Yemen's Houthi rebels, who have been at war with a Saudi-Emirati coalition since 2015, claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks on two Saudi Aramco facilities on Sept. 14, 2019.
The attacks apparently involved either cruise missiles or far-flying drones firing small guided munitions. Thanks in part to support from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Houthis possess both types of weapons.
The Houthis also have produced an array of land-attack ballistic missiles. The militants reportedly have converted old Soviet- and North Korean-made Scud rockets, which once belonged to the Yemeni military, into longer-range “Burkan” ballistic missiles.
Similar efforts resulted in an arsenal of anti-ship weapons. In 2015 and 2016 the Houthis repeatedly targeted ships sailing near Yemen. At the peak of the shipping war in October 2016, Houthi forces fired fired two cruise missiles toward the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Mason and the amphibious ship Ponce while the two vessels were sailing in international waters north of the Mandeb Strait.
Mason fired three surface-to-air missiles and launched a radar decoy. The first Houthi missile fell into the sea, either on its own or after being struck or redirected by the American weapons or decoy. The second Houthi missile harmlessly struck the water without American missiles or decoys directly intervening.
Aviation expert Tom Cooper in a 2016 article explained the origin of the Houthi anti-ship force. “As the Yemeni civil war escalated in the period from September 2014 to March 2015, as much as two-thirds of Yemen’s armed forces defected to the Houthi side,” Cooper wrote. “The defectors included the crews of three Chinese-made Type 021 missile boats armed with C.801 anti-ship missiles.”
The missiles boats were destroyed or left idle. But not so their missiles. Yemeni sailors recovered a number of the C.801s and their launchers. The sailors installed the missiles on several trucks, coupled them with various surface-search radars — and began firing back at the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in the civil war starting in May 2015.
The first attack was reported on Oct. 8, 2015 — around a week after a combined force of Emirati, Bahraini and Qatari troops forced the Yemenis to withdraw to the port of Mocha, 40 kilometers north of the strategically important Bab Al Mandab Strait, which connects the Red Sea, and thus the Suez Canal, with the Indian Ocean.
According to official reports from the Yemeni capital Sana’a, which is now under Houthi control, this attack “destroyed” the Saudi navy tanker Yunbou. Two nights later, the pro-Houthi Yemenis struck again, this time reportedly targeting either the Saudi navy tanker Boraida or an Egyptian navy warship the Houthis identified as Al Mahrousa.
In truth, neither Boraida nor Yunbou was even damaged, while Al Mahrousa is a 150-year-old presidential yacht that has certainly never ventured anywhere near Yemen in years.
Nevertheless, the Yemenis kept on trying. On Oct. 25, 2015, they fired another C.801 and claimed a third Saudi warship as “destroyed,” this time releasing a video implying that the ship in question was actually either a corvette belonging to the United Arab Emirates navy or an Egyptian navy frigate.
The Houthis reported seven additional ship-attacks in November and December 2015, each time claiming to have sunk a Saudi warship near Bab Al Mandeb Strait. In each instance, the Saudi-led coalition — which has benefited from U.S. logistical support — denied any ship was damaged.
Following a longer break — probably the result of extensive but fruitless negotiations between the Houthis and the Saudi coalition — the Yemenis resumed their anti-ship operations on Oct. 1, 2016.
This time their C.801 missile scored a verifiable direct hit on the catamaran Swift, a former U.S. Navy catamaran now in Emirati service. The missile impacted at the starboard bow and wrecked the ship’s bridge, injuring many of the crew but apparently killing no one.
Although the Houthis denied any role in the attacks on the American warships, Washington was quick to implicate the militant group. When Mason came under attack a second time on Oct. 12, 2016 — also unsuccessfully — the Americans retaliated.
The destroyer USS Nitze fired several Tomahawk cruise missiles at three radar sites in Houthi territory, reportedly destroying the sensors. Anti-ship attacks in the region have ebbed since then.