The Houthis claim to have fired a ballistic missile at the Saudi city of Taif in the early hours of Monday morning. Saudi state news has confirmed the firing, saying that the missile was ‘destroyed’. This seems to imply that the Saudi missile defence system intercepted it. Footage shared by users on Twitter shows what looks like a missile travelling at high speed, followed by a large flash and bang on the horizon. The Houthis said the missile was aimed at the King Fahd Air Base, and have threatened further attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But based on the approximate range of missiles the group has used and claimed to possess and the areas it controls, these would not reach the UAE.
The firing happened around 36 hours after an airstrike in the Yemeni capital Sanaa that killed 150 people and injured over 500 more. Leaders from the Houthi movement and members of their government were among the dead, along with allies of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The quadruple strike targeted a funeral being held in a large hall in the Hada area of the city. The Saudi coalition issued a statement denying responsibility, but planes can be heard in video footage of the strike, and the coalition controls the airspace. In any case, the Houthis and their supporters hold Saudi Arabia responsible. They have repeatedly called for revenge since the incident.
The Houthis say that they used a Burkan 1 [‘Volcano 1’] ballistic rocket last night. According to Hezbollah news outlet Al-Manar, which is sympathetic to the Houthis, this has a range of 800km, and is a domestically-developed replacement for the Scud capability that the Saudi-led coalition appeared to have degraded last year. This information about the range has not been independently confirmed, but Taif is 500km from the Yemeni border. Al-Manar claims that the launch sites for this new missile are hidden underground, and therefore less vulnerable to Saudi airstrikes. All these missile attacks have occurred at night, as the Houthis seek to avoid detection.
The Burkan 1 was the same rocket that the Houthis claimed to have fired at Taif on 2 September. The Saudi authorities denied that firing occurred, but the UK FCO updated its advice to mention it. The Houthis also claim to have another missile with a range of 300km,Sumoud [‘Steadfast’] rocket, which was unveiled last week. Based on media reporting, including that of Iranian and Hezbollah-linked outlets sympathetic to the Houthis, these and other rockets appear to be a domestic capability, so the Houthis are not dependent on foreign support or supplies to conduct further such attacks. But we do not know how many of any of these types of rockets they have.
The Houthis also seem to have access to anti-ship missiles. Reuters has cited a US naval spokesman as saying that a missile destroyer was targeted in two attempted missile strikes on Sunday evening, but that they ‘impacted the water before reaching the ship’. The US reportedly deployed three missile destroyers to the area around Bab Al-Mandab and the western Yemeni coast last week. That deployment followed a successful Houthi attack against a UAE vessel last weekend. For more on that attack and the threat to shipping see P-03-10-16-YE-1.
The Houthis were already escalating their attacks against Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition following the collapse of peace talks in August. In light of the airstrike in Sanaa over the weekend and recent missile attacks, we assess that the group is particularly likely to seek to mount further attacks against both Saudi military bases and military vessels in the Bab Al-Mandab area. The group has also claimed that it could strike the UAE. This seems to be an exaggeration. But based on the current escalation and the Houthi capability, further firings could disrupt both commercial shipping and aviation, particularly in Saudi airspace.
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Image: Sanaa, Yemen/ September 2016/ Hani Mohammed/AP/Press Association Images