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Saudi Arabia Attack Update - Many Questions Remain

On September 14, 2019, an extraordinary attack from the air hit the heart of Saudi Aramco, the company that earns over half of Saudi Arabia's annual gross domestic product. The Abqaiq-Khurais attack is a game-changer and a historic milestone for air and missile defense as well as security policies in general. Although it caught most analysts and defense planners by surprise, it should not have, since there were many indicators and warning signs beforehand. Acamar Analysis and Consulting had been warning about unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone attacks on oil facilities and the economic impact this could have for a long time prior. In March of 2019, Acamar wrote a white paper on Venezuela’s claims on Guyanese territory and warned of the possibility of Venezuela using Iranian-designed drones to attack the upcoming Guyanese oil industry and thus severely damaging the Guyanese economy. This paper was shared with the Ministry of Natural Resources of Guyana and later in part published on our website, in April 2019. At that time, hardly anybody but Acamar considered the possibility of drone strikes on oil facilities.


In May of 2019, the Houthi rebels stated that they will start targeting Aramco in Saudi Arabia as a new way of economic deterrence called “Operation of Balanced Deterrence.” In August of 2019, Saudi Aramco acknowledged damage at the Shaybah Oil Field caused by Houthi drones. The attack caused fires but did not disrupt production and hardly got any recognition in the international media. However, the Shaybah Oil Field is right at the border between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, a considerable distance away from Yemen and any Houthi-held territory. The lesser known August attacks were far less sophisticated than the attacks in September but still covered a great distance. Contrary to the immediate reaction to the September attacks, however, no one at that time claimed that the Houthis could not possibly be in possession of any drones capable of covering such distances. Only once the damage was significant enough for the world to care, did people begin to question the Houthi capabilities and possible alternate actors.


After the September attacks on the Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, many details still remain a mystery. Although some of the initial confusion seems to have cleared, there are many questions that will probably never be fully answered. The Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, while the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany hold Iran directly responsible for the attack (whatever this actually means). Iran vehemently denies to have carried out the attacks. Russia and China are still waiting for more evidence to point the finger at anyone (and actually may wait for that evidence forever). Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan answered the question of who is behind the attacks with a question: “We have to look at how the conflict in Yemen started. This country was completely destroyed - who caused it?” Japan carefully pointed out that they did not have evidence to point to Iran and have no reason not to believe the Houthi claims. Saudi Arabia is also blaming Iran and conspiracy theorists are saying it was a Saudi Arabian false flag operation.


After several explosions rocked the Khurais oilfield and the Abqaiq refinery, according to Aramco, the largest crude oil stabilization plant in the world, the Houthis claimed that they had targeted both facilities with ten drones as part of their “Balance of Deterrence” campaign. However, there were more than ten devices which attacked the oil facilities. To add to the confusion, the Houthis quickly convened a press conference where they showed off amateurishly altered and forged photographs of the oil facilities to confirm their claim. In return, Saudi Arabia presented remnants of 18 UAVs and seven cruise missiles fired against the Aramco oil facilities. But Saudi Arabia also was not very convincing either with their version of events or their capabilities to shed light on what happened: Saudi Arabia misidentified (either knowingly or unknowingly) the remnants of the cruise missiles as Iranian Ya Ali cruise missiles. And after vehemently lying to the world about the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia definitely has a credibility problem to overcome. The remnants of fuselages and the debris of the Czech-designed TJ100 engines presented by the Saudis clearly show that the type of cruise missile that they showed off was actually identical to the cruise missile model known as the Quds 1 by the Houthis. Although the Quds 1 in reality may very likely not be an entirely Yemeni-made system as the Houthis claim (it is almost certain that it is Iranian or that Iran is at least heavily involved), the Saudi classification as the Iranian Ya Ali cruise missile is not correct. The same situation occurred in June of 2019, when the Houthi rebels attacked Abha International Airport with the Quds 1 cruise missile and Saudi Arabia claimed it was an Iranian Ya Ali cruise missile. Is this because the Saudis want to show an Iranian connection or is it because they really were unable to correctly classify the cruise missile? Both possibilities are concerning.


The question remains, who developed and built the Quds 1? Although the Houthi rebels claim that the Quds 1 is a Yemeni product, Iran’s previous supply of missiles to the Houthis and the fact that Iran also uses TJ100 engines from Czech Republic in its drone program implies that Iran could be very likely behind the Quds 1 (although in all fairness it must be noted that the Quds 1 has never been seen with Iranian forces). In addition, however, other questions arise. Where did the attack originate? Speculations were fueled by a tweet by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in which he claimed that there was no evidence the attacks came from Yemen. Saudi Arabia, for its part, ruled out Yemen as the point of origin due to the range the drones and cruise missiles would have had to have traveled (but then again, Saudi Arabia also misclassified the cruise missile type). Saudi Arabia concluded that the evidence made it possible that the attack originated in Iran or that the attack was at least sponsored by Iran. An anonymous Iraqi intelligence official claimed the attacks were launched from Southern Iraq by Shia militias in retaliation to Israeli drone strikes on Iraqi forces in August that were allegedly funded by Saudi Arabia. Different reports emerged that the damage at the Abqaiq facilities was on the western-northwestern portions, which would have been difficult for the Houthis to have hit with drones from their location to the southwest. The structures that were damaged did not face south, as would be expected of an attack that came from Yemen. Then, BBC reported that satellite images showed damage on the western side of Abqaiq. Others claimed that the satellite imagery clearly indicates that the attack had to come from either the north or the east. According to Aramco, the drone strikes were in at least two waves; as they were evacuating the Khurais facility and dealing with fires from the attack, supposedly another round of drones struck the facility. Analysis of satellite images of the Abqaiq facility before and after the attacks appear to show 19 individual strikes: 14 that punctured storage tanks, three that disabled oil processing trains, and two more that damaged no equipment. One aspect that was mostly lost in the debate of the geographical origin of the attack and assignment of blame, is the actual statement made by the Houthis which may point to another possibility. In their press conference, the Houthis claimed they had help from within Saudi Arabia. They spoke of “cooperation from honorable and freedom-seeking people within the kingdom.” The Houthi statement did not say the attacks originated in Yemen, fueling speculation that the group could have launched from Southern Iraq or from inside Saudi Arabia itself. There is no disputing, however, that Tehran is backing the Houthi rebels. As Acamar Analysis and Consulting has also repeatedly emphasized in the past, nations, such as Iran, use non-state actors, such as the Houthis, to carry out policy (attacks) with complete plausible deniability. The Houthis are known to be supported by Iran; therefore it is difficult to discern between acts of Iranian influence or when the Houthis are acting independently.


Another question also arose whether drones had been used at all, or if the attack may have in fact been a ballistic missile strike. At one point, Aramco came to the conclusion that its facilities were attacked by missiles. Several pictures began to emerge on social media supposedly showing parts of a missile in the Saudi desert. The images appear to be real; however, neither the date the photos were taken nor their location could be verified.


How were the Saudi oil facilities protected? This question is especially important since the Houthis had openly threatened Aramco and drone attacks had taken place before. The Abqaiq facility had been the site of a failed suicide bombing by Al-Qaeda in 2006. The Khurais oil field produces about 1.5 million barrels of crude oil a day, and is estimated to hold up to 20 billion barrels of oil. It is the country's second largest oilfield. Both facilities are critical for Saudi Arabia. Many voiced criticism about Saudi air defenses and how they failed to prevent the attack and protect these critical assets. The Patriot air and missile defense system and its capabilities were especially questioned by critics. Russian President Vladimir Putin even went so far, when he met in Ankara with Erdogan and Iranian President Rohani to publicly offer to sell Saudi Arabia the Russian S-400 missile system so it could use it against air attacks instead of continuing to use the Patriot missile system. Putin made this offer beside a chuckling Iranian President Rouhani. Pretty bold, considering the more than likely involvement of Iran in the attack.


The Abqaiq oil facility was protected by three Swiss-made Skyguard short-range air defense batteries. Neither the Skyguards nor any other Saudi air-defense system, Patriot, or the French Shahine (Crotale) engaged any drones or cruise missiles. Although the media was quick to critique Patriot, in reality, Skyguard and Crotale would have been better suited to intercept the threat. However, nobody criticized the Swiss or French for supposedly selling Saudi Arabia inadequate defenses in the manner this was done with the Patriot system. Patriot is actually optimized for intercepting ballistic missiles. A factor that is overlooked in this whole debate is the level of training of the Saudi troops operating the air defenses. Their troops have been found to be insecure in operating the equipment and inattentive, resulting in low readiness. For example, Saudi Patriot systems have often been left unattended. Therefore, the Abqaiq-Khurais attack demonstrates why it is important to have an operational background and understanding of air and missile defenses in order to fully understand current geopolitical issues and not jump to false conclusions.


If we were to believe the media and official versions of the attack, we would have to conclude that the attack was an admission of inability for Saudi Arabia and the United States as well. Although Saudi Arabia has done nothing to convince us otherwise, neither during the attacks or in the aftermath and following investigation, if we were to accept the events as the international media is reporting it, the loss of face would be much more severe for the United States. The U.S. has military facilities in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates that do nothing else but observe Iran. U.S. ships are at any given time in the Arabian/Persian Gulf. Additionally, the U.S. has constant surveillance of Iran from Space. Nothing - no aircraft, drone, cruise missile, or ballistic missile - takes off in Iran without the United States having knowledge of it. The U.S. Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) is a constellation of satellites that provide long-range surveillance and target detection capabilities to support missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence, and battlespace awareness. They are capable of providing infrared information for multiple missions simultaneously. These systems detect the heat of rocket and jet engines. If cruise missiles were launched from Iran and the U.S. military was not able to detect them as is suggested by the apparent uncertainty of the origin of the attacks, then that would call the entire U.S. military presence in the region and security in question.


The attack was a highly coordinated operation involving drones as well as cruise missiles that would require ongoing communication. For the United States not to pick up this communication suggests either failure or highly sophisticated Iranian means of communication or detection avoidance. In reality, it is more than likely that U.S. Forces were able to detect the ongoing communication during the attack. It is not credible that the United States does not definitively know where the attacks originated from. But that leads to even more questions. If the United States knows where the attack originated, why is that information not openly shared? If the United States was aware of the attack, why was the information not passed on to Saudi Arabia? Or maybe it was passed on to Saudi Arabia? Why did the Saudis not react? Were they incapable to react? What mechanisms are in place to pass this kind of information on to the Saudis? The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) headquarters for the region is on Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) on Al-Udeid Air Base is where all the information from the region is merged together. Previously, there was Saudi military representation at the CAOC until Saudi Arabia decided to embargo and boycott Qatar and pull all of its military representation out of the country. Could it be that Saudi Arabia actually harmed itself by boycotting Qatar and basically cutting itself off from direct viable U.S. information?


Because of the sophistication of the operation, it is generally not believed that the Houthis could have carried out the attack (at least not alone). If Iran was involved (and a lot speaks for it), this was also a testimony for Iran’s capabilities. Supposedly more than 20 cruise missiles and drones were used in the attack. Such an attack requires a high degree of coordination, navigation, real-time communication, and target selection. In a military exercise in July, Iran demonstrated the ability to conduct operations involving a large number of drones (nearly 50). In the Abqaiq-Khurais attack, 17 targets incurred a direct hit. Considering the 20 projectiles of which debris was found at the attack site, this would mean an 85% success rate, which indicates a very high capability and reliability of technology that was used. By contrast, according to Israeli sources, only 60 percent of Syrian targets were hit in recent U.S. cruise missile attacks. During Russia’s missile strikes on ISIS in Syria, many missiles went astray in the desert. Iranian technology therefore must be seen as reliable and advanced. The Iranians have proven that they or their proxies are capable of producing and simultaneously operating a large number of drones and cruise missiles. The combination of drones and cruise missiles proved highly effective in precisely hitting pinpoint targets, and possibly non-stationary targets as well. Satellite photos show the precision that was achieved in the attack. Each of the targeted spherical gas tankers were hit in the center.


The attack has also demonstrated, just like Russia did during the annexation of Crimea, that Iran is capable of using the concept of plausible deniability to their benefit. If the harm inflicted on the Aramco targets had been openly carried out by the Iranian military with aircraft or uniformed ground forces, it would have been a reason for open war and retaliation. The United States and Saudi Arabia would have been obliged to respond with military force. But when the perpetrator is not officially and firmly identified, and doubts could be spread and strategically exploited, military inaction prevails. This is the new reality of hybrid and information warfare coupled with deniability. In the case of the oil facility attacks, inaction was also in the interest of the United States, because despite all of the rhetoric, the Trump administration does not seem to want an open confrontation with Iran. Therefore, Saudi Arabia and the United States were passive in the attack's aftermath, while also saying at the same time that Iran is to blame.


This event, and the bizarre circumstances and reactions surrounding it, has signaled to many groups around the world, from non-state actors and terrorists in the Middle East, to militant groups in Africa, to drug cartels in Latin America, how effectively armed drones and cruise missiles could be used and what potential impact they can have on politics, infrastructure, and economy.

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Images sourced from mda.mil