On January 10th a clutch of high-ranking officers in Yemen’s Hadi-led government army gathered at Al Anand military base. Seated on a raised dais, they surveyed the soldiers arranged in orderly rows before them while cordial speeches praising the bravery and fighting prowess of the armed forces blasted from tinny loudspeakers.
They had reason for optimism. With the extensive support of the Saudi-led Coalition, Government forces have won control of the majority of the nation’s territory, leaving the Iran-backed Houthi rebel group with the capital Sanaa and an increasingly tenuous toe-hold on the Red Sea coast. The enormous human cost of the nearly 4-year-old war (almost a hundred thousand dead, including tens of thousands of children, and millions displaced) had pushed the main belligerents to a Swedish negotiation table where they hammered out a shaky ceasefire that seemed to be holding.
Perhaps it was that sense of hope that kept anyone from reacting when a low, ominous buzz grew slowly louder over the dais. An official paused in the middle of his speech and glanced skywards – a split second later he lay prone behind the podium, gravely wounded from the explosion that unleashed its full power just above him. An Iranian-made Qasef 1/Ababil T drone, traveling from Houthi controlled territory and most likely using pre-programmed GPS coordinates to reach its target, had detonated over the base, killing 11 people and wounding scores of others.
Husilere ait insans?z hava arac?n?n Bae destekli güçlerin tören noktas?na sald?r? an?.. Yemen pic.twitter.com/kETvTHieet
— Yuri (@yuri4434) 10 janvier 2019
Among the casualties, Yemeni intelligence chief Brigadier General Saleh Tamah, who died Sunday from his injuries and several other high-ranking officials were reportedly injured, some seriously. The attack was a spectacular blow to the already fragile peace process in Yemen with some fearing a reignition of hostilities in a region that already has more than its fair share of conflict.
But observers of war were impressed and perhaps slightly worried by the precedent the Houthi attack was following. One that began in earnest in Syria with the Islamic State and has since spread to conflicts in Iraq, Turkey, Mexico, and Venezuela: the use of inexpensive and relatively unsophisticated UAV technology to successfully best far more powerful traditional armed forces.
Although a “military” drone in the strictest sense, the Qasef-1 is a relatively unsophisticated device, coming from a family of UAVs usually employed for anti-aircraft target practice. But, Houthi rebels, combining the Iranian-produced shell with commercially available electronics and open-source GPS technology, have created a “Frankendrone” of sorts that while not winning any awards for beauty or design has proven incredibly effective at the sort of constant, low-impact, and demoralizing attacks that have become a Houthi calling card.
If it’s the Houthis in the news for the moment, they’re not the first to have used this technique. As early as 2016, the Islamic State was producing armed quadcopters on a semi-industrial scale using commercially available parts sourced from as far away as Denmark and China. One US operative described ISIS drone swarms as “killer bees” whose unrelenting attacks caused relatively few deaths compared to more traditional techniques but demoralized and harassed Iraqi and allied troops to the point of paralysis.
Others were quick to notice with everyone from Mexican drug cartels and Ukrainian smugglers to Venezuelan insurgents getting in on the act. But the Houthi method – using a mix of low-grade military and civilian parts to create a crude but effective weapon – is a worrying new step in this constantly evolving field. And if the pattern holds, other non-state actors are watching and already planning their next UAV purchases.