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Yemen analyst @JoshuaKoontz_ and @mlacix untangle the events surrounding a remote Houthi attack on a Saudi border patrol unit

Analysis: How Houthis ambushed Saudi border guards using an Iranian sniper rifle

On December 26, 2019, a Houthi sniper team dispatched four Saudi coalition soldiers and disabled two of their three armored vehicles. The ambush took place along a road recently constructed to facilitate the Saudi coalition’s push from Majaza (orange) to Saada governorate’s Baqim district (green). The Houthi sniper team employed an Iranian AM-50 Sayyad Sniper Rifle in the ambush. This article will describe how to geolocate this kinetic event in the Majaza battlefront (محور مجازة). Houthi media, mapping platforms, and publicly available information about Saudi infrastructure projects indicate Majaza (orange) is based in the Saudi region of Asir (blue).

Saada Governorate Saudi Asir

Google Earth map of Saada Governorate’s border with the Saudi Region of Asir (Blue)

Mapping Saudi-Yemeni border areas can be problematic due to dated and confusing open-source maps as well as contradictory conflict reports and the paucity of physical border symbols. Yemen’s warring parties typically identify the district, governorate, or region in which the armed conflicts occurred. The Saudi coalition and the Houthis frequently label cross-border frontlines according to their points of origin.

The Majaza battlefront refers to one of three points of origin (blue arrows in map below) for Saudi coalition offensives into Houthi-held territory. The other points of origin were Rabwa’a and Alab (green circle).

Saudi Coalition Majaza BattlefrontPartially translated DEC 2018 Arabic map from abduljabbar1612. Saudi coalition offensive (blue arrow) highlighted in the Majaza battlefront (pink circle)

Over the last two years, the Majaza frontlines (pink polygon in the map below) have remained largely unchanged.

Saudi Coalition Majaza Battlefront

Partially translated FEB 2020 Arabic map from abduljabbar1612. Saudi coalition presence (green) highlighted in the Majaza battlefront (pink shape)

Some media outlets have opined that these “battlefronts” are located in both Saudi Arabia and Yemen. On December 26, nine pro-Houthi Telegram and YouTube channels specifically reported that the Houthi sniper team ambushed Saudi coalition forces in Majaza, Asir.

Houthi YouTube and Telegram channels reported the sniper operation occurred in Saudi Arabia while all known evidence pinpoints Yemen as the killing zone for the operation.

Geolocating the Houthi sniper team’s physical environment revealed that they were actually based in Baqim, Saada, a Yemeni governorate — not in Saudi Arabia as they had claimed. The rationales for this discrepancy could range from operational security to a vague reference about the cross-border frontlines.

Verifying cross-border clashes is further complicated by the Saudi coalition and Houthis’ silence on events that negatively portray their military forces. The Saudi coalition and the Houthis rarely confirm or deny whenever one of their unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is allegedly downed in Yemen. Each daily battle report should be carefully scrutinized because political views typically influence which side is reported as the victor.

Within this confusing information environment, it is important to discuss the significance of a Houthi sniper team’s use of an Iranian AM-50 sniper rifle.

Iranian Sniper Rifle Sayyad

Iranian AM-50 Sayyad sniper rifle capabilities chart. Source: Calibre Obscura

Arms tracking websites such as OryxArmament Research Services, and Conflict Armament Research have posted numbers, photos, and reports about Iranian sniper rifles either heading to or being present in Houthi areas.

A tweet from New York Times Visual Investigations Journalist Christiaan Triebert (@trtbc) shows Hezbollah fighters with the Iranian AM-50 Sayyad sniper rifle

It is difficult to prove that the Houthis are employing these rifles in actual battlefield operations in Yemen. Unverified stock photos, obscure social media images, and possibly choreographed propaganda videos and weapons seizures are not conclusive cases of Iranian involvement.

The Houthi sniper team may have acquired the rifle from a black market arms dealer. However, it is more likely that they directly received it from Iran.

In 2015, a confidential UN report assessed “Iran has been shipping weapons to Yemen’s Houthi rebels since at least 2009”; therefore, the sniper team could have received the rifle during one of the Houthis’ previous wars. Geolocating this Houthi sniper team nonetheless shows that a sophisticated Iranian sniper rifle is being employed against Saudi coalition forces in Yemen.

Map, Coordinates, & Identification Chart

Houthi Sniper Baqim Saada

Google Earth map of the Houthi sniper team in Baqim District, Saada Governorate

Houthi Saudi Coalition BaqimVehicle & equipment identification chart from mlacix for Houthi & Saudi Coalition forces in Baqim. HD Version: https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/49565953527/in/photostream/

Geolocation Process

1. Find Houthi and Saudi coalition photos, videos, and statements related to the Majaza battlefront and other nearby areas in Baqim district, Saada.

Disclaimer: Assessed times are strictly based on sun/shadow angle calculations. Houthi media did not list the time of day for the Houthi sniper team operation.

December 26, 2019: ~ < 06:00 AM — Houthi sniper team’s location:

In the early morning hours, a 3-man Houthi sniper team set up a linear ambush position near a Saudi coalition outpost in the Majaza battlefront. The position allowed the Houthis to safely observe the outpost’s entrance from 1.4 kilometers (km) away. The Houthi sniper had an Iranian AM-50 Sayyad sniper rifle and he was accompanied by two other Houthi fighters that set up concealed firing and observation positions, communicated with other nearby Houthi units, and recorded combat footage. The Houthi sniper team also utilized rocks, bags, and blankets to mask the sniper’s profile on a hill southwest of the upper road junction.

Saudi FOB Baqim HouthiView of Saudi coalition outpost’s west entrance. In early 2019, the outpost appeared in Baqim and it has grown in size over time. In May 2019, a new tent (orange box) and some likely military vehicles (red box) can be seen at the outpost. HD Version: https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/49565722511/in/photostream/

Houthi Sniper Iranian RifleA Houthi sniper with an Iranian AM-50 Sayyad sniper rifle in Baqim

A Houthi cameraman records the sniper and another Houthi fighter with a Walkie Talkie in Baqim

Houthi Sniper Iranian MajazaAnother perspective for the Houthi sniper with an Iranian AM-50 sniper rifle in Baqim

Houthi Sniper Cameraman MajazaHouthi cameraman standing behind the sniper to record combat footage in Baqim

December 26, 2019: ~ 06:15/06:30 AM — Upper junction with a roundabout:

One Streit Group Spartan armored personnel carrier (hereinafter “ the 1st APC”) left the coalition outpost from the same entrance where other coalition vehicles would later be destroyed. The Houthi sniper then fired one unsuccessful shot at the 1st APC before it departed from the area. Based on video footage, the 1st APC was different from another coalition APC (hereinafter “the 2nd APC”) that would be destroyed a few hours later. While both APCs were the same model, the 1st APC did not have frontal camouflage netting.

Saudi Coalition Apc Baqim1st Saudi coalition Streit Group Spartan APC leaves the coalition outpost in Baqim

December 26, 2019: ~ 7:00 AM — Upper road junction with a roundabout:

The Houthi sniper wounded a Saudi coalition soldier patrolling the coalition outpost’s perimeter in Baqim. The wounded soldier then took cover. Based on the rifle’s powerful caliber, the soldier’s wound was likely fatal.

Saudi Coalition Soldier BaqimSaudi coalition soldier patrolling the coalition outpost’s perimeter in Baqim

December 26, 2019: ~07:15/07:30 AM — Lower road junction:

The 2nd APC drove south along a road in the Majaza battlefront. The APC then turned left (towards the east) onto a side road. The 2nd APC likely chose this road junction in order to make a U-turn.

Saudi Coalition APC Baqim2nd Saudi coalition Streit Group Spartan APC traveling along a road in Baqim

December 26, 2019: ~07:15/07:30 AM — Lower road junction:

The 2nd APC took a right turn at the same junction (lower)and headed north.

Saudi Coalition Apc Baqim2nd Saudi coalition Streit Group Spartan APC heading towards the coalition outpost in Baqim

December 26, 2019: ~07:30/07:45 — Upper road junction with a roundabout:

The 2nd APC arrived at the wounded coalition soldier’s position and attempted to rescue him. The Houthi sniper then fired on the 2nd APC, destroying the vehicle’s engine and causing the vehicle to catch on fire.

2nd Saudi coalition Streit Group Spartan APC near the wounded coalition soldier in Baqim

Saudi APC Sniper Baqim2nd Saudi coalition Streit Group Spartan APC catches on fire after taking Houthi sniper fire in Baqim

December 26, 2019: ~08:45/09:00 AM — Upper road junction with a roundabout:

A 3rd Saudi coalition vehicle arrived at the 2nd APC’s location. The 3rd vehicle (hereinafter “the TMC Border Guard”) appeared to be a modified, up-armored Toyota Land Cruiser. Video footage showed the TMC Border Guard had already been deserted after taking Houthi sniper fire. The sniper rifle’s anti-materiel rounds also caused the TMC Border Guard to catch on fire.

Saudi Coalition Apc TMC

Saudi coalition TMC Border Guard parked in front of the smoking remains of the 2nd Saudi coalition Streit Group Spartan APC in Baqim

Saudi TMC Sniper BaqimSaudi coalition TMC Border Guard catches on fire after taking Houthi sniper fire in Baqim

2. Analyze how these locations relate to known Houthi and Saudi coalition patrol zones and develop a relative location for the Majaza battlefront.

The Houthi sniper attack sheds light on their military capabilities in the Majaza battlefront:

-Houthi fighters are capable of infiltrating this no man’s land and attacking Saudi coalition forces at locations where they feel safe and/or do not anticipate an imminent attack.

-The Iranian-made AM-50 Sayyad anti-materiel sniper rifle can deal significant damage to living and armored targets. The rifle’s ability to hit and penetrate an armored vehicle at 1,450 meters (1,530 yards) indicates that it was still accurate at that range and the operator was well-trained.

-Most of the Saudi coalition’s light armored vehicles only have CEN BR6 or BR7 level of protection. This vehicular armor does not provide sufficient protection against the Houthis’ anti-materiel sniper rifle at any range.

Over the past two years, media coverage of Saudi-Yemeni border clashes has also highlighted how the Saudi coalition has gradually expanded its presence in Saada via a network of new outposts and roads. As early as 2018, coalition forces appear to have created a large road network that connects their military outposts in the Majaza battlefront. Within 8 kilometers of the coalition oupost that was attacked by the Houthi sniper team, there are more than 40 coalition outposts. These locations form a defensive line and most of their patrol zones likely extend between the outposts. The Houthi sniper operation nonetheless demonstrated that some of these roads are still vulnerable to ambushes.

3. Review photos, videos, and statements for distinct geographic features and objects. Record how they appear to relate to each other in terms of space (above, below, etc.) and direction (north, south, west, east). Develop a theory for the physical layout of the potential battlefield location.

Geolocation Mlacix Houthi Baqim

Geolocation Chart 1 from mlacix for the Houthi sniper operation in Baqim, Saada. Recommended to view HD version: https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/49565953397/in/photostream/

Geolocation Mlacix Shadow Baqim

Geolocation Chart 2 From mlacix Comparing Shadows & Vehicle Designs in Baqim. Recommended to view HD version: https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/49565722431/in/photostream/

4. Search through different mapping platforms for physical locations that may match the theoretical version of the potential battlefield location.

In Order of Discovery:

1. Past media reports about Saudi-Yemeni border clashes had indicated that the Majaza area was somewhere around Saada and Asir. This information was not a good starting point because media outlets often pushed articles claiming Majaza existed in either Yemen, Saudi Arabia, or both countries simultaneously. Although open-source maps had limited information, publicly available data on nearby construction projects facilitated the discovery of Majaza on a single mapping platform. On Wikimapia, there was an Asir-based polygon entitled “Mujaza.” While this discovery placed Majaza in Saudi Arabia, it did not explain why some outlets stated it was in Yemen or both Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

2. According to Houthi media, the Houthi sniper team allegedly attacked Saudi coalition forces in Majaza, Saudi Arabia. However, different videos of the sniper attack depicted a physical environment that did not match Majaza’s surrounding areas. The real battlefield location was identified by searching for an area with a well-developed road network and parallel and short ridges extending to the north and south. Finding the road network was difficult because it appears to have been recently made within the last few years.

3. Triangulating the locations for the Houthi sniper team and the Saudi coalition vehicles was easier for two reasons. First, the valley area is uniquely formed and its main points of orientation are roads that can be identified from afar. Second, the Houthi cameramen zoomed in and out several times while recording the sniper operation. This habit allowed viewers to develop a relative sense of the area’s spatial dimensions.

4. Afterwards, follow-up research on Arabic social media and news outlets found that the Saudi coalition and the Houthis frequently label cross-border frontlines according to their points of origin. If the Saudi coalition launched an offensive from Alab, Asir and fought with the Houthis in Saada, Yemen, the actual battlefield location was called “the Alab battlefront.” This reporting pattern explained the high number of conflicting Majaza reports.

5. Estimating the time of the sniper operation was difficult because Houthi cameramen only provided one perspective. To assess the potential time, the angles of visible shadows on vehicles and overhanging rocks were examined.

Appendix A

December 26, 2019: — On the same day:

In a later part of the Houthi video that showed the sniper team’s operation in Baqim, the Houthi sniper team can be seen attacking alleged Saudi coalition forces at two other locations, which have not been geolocated. Given their inclusion in this video, Houthi media appears to suggest that the same sniper team recorded these attacks on the same day. The footage claims to show the Houthi sniper allegedly killing four Saudi coalition soldiers.

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This article was originally published Feb. 21 on Medium 


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