Saudi Arabia is facing more frequent and increasingly precise airborne attacks as Iran-linked groups in neighboring Yemen and Iraq exploit persistent gaps in the kingdom’s defenses and the Biden administration reconsiders the U.S. approach to the region.
Fixed-wing drones laden with explosives and launched from Iraq smashed into the main royal complex in the Saudi capital Riyadh in one such strike on Jan. 23, according to U.S. officials and other people familiar with the incident.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels have escalated attacks across the kingdom’s southern border this month, including a strike last week that hit an empty passenger jet at a provincial airport. They have also launched drones and missiles against a nearby military base and Jeddah’s international airport, which the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen said had been intercepted.
New disclosures about the incidents show the limits of Saudi Arabia’s defenses and the expanding reach of the country’s foes, even though none of the incidents have produced significant casualties. Although the kingdom’s military capabilities have improved in recent years, current and former U.S. officials say Saudi Arabia still has much work to do to better integrate its radars, Patriot batteries, short-range air defense guns and F-15 jets into an effective defensive system.
They also point to the difficulties of stemming attacks by Iranian-backed groups in Iraq, which continue to present a security threat despite vows by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to rein them in.
A rocket attack on the U.S.-led coalition in northern Iraq on Monday killed a contractor, injured a U.S. service member and hurt five other contractors, four of whom are American. The attack, widely seen as an early test for the Biden administration, prompted high-level briefings in Washington and calls between U.S. and Iraqi officials.
Mr. Biden is pushing a fresh initiative to end Yemen’s civil war and reviewing billions of dollars in arms sales to Riyadh, and on Tuesday revoked the Houthis’ designation as a foreign terrorist organization. But the president has also pledged to help Saudi Arabia, a key Mideast ally and top arms buyer, defend its territory.
“We’re not going to allow Saudi Arabia to be target practice,” Timothy Lenderking, Mr. Biden’s special envoy for Yemen, said on Tuesday.
The Jan. 23 drone attack on Riyadh, which U.S. officials say was launched from southern Iraq, shows the growing complexities of the dangers the kingdom is facing, which include not only drones, but also ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.
The Saudi coalition said in a statement that the military had intercepted an aerial attack, but people familiar with the incident said the drones had in fact penetrated Saudi air defenses. At least one hit close to the front gate of al-Yamama Palace, the seat of the Saudi government; one U.S. official said a nearby helipad was also targeted.
In response to questions about recent attacks, a Saudi official said the kingdom had witnessed an escalation of cross-border attacks against civilian targets since the arrival of Iran’s new ambassador to Yemen last year.
“The U.S decision to revoke the terrorist designation of the Houthis was misinterpreted by them as a license to escalate and continue their barbaric behavior within Yemen and the region with support from Iran,” the official said in a written statement.
Iranian officials, who repeatedly have denied that they control the Houthis or that have sponsored attacks through other groups, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The Houthis have claimed credit for some of the attacks while denying involvement in others.
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On Tuesday, Saudi-led coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Maliki claimed the escalation in attacks was orchestrated by generals from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps based in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. The coalition has recorded 860 armed drone and ballistic missile attacks against Saudi Arabia by the Houthis since Riyadh intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015.
The Saudi king and the crown prince weren’t present at the time of the Jan. 23 palace attack, but flights were diverted from Riyadh’s international airport for several hours.
A desert encampment used by the royal family was also targeted, the U.S. official said, though that attack may have failed.
A previously unknown Shiite militant group in Iraq calling itself the Righteous Promise Brigades claimed responsibility, though U.S. officials say they believe the group is a front for more established militias backed by Iran.
“These groups have no real prior histories,” said Ramzy Mardini, an associate at the Pearson Institute at the University of Chicago, which studies conflict resolution. “The declaration of their formations corresponds to taking responsibility for an attack that already transpired. It’s possible that their members are recycled from preexisting Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups, but that they don’t exist in any meaningful way outside the digital world.”
In a statement about the strike, the Righteous Promise Brigades accused Saudi Arabia of supporting Islamic State, which carried out twin suicide bombings in Baghdad days before, and warned that it might also attack the United Arab Emirates.
Mr. Mardini noted that the group also stated that the attack was “launched solely by Iraqi hands,” which he said was an attempt to deflect suspicion away from Iran or the Houthis in Yemen.
The Saudi coalition blamed the attack on the Houthis, who denied responsibility.
Days later, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled his vision to develop Riyadh and more than double the population; no mention was made of the security challenges facing the city.
It was the first known time that Saudi Arabia had been targeted from Iraq, to its north, since May 2019, when drones that U.S. officials say were controlled by an Iranian-backed militia damaged a major oil pipeline stretching hundreds of miles across the Saudi desert. In September 2019, a drone and missile attack that U.S. intelligence says was mounted by Iran temporarily debilitated Saudi Arabia’s oil industry.
“Iraq as a launchpad is a major challenge for the Saudis,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank. “It’s the third front for the Saudis and the one that they find the most difficult to deal with. They’re not configured even now to be able to plug all three holes.”
Drones are an inherently difficult target to detect because they fly low and are powered pneumatically, leaving little visible launch signature. The Houthis have also used drones to map where Saudi Patriot missile batteries are located so they can orchestrate future attacks around them, a former U.S. official said.
Saudi air defenses facing east toward Iran are the oldest and best established, Mr. Knights said, while those facing south toward Yemen have the most skilled operators dealing with bombardment on a daily basis for the past six years.
“So the poor cousin is still the north-facing front,” he said. “That’s the one that the bad guys are able to feed their drones through.”
Saudi Arabia is coming under more frequent airborne attacks and attempted strikes. Here are some recent incidents, as reported by the Saudi-led military coalition, claimed by militant groups or described by people familiar with them. The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen blamed nearly all the incidents on the Houthis, who have only taken responsibility for a handful of the attacks.
- Feb. 18—The coalition said it intercepted a drone launched toward the southern city of Khamis Mushait.
- Feb. 17—The coalition said it intercepted two drones launched, including toward Khamis Mushait.
- Feb. 16—The coalition said it intercepted a drone launched toward Abha airport. State television quoted the coalition saying that shrapnel landed in the vicinity of the airport but there were no casualties or damage.
- Feb. 15—A Houthi spokesman said on Twitter that the group hit commercial airports in Jeddah and Abha with drones; the coalition said earlier that it had intercepted a drone launched toward the kingdom.
- Feb. 14—The Saudi-led coalition said it intercepted two drones launched by the Houthis toward civilian sites in Khamis Mushait. The Houthis said they were targeting nearby Abha airport.
- Feb. 13—The coalition said it intercepted a drone launched toward Abha airport.
- Feb. 12—A Houthi spokesman said on Twitter that the group hit Abha airport and King Khalid Air Base in Khamis Mushait with drones; the coalition said earlier it had intercepted a drone launched toward the kingdom.
- Feb. 11—The coalition said it intercepted a drone and a missile launched by the Houthis toward southern Saudi Arabia, including the city of Khamis Mushait.
- Feb. 10—The Houthis said they attacked Abha airport with a drone; the coalition said the drone hit an empty commercial airliner on the ground, causing a fire that was extinguished.
- Feb. 8—The coalition said it intercepted a drone launched toward an unspecified civilian target in southern Saudi Arabia.
- Feb. 7—The coalition said it intercepted four drones launched toward southern Saudi Arabia.
- Jan. 30—The coalition said it intercepted a drone launched by the Houthis toward Saudi Arabia targeting civilian sites.
- Jan. 23—Drones from southern Iraq targeting sensitive sites in Riyadh struck the main royal palace, according to people familiar with the incident. The Saudi-led coalition blamed the Houthis, who denied responsibility. A previously unknown Shiite militant group in Iraq that U.S. officials consider a front for Iran-backed groups claimed responsibility.
- Jan. 15—The coalition said it intercepted three drones launched toward southern Saudi Arabia.
—Gordon Lubold in Washington contributed to this article.
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