locations in southern Saudi Arabia.]

Map Key

 Yellow pins: Attacks claimed by the al Houthis. Includes successful and attempted attacks.

Blue pins: Attacks by other actors that the al Houthis falsely claimed.

Green pins: Attacks claimed by al Houthis but denied by Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

[1] The US Navy interdicted significant Iranian weapons shipments intended for the al Houthis in the Arabian Sea in November 2019 and February 2020. The February Iranian weapons shipment included missiles capable of downing US military helicopters.

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