A special investigation by Almasdar Online
How Iran infiltrates the skies of Yemen to threaten the region and the world
From China in the East to Greece in the West, through Turkey, Iran, the Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman, along Africa’s eastern coasts and in every corner of Yemen, a sprawling theater of Iranian smuggling operations supplies the Houthi militia in Yemen with the weapons, military expertise and fuel needed to win a civil war in its seventh year.
The smuggled goods include ballistic missiles, kamikaze aerial drones and explosives-laden drone boats, which enable the Houthis to launch continuous attacks on Yemeni cities, target vital facilities inside Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and threaten international shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
Houthi attacks using these weapons have increased dramatically since the militia seized power in a military coup on September 21, 2014 that derailed a fragile democratic political transition and plunged the country into civil war. The Houthis’ growing capabilities raise many questions about how the weapons reach the group despite strict enforcement of a UN Security Council arms embargo authorized in April 2015.
Almasdar Online carried out a months-long investigation to answer these questions. Based on interviews with 15 military and security officials and other sources familiar with smuggling activities, and drawing on local and international documents and reports, Almasdar’s investigation reveals the administrative structure of the Iranian network of companies and individuals involved in the smuggling operations and illuminates the external and internal routes they use. The investigation reviews the stages of Iran's provision of aerial drone systems to its Houthi proxy, starting with primitive planes with a range not exceeding one kilometer to long-range kamikaze drones that Houthi military figures claim can reach targets up to 2,500 km away. The investigation also provides statistics on the number and type of Houthi attacks inside and outside Yemen as well as the operations undertaken to counter these capabilities, whether by intercepting smuggling shipments or targeting the facilities used by Houthi forces to store, assemble and launch the missiles, planes and boats.
At the end of October 2016, Yemeni army Col. Khaled al-Aqra survived an assassination attempt carried out by the Houthis using an explosives-laden aerial drone that targeted him at his home in the Harib Nihm area east of the capital Sana'a. Earlier that year, Houthi forces had started experimenting with small reconnaissance drones along the frontlines, military sources told Almasdar Online. The attack on Al-Aqra marked a new application of off-the-shelf drones designed for civilian uses such as photography. The sources considered that operation one of the first indications of Iranian drone expertise entering the battlefield in Yemen, transforming commercially available hobbyist planes into remote-controlled bombs to strike Houthi opponents. The kamikaze drone and others like it were purchased abroad and smuggled into Yemen.
Inaugural weapons exhibition
On February 26, 2017, in their first weapons exhibition in Sana’a, the Houthis showcased four types of drones they claimed to have manufactured: Hodhud, Rased, Raqib, and Qasef-1. The latter is the first type of aerial drone the militia declared in its possession to perform "offensive" missions within Yemen's borders, while the first three drones were limited to carrying out short reconnaissance missions.
Two weeks before the exhibition, Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi had claimed that his group had started manufacturing drones.
In March 2017, UK-based Conflict Armament Research released a report concluding that the Houthis’ Qasef-1 drones shared “near-identical design and construction characteristics” with Iranian-manufactured Ababil-CH and Ababil-T drones.
The exhibition was followed by extensive campaigns carried out by the Houthis to collect money from ordinary residents, merchants and companies in the areas under its control to support the new weapons systems. Sana’a-based mobile phone companies including SabaFon, Yemen Mobile and MTN Yemen were forced to send text messages to subscribers, urging them to donate 100 Yemeni riyals for “drone aviation” and/or the “missile force.”
In 2017, government forces shot down 12 reconnaissance and kamikaze drones launched by the Houthis toward military sites in eastern Sana’a, Marib, Al-Jawf, Al-Bayda, Taiz, Lahj, Al-Dhalea, Hodeidah and Hajjah governorates, according to military sources.
Targets outside Yemen
On Wednesday, April 11, 2018, the Houthi militia announced via its Al-Masirah satellite channel in Beirut, Lebanon, the targeting of Abha International Airport in southwest Saudi Arabia and Aramco oil company facilities in the neighboring city of Jizan on the Red Sea coast with Qasef-1 drones. The Saudi-led coalition confirmed that it had intercepted two drones in those areas, as well as three ballistic missiles, one of which was destroyed over Riyadh.
On May 26, 2018, the Houthis again attacked Abha airport with a Qasef-1. For the first time, the spokesman for the Saudi-led Arab coalition, Turki Al-Maliki, accused Iran of providing the Houthis with these planes. He said that the drone used in that attack on the airport "has Iranian characteristics and specifications of the Ababil type."
This was the first known attempt by the Houthis to use Qasef-1 kamikaze drones to strike targets far outside of Yemen’s borders.
Emirates as a target
The first missile attack the Houthis claimed to have launched toward the UAE was in December 2017. The cruise missile targeted the Barakah nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi.
In the second half of 2018, the Houthis began using new types of long-range drones targeting vital installations deep inside Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The first of these was the Samad-2 drone, with a range of about 1,000 kilometers, which the militia said it had used for the first time to target an Aramco refinery in the Saudi capital on July 18.
On July 26, the Houthis announced the targeting of Abu Dhabi International Airport in the UAE with a Samad-3 drone. It was the first announcement that this type of drone had been used.
The next day, the militia announced the targeting of Dubai International Airport, about two kilometers from the center of Dubai, with a drone of the same type. Both of the Emirati cities are more than 1,200 kilometers from Yemen.
On September 30 of the same year, the Houthis announced the targeting of Dubai’s airport with more Samad-3 drones. The UAE denied the occurrence of these attacks.
For more than three years following that claimed attack, no Houthi missile or drone strikes on the UAE were recorded. The December 2018 signing of the Hodeidah Agreement in Stockholm, which halted the advance of UAE-backed forces against Houthi forces controlling the port of Hodeidah and was followed by the UAE drawdown of its military presence in the country in mid-2019, is believed to have played a role in the Houthi de-escalation against the Emirates.
Houthi attacks on the UAE restarted in January 2022, after the UAE-backed Giant Brigades liberated Shabwa governorate’s districts of Bayhan, Usaylan and Ain from the Houthis, and made advances against Houthi forces in Marib governorate.
On January 17, Abu Dhabi announced the outbreak of a fire that led to the explosion of three oil tankers in the Musaffah area near the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), killing three residents and wounding others. The outbreak of a fire at a new construction area of Abu Dhabi International Airport was also announced. Emirati police said preliminary investigations indicated that "small flying objects, possibly belonging to drones, were detected in the two areas, which may have caused the explosion and fire."
In the early morning of January 23, 2022, UAE and US forces intercepted and destroyed two ballistic missiles which were believed to be aimed at Abu Dhabi’s Al-Dhafra air base, where US and British military forces are stationed. American Patriot missile batteries were used to destroy the incoming missiles.
One week later, on January 31, the UAE announced the interception of a Houthi-fired ballistic missile as the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, was visiting the country. The White House later stated that US forces helped thwart the Houthi attack with Patriot missile batteries.
The Houthis claimed responsibility for all three of these attacks, claiming that barrages of missiles and drones were fired at multiple targets in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Attacks by the numbers
Between 2015 and 2021, Almasdar’s investigative team documented 317 attacks carried out by Houthi militia using ballistic missiles, consisting of 111 missiles inside Yemen and 206 missile attacks on Saudi regions. During the same period, the team monitored 57 attacks on fixed and mobile targets in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandab and the Gulf of Aden, most of them using kamikaze drone boats.
Between October 2016 to December 2021, the investigation team documented 641 Houthi aerial drones in attacks, 177 of which targeted individuals and facilities inside areas of Yemen not under the militia’s control, and 464 drone attacks against vital targets inside Saudi Arabia, (starting April 2018). Most of these were kamikaze drones that had been modified in special workshops to explode as they approached the intended target.
These statistics, which are drawn from open sources, do not include Houthi-launched ballistic missiles and drones that failed to reach their targets, whether inside or outside Yemen, which constitute a large number.
In the latest statistics announced by the coalition on December 26, 2021, the Houthi militia had launched 430 ballistic missiles and 851 drones on Saudi territory since 2015, killing 59 civilians. The coalition announced the destruction of 100 Houthi kamikaze drone boats in the Red Sea during the same period. The internationally recognized government does not have any statistics on Houthi attacks inside Yemen.
Quantitative and qualitative transformation
The year 2019 witnessed a significant increase in the number, type and extent of Houthi attacks using drones. Inside Yemen, the militia began experimenting with a new type of drone, called Qasef-2k, and later used in attacks targeting vital facilities inside Saudi Arabia.
The first known use of the Qasef-2k was in an attack on Al-Anad military base in Lahj governorate in southern Yemen during a military parade organized by government forces on January 10. The attack resulted in the killing of six soldiers and two officers, including the head of the Military Intelligence Authority, Major General Muhammad Tammah. About 20 others were wounded.
The Qasef-2k kamikaze drone explodes ball bearings and other metal fragments as it approaches its target.
In 2019, the Houthis began adopting the method of simultaneous attacks using swarms of suicide drones, including the Qasef-2k, to target vital Saudi installations.
The first Houthi attack of this kind was recorded on May 14, 2019, targeting two Aramco oil pumping stations in Afif and Dawadmi regions, 220 km and 380 km west of Riyadh, respectively, with seven drones. According to media reports, the planes launched from Yemen’s Saada governorate which borders the Kingdom, and led to the suspension of oil supplies for a brief period.
On August 17 of the same year, the Houthis launched a second attack of this kind targeting the Shaybah oil field of Aramco in southeastern Saudi Arabia. The militia said that it had launched 10 drones in an operation called "First Balance of Deterrence," making it the largest in terms of the number of aerial drones used in an attack. At that time, Aramco announced that it had controlled a “limited" fire that broke out in a gas facility in Shaybah field from the attack.
A month later, on September 14, the Houthis announced a third attack with 10 drones, targeting Aramco facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in the east of the Kingdom. At the time, the Saudi Ministry of Interior spoke of "extinguishing two fires in two company plants in Abqaiq and Khurais, as a result of targeting by drones," without specifying who was responsible. The attack halted about half of Saudi Arabia's oil production as a result. US officials and the UN panel of experts later stated that these precision, long-range drone strikes were likely carried out by Iran, despite claims of responsibility from the Houthis.
Military sources told Almasdar Online that Houthi attacks using drones on vital Saudi installations in 2019 increased by about 20 times compared to 2018, when less than 10 drones were used.
In January 2019, the Houthi militia's military spokesman, Yahya Saree, describe "qualitative leaps" that his group had achieved in the field of drone manufacturing. Claiming that 2019 would be the "year of drones," he said that the group could "produce a drone every day."
Drones as a major weapon
Since 2019, there has been a relative decline in the Houthi militia's use of ballistic missiles, and it has relied mainly on drones for its attacks, which have become a daily occurrence, both inside Yemen and abroad.
Houthi attacks using aerial drones reached their climax during 2021, when more than 252 of the aircraft targeted vital facilities in Saudi Arabia, some of which were launched as part of joint offensive operations along with ballistic missiles, according to the investigation team's statistics. The Houthis relied mainly on Qasef-2K, followed by Samad-3 drones, to target vital installations deep in Saudi Arabia.
On November 20, 2021, the militia targeted various sites in Saudi Arabia, including Aramco's refineries, with 14 Samad-3 and Samad-2 drones, some of which were launched in tandem with ballistic missiles. It was the eighth operation of First Balance of Deterrence.
In March 2021, the Houthi displayed seven new types of drones, including the kamikaze bombers Waeed, Khatef, reconnaissance drones called Nabaa and Mersad, and the Samad-4, which the group claimed can carry two unguided rockets. Another drone, called Rajoum, is able to carry six 60 mm mortars, according to Houthi media.
In total, the Houthis have announced that they possess 15 types of drones. They are capable of reconnaissance and/or offensive missions, and have varying flight ranges.
A source in Yemen’s military intelligence told Almasdar Online that the Houthis started to establish a series of industrial workshops in Sana'a, Saada and Hodeidah governorates in early 2019 to assemble and equip drones "under the management and supervision of experts of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.’"
At the same time, the smuggling of devices, equipment and technological components used to manufacture the drones increased.
The increased reliance on aerial drones was due to the ease of smuggling and assembling drone components, compared to the difficulty of dismantling and smuggling ballistic missile components, according to the source. The low cost of drones compared to missiles also played a role in the shift.
The coalition usually announces the targeting of missile launchers after each time Saudi Arabia is bombarded by the Houthi-launched weapons, but the first military operation to target “workshops” related to aerial drone manufacturing was about a week after the Houthis launched the first drone towards Abha airport in April 2018. The coalition announced the targeting of a "workshop" near the port of Hodeidah, used by the Houthis "to install and assemble drones."
From that date until December 2021, the investigation team monitored nearly 50 operations that the coalition announced in Houthi-controlled areas "to target and destroy an integrated network of Houthi drone capabilities and logistical facilities and the locations of foreign experts." Of these, about 40 operations were in Sana'a, while the rest were distributed in Saada, Hodeidah and Mahwit governorates.
The announced targets that the coalition destroyed during those operations, which reached their climax between October and December 2021, include the following:
- Ballistic missile assembly and installation workshops and storage sites.
- Workshops for assembling, installing and booby-trapping drones and their storage areas.
- Logistic support centers and centers for maintenance and calibration of drones.
- Stores for launching platforms and equipping drones.
- Foreign operators responsible for assembling and detonating drones.
- Military communication systems and network and ground control stations for drones.
- Locations of foreign experts and operators of military communications systems.
- Training sites for launching drones and ballistic missiles.
- Sites for assembling, booby-trapping and launching boat drones and sea mines.
- Workshops and centers for the development of specific weapons.
Prior to that date, the coalition had announced only one operation, in December 2017, which it said targeted "the manufacture and modification of surface-to-surface and ballistic missiles" in Saada. It added that "a number of foreign experts and technicians were present," referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) experts. It was the first time that it has been announced that missile manufacturing workshops have been targeted inside Yemen.
There is a dearth of information about the workshops and logistical facilities used by the Houthi militia to install and launch drones and ballistic missiles. However, the launches carried out in recent years, as well as the coalition’s counter-strikes, refer to about 12 sites in and around Sana’a: Al-Daylami Air Base, adjacent to Sana’a International Airport, the College of Aviation, the presidential camps (in Al-Sabaeen neighborhood), Al-Hafa camp (below Nuqom Mountain), the Maintenance camp, the Engineer Corps camp in Sa’wan, the Al-Sama’ and Al-Furaija camps (in Arhab district), Jabal Aiban (in Bani Matar district), Al-Sawad camp in Hezyaz area, Amed Camp and Raymat Humaid (inSanhan District).
In a press conference, Saudi-led coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki showed evidence that Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah setup workshops at Sana'a International Airport to arm drones and conduct missile tests.
The evidence included plans, diagrams and aerial footage of drone manufacturing workshops at the civilian airport, as well as tests of air defense missiles.
The coalition spokesman also showed a video in which a Hezbollah officer gives instructions to senior Houthi military leader, Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim (aka Abu Ali), regarding targeting ships in the Red Sea. It also showed video clips of Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah leaders in Sana'a, and components of drones smuggled to Yemen and stored in civilian locations.
Iranian origins of Houthi missiles and drones
With regard to smuggling activity, information and documents obtained by Almasdar Online from security sources revealed 35 industrial and commercial companies operating within the Iranian system to smuggle weapons and logistical support to the Houthis in Yemen, including 10 Iranian state-owned companies. The companies are involved in the manufacturing of aircraft, ballistic missiles, naval vessels and other military technologies in the defense industry.
These Iranian companies occupy the top of the pyramid in the organizational structure of the smuggling system, followed by intermediary companies located in Iran and European, Asian and Gulf countries, and are used as fronts to cover the foreign activities of the IRGC.
The information reveals 45 people working within the smuggling system, including 17 Iranians who lead smuggling activities to Yemen, some of whom run intermediary companies that are active in smuggling outside Iran.
Five Iranian companies were identified as involved in efforts to provide Houthis with ballistic missiles and drones, as well as the expertise to assemble and launch them at targets inside and outside Yemen.
They include the Iranian Aircraft Manufacturing Company (HESA), which provided the Houthis with unmanned aerial systems including the Qasef-1. Investigations by the UN panel of experts on Yemen, UK-based Conflict Armament Research (CAR) and other international investigative bodies have established that the Qasef-1 drone in the Houthi arsenal is in many ways a copy of the Iranian Ababil-T and Ababil-CH drones manufactured by HESA.
The Shahid Bagheri Industrial Group (SBIG) and Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG), which are considered the two most important industrial institutions within the Iranian Aerospace Industries Organization, produce missiles of all kinds. These companies have supplied the Houthis with ballistic missiles, including the Burkan missile, which international investigations such as those of the UN panel of experts have proven to be a modified version of the Iranian Qiam-1 missile.
The Houthis have used this type of missile to target Saudi facilities, including the Yanbu oil refineries in western Saudi Arabia on July 22 and November 4, 2017. The panel of experts confirmed that these missiles are "of Iranian origin” and were brought to Yemen after the UN Security Council’s targeted embargo was issued in April 2015. Some of its components had the markings of the SBIG and SHIG companies.
Bahnam Shahriari Trading Company stands at the head of Iranian entities that smuggle weapons to Tehran's proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. It is owned by Iranian businessman Behnam Shahriari, a leader in the IRGC’s Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and one of the leaders of what is known as Unit 190, which oversees the smuggling of weapons and military technologies to Iranian proxies. The paramilitary unit uses institutions and shipping companies, such as Behnam and Mahan Air, as fronts for the arms smuggling.
Mahan Air is also responsible for transporting Iranian experts, weapons, military equipment and funds to support IRGC activities in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
Mahan Air is the first Iranian company that the Houthis contracted with after expelling Hadi’s government from Sana'a in early 2015. Under the agreement, which the Hadi government called it a "violation of Yemeni sovereignty," Mahan Air lines inaugurated an air bridge starting March 1, 2015 from Tehran to Sana'a International Airport consisting of 14 flights per week. These flights did not stop until the launch of the Saudi-led coalition’s military offensive, Operation Decisive Storm, on March 26, 2015, to restore the internationally recognized government to power. At the time, Yemeni government spokesman, Rajeh Badi, said that the goal of these flights was to “establish a military air bridge to support the Houthis militarily.”
SBIG, SHIG and Bahnam are subject to United Nations and European Union sanctions, and the US Treasury has included them, along with Mahan Air, on its sanctions list because of their destabilizing effects in the region and their role in smuggling lethal weapons to the Houthis.
The activities of the intermediary companies are involved in selling Iranian fuel, transferring funds to support the IRGC’s foreign activities, acquiring military hardware and equipment and smuggling it to its armed proxies in the region, including the Houthis.
The non-Iranian intermediary companies are led by traders and businessmen belonging to the armed militias loyal to Iran in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, who act as third parties to serve Iranian industrial and commercial companies.
Mahan Air, for example, owns five intermediary companies. Four of the companies are based in the UAE: Gatewick LLC (shipping), Jahan Destination Travel and Tourism LLC (aviation), Parthia Cargo (freight services) and Delta Parts Supply FZC, in addition to Gomei Air Services Co. for aviation services in Hong Kong, China. The companies were added to US sanctions lists in 2019 and 2020 for providing spare parts and key logistics services to Iran's Mahan Air. It included the Iranian Amin Mahdavi, who owns Parthia Cargo and resides in the UAE.
The first known Iranian use of these intermediary companies to smuggle aerial drone components to the Houthi in Yemen dates back to 2015, according to an investigation by the UN panel of experts.
According to documents the experts panel had obtained, two 3W-110i B2 engines found in the wreckage of a Houthi Samad drone crash in 2018 were manufactured by a German company 3W-Modelmotoren Weinhold GmbH in Hanau, Germany. The engines, bearing the serial numbers 1561517B and 1561528B, were among a shipment of 21 engines of the same type that were exported in June 2015 to Eurowings Aviation and Consultancy in Athens, Greece.
The documents showed that the shipment passed through Greece to Turkey to finally reach the logistics company Giti Reslan Kala, which received the engines on behalf of Tafe Gostar Atlas in Tehran.
The experts panel also documented the presence of AM7 ignition coils manufactured by Swedish Electro Magnets as part of a Delta-design drone engine system. According to the panel’s information, that shipment was exported in 2016 to a company in India before it was found in the wreckage of a Houthi drone crash in 2019.
Smuggling command and control
As for the people involved in smuggling activities between Iran and Yemen, their activities include financing and transporting missiles and drone components, providing the Houthis with technical expertise related to these weapons, as well as financing the activities of IRGC experts who implement field training programs inside Yemen.
Six Iranian military leaders lead the smuggling of ballistic missile technologies to the Houthis and the operations related to their installation and launch of the missiles: Mahmud Bagheri Kazemabad, Muhammad Agha Jafari, Jawad Burbar Sher Amin, Muhammad Sayed Ali Tehrani, Mahdi Azarbisheh and Mohammad Ibrahim Zargar Tehrani. All of them have been designated by the US Treasury for having "provided ballistic missile-related technical expertise to Yemen’s Huthis, and who have transferred weapons not seen in Yemen prior to the current conflict, on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF)."
Saeed Aghajani, the commander of the IRGC’s drone command, leads the smuggling of aerial drone systems to the Houthis. The US sanctioned him in October 2021 on accusations of masterminding the drone attack on Aramco oil refinery in Saudi Arabia in September 2019, and the attack on the Mercer Street oil tanker off the coast of Oman in July 2021, killing two of its crew.
Yousef Aboutalebi and Abdollah Mehrabi have been linked to Tehran's activity to smuggle drones to its proxies in the region. They are also on the US sanctions list for their support of Iran's drone programs and foreign activities of the IRGC-QF.
Three Iranian businessmen have been active in smuggling weapons and equipment to the Houthis through the companies they run. Abdolhossein Khedri owns two companies, Khedri Jahan Darya Co. and Maritime Silk Road LLC, based in the Sultanate of Oman. Khedri Jahan Darya Co.’s ship, Genava 12, is suspected of transporting IRGC cargo from Iran to Yemen. Amin Mahdavi runs the Parthia Cargo shipping company. The Iraqi-Iranian Amir Dianat, who is directly involved in smuggling Iranian weapons and missiles to the Houthis, owns Taif Mining Services LLC. All of them are subject to US sanctions for supporting the destabilizing activities of the IRGC in the region.
In the field of finance, the network led by Yemeni-British citizen Saeed al-Jamal residing in Iran has emerged as one of the most important entities used by the IRGC for smuggling to the Houthis and other proxies. The network consists of a complex international web of brokers and exchange centers.
On June 10, 2021, the US Treasury sanctioned Al-Jamal and members of his network, including six people of Yemeni, Syrian, Somali and Indian nationalities, as well as three companies headed by the Yemeni Swaid and Sons company, for its activities in transferring Iranian funds to support the Houthis and finance the activities of IRGC-QF and Hezbollah experts present in Yemen.
Al-Jamal has close relations with Iranian-affiliated Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Tehran relied on Hezbollah to secure support for the Houthis before sending the now-deceased IRGC-QF officer (and later ambassador to Yemen), Hassan Irlo, to Sana’a.
According to three security sources who spoke to Almasdar Online, the Lebanese citizen Khalil Yusif Harb, a close advisor to Hassan Nasrallah, previously supervised the support provided to the Houthis and made large financial transfers to the group in cooperation with the Al-Jamal network.
The sources added that the Houthis received financial and logistical support from Hezbollah through the prominent military leader Haitham Ali Tabatabai, who supervises the militant group’s forces in Yemen to train the Houthis and provide them with field and technical assistance.
In August 2021, the United States offered a reward of up to $5 million for anyone who provides information on Harb. In October 2021, it announced a similar reward for anyone with information on Tabtabai. In 2016, the US State Department had designated Tabtabai a global terrorist for helping Hezbollah to destabilize the region.
The sources suggested that Hezbollah would take over the operations of support to the Houthis following the late December 2021 death of Hassan Irlo, the IRGC-QF officer and ambassador to the Houthi-run government in Sana'a, who coordinated financial and logistical support since his arrival to the capital in October 2020.
Transferring smuggling experience
In addition to transferring expertise related to weapons and guerilla warfare to the Houthi militia, Iran and its proxies have taught the Houthis the art of smuggling, whether it involves fuel, weapons, drugs or antiquities.
According to three informed sources who spoke to Almasdar Online on condition of anonymity, the Houthis have established dozens of companies for the smuggling of weapons, military supplies and oil derivatives provided by the Iranian regime.
The sources identified 10 Houthi-run companies and 18 Houthi affiliates working within the Iranian arms smuggling network.
In the field of fuel smuggling, a recent report by the Regain Yemen initiative revealed 30 companies established by the Houthis and granted exclusive powers to smuggle and import free Iranian oil through the ports of Hodeidah and Saleef. A number of other intermediary companies operating under the names of high-level Houthi leaders and used as fronts for smuggling, currency speculation and money laundering were identified, including 10 companies operating in areas of Yemen outside of Houthi-controlled territory.
The UN panel of experts has previously indicated that it was investigating monthly fuel donations worth $30 million from Iran to the Houthis.
Countering the flow of weapons
Despite the fluctuating circumstances, changing events and shifting alliances in Yemen and the region, Tehran’s position supporting the Houthis with advanced weapons, fuel and military expertise has not changed. Rather, it has significantly expanded since 2015, despite the UN Security Council targeted arms embargo passed in April of that year.
According to documents and information obtained by Almasdar Online from a security source, 77 shipments of weapons, ammunition, advanced weapons components and other contraband from the Iranian network to the Houthis were seized in Yemen between July 2016 and July 2021. Twenty six of the seizures were intercepted off Yemen’s eastern, southern and western Yemeni coasts. The remaining 51 smuggling shipments were seized on Yemeni land.
These shipments included material for the manufacture and operation of ballistic missiles, aerial drones, unmanned boats and advanced land and sea mines, in addition to satellite broadcasting devices, wireless communications technology and modern spying technology, as well as various quantities of fuel and drugs including Captagon, hashish and black market pharmaceuticals.
Twenty five of the seized shipments included devices, equipment and other components involved in the manufacture and operation of aerial drones, ballistic missiles and unmanned boats laden with explosives. Some of the shipments contained only illicit cargo, while others were part of commercial shipments.
According to the source, the final destinations of smuggling operations once they reach land are concentrated in Sana'a, Saada or Hodeidah governorates. He added that the management of these smuggling operations is carried out by experienced Houthi leaders, mainly concentrated in the governorates of Al-Mahra and Hodeidah.
In November 2016, the first recorded seizure of aerial drone components was documented at a military checkpoint in Marib governorate. The shipment was en route Al-Mahra on Yemen’s eastern border with Oman to the Houthis in Sana'a. About two months later, a similar shipment was seized in Marib along the same route.
In an interview with Almasdar Online, the security source said that Iranian supplies sent to the Houthis have become increasingly advanced over the past four years, and currently consist mainly of “equipment, electronic and technical devices that are used in the manufacture of drones and ballistic missiles.”
In late January 2022, the UN panel of experts published its latest annual report, stating that the Houthis had continued to build and launch missiles and drones of all types at targets in Saudi Arabia and inside Yemen. “The purpose of [the Saudi] attacks was primarily political, i.e. the Houthis want to push Riyadh towards accepting a political settlement beneficial to them,” according to the report. “This contrasts sharply with the use of missiles and [aerial drones] within Yemen, the aim of which is often to attain maximum lethality.”
The panel documented a significant increase in the Houthis’ use of kamikaze drone boat attacks in 2021. Multiple sources told the panel that the boats were assembled and launched from Hodeidah and Saleef ports. The report noted that the Houthis continue to acquire vital components for their advanced weapons systems using a complex network of brokers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia designed to disguise the end user.
External smuggling routes
According to a former police official in Al-Jawf governorate and other sources with knowledge of smuggling activities, Iranian smuggling networks use four external routes to deliver components, devices and equipment for aerial drones and missiles to the Houthis in Yemen.
The first is by air or sea to the Sultanate of Oman and then smuggling it through land ports linking the Sultanate with Yemen’s Al-Mahra. In January 2019, a shipment of about three tons of aerial drones parts and components, including DLE 110 and DLE 170 engines, was seized by the security services in Al-Jawf. An investigation by the UN panel of experts found that these two types of engines are used in Qasef and Samad drone variants. Manufactured by a company in China and shipped to an entity called Bahjat Alleq’a in Oman’s capital Muscat, the engines arrived at Muscat International Airport on December 2, 2018 and then reappeared in the Yemeni governorate of Al-Jawf a month later.
The second external shipping route is on commercial ships. The smuggling journey usually begins from one of Iran’s ports and takes diversionary paths before it reaches Yemeni ports in order to bypass the international inspection mechanism. For example, some shipments, which are disguised as regular merchandise, have passed through ports in India or Thailand before arriving to Djibouti for UN clearance to continue on to Houthi-controlled ports. This type of smuggling route was used by a ship seized on February 14, 2016 off the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah. The Saudi-led coalition found that the ship was carrying military communications devices and other military equipment inside containers originating from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, before making stopovers at ports in India and Djibouti prior to being seized off the coast of Hodeidah.
The third type of smuggling route is via small boats known as dhows that depart from Iranian ports, arrive either on or off the coast of Oman and transfer the smuggled cargo to continue by land or by sea to Houthi cells located in Al-Mahra.
The fourth type of external route consists of ships carrying smuggled goods either to transfer points off the Horn of Africa coast, or to the warehouses of merchants working for Iran in ports in Somalia and Djibouti, which have emerged as hubs for Houthi smugglers who receive these shipments and transport them to the coast of Yemen under the cover of fake Houthi companies.
Captured smuggling cell
Al-Masdar Online obtained details of an investigation conducted by the Criminal Investigation Department in Al-Mahra Governorate with members of a smuggling cell comprising five Yemeni sailors from Hodeidah who were caught by the US Navy in the Arabian Sea on January 23, 2021, while transporting Iranian weapons to the Houthis.
The cell members told investigators that, after attending a training course on the use of light weapons and a cultural course on Houthi curriculum, they traveled to an area near Yemen’s Shihn land port on the border with Oman. There they met a person named Bakr al-Mahri, who arranged their trip to Iran, prepared them with supplies and gave them directions to and from designated meeting points. The sailors were also given communications equipment, including a mobile phone with an Omani number, and asked to contact al-Mahri when they reached the meeting points. Al-Mahri then sent them on their way, directing them first to the coastal district of Al-Ghaydah in Al-Mahra, where they were told to call a person from Al-Mahra upon arrival.
The cell members say that when they boarded the smuggling boat on Al-Mahra’s coast they met two people who spoke Arabic, but they could not distinguish their nationalities. From there, the cell members sailed about 1,200 nautical miles over six days to reach the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. There they were received by Iranian officials who took the boat from them and transported it to an Iranian government port located about 90 nautical miles from Bandar Abbas.
While they waited for the boat to be loaded, the cell members were moved between three houses in Iran over a 16-day period under the supervision of two Iranians known as Mihrab and Hussein. On the last day of their stay in Bandar Abbas, an Iranian in his 40s nicknamed “the boss” informed them that the cargo was ready and told them to leave in the morning. As they were departing, the cell members said that the Iranians contacted Bakr al-Mahri and told him the details of the shipment, after which the latter called the lead cell member and told him that the cargo at the front of the ship included 350 bags, and at the cargo in the back contained 500 iron boxes. Al-Mahri told him that two small boats and a large boat would be waiting for him at a waypoint between the Omani and Yemeni maritime borders, and asked him to transfer the the 350 bags in the front of the ship to the big boat and transfer 250 of the boxes in the stern to each of the boats.
When the cell members were about 20 to 30 nautical miles from the rendezvous, the US Navy intercepted their ship and arrested them. After 4 days, the cell members were handed over to the Yemeni Coast Guard. The weapons shipment included 1,750 Kalashnikov rifles and 500 boxes of light and medium ammunition, according to the criminal investigation.
The cell members, all of whom are from Hodaidah, were identified as Abdullah (27 years old), the captain, Ali (30 years old), a cook, and three sailors: Hassan (25 years old), Saeed (19 years old) and Ali (21 years old). Almasdar Online is withholding their last names.
Prior to the smuggling trip, Houthi leader Ahmed Mohmamed Halas contacted the captain, Abdullah, and told him to recruit the others. They were promised 30,000 Saudi riyals for their work.
Based on the confessions of another smuggling cell that was captured by Yemeni Coast Guard forces on May 7, 2020 in the Bab al-Mandab Strait area in southwest Yemen, Houthi smuggling operations at sea were divided into four maritime sectors: the Iran-Oman sector under the supervision of Ibrahim Helwan, the Oman-Al-Mahra sector led by Ali al-Halli, the Gulf of Aden sector led by Abdul Aziz Mahrous and the Hodeidah and Africa sector led by Ahmed Mohammad Halas.
AL-MAHRA CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION DEPARTMENT REPORT
Internal smuggling shifts
Between early 2020 and the end of 2021, the sources said that land-based smuggling activity in Yemen witnessed a fundamental transformation, due the military advances made by Houthi forces in Al-Jawf, Marib and Shabwa governorates, as well as the Houthi military gains in Hodeidah governorate following the recent withdrawal of the Saudi-led coalition-backed Joint Forces on the Red Sea coast.
The sources said these developments gave the Houthis additional safe routes for smuggling towards Sa’ada and Sana'a governorates, especially after the group established control over the vast, open desert areas in central and eastern Al-Jawf, which includes a series of roads that reach the governorate’s capital city of Al-Hazm.
Houthi control of Bayhan district in western Shabwa allowed the group to establish smuggling points on Shabwa’s coast. However, the Houthis’ expulsion from Shabwa in January 2022 has disrupted these routes.
On the Red Sea coast, due to the withdrawal of the Joint Forces in November 2021, the Houthis gained control of new coastal areas south of the three ports of Hodeidah extending all the way to the outskirts of the port city of Mocha in western Taiz governorate.
Aerial drone components smuggling
Two security sources, one working in the Marib Police and the other in the Al-Jawf Police, told Almasdar Online that between November 2016 and June 2019, the security forces in those governorates seized 8 shipments that included components used in the manufacture and operation of drones and missiles. All of them came through the Shihn land port with Oman and were on their way to the Houthis in Sana'a, and were carried either onboard cars or medium-sized vehicles like Hilux trucks.
According to the two sources, the first shipment of this type was seized by the Military Police in Marib Governorate in late 2016. The shipment included parts for at least six complete Qasef-1 aircraft and components for 34 other aircraft of the same type, according to the investigations of the UN panel of experts on Yemen.
Based on the design of these aircraft, and tracking the trajectory of its components, the team of experts concluded that the materials needed to assemble the Qasef-1 unmanned aerial vehicle were received from Iran.
In its 2017 report, the Panel revealed that at least two components of this system were supplied to Iran after the implementation of the targeted arms embargo on 14 April 2015, and the financing of the two components was reimbursed by a third party intermediary and an intermediary account in a third country. This, according to the team, indicated deliberate concealment of the final destination of the components.
Smuggling missile components
As for missiles, the Burkan H2 missile is one of the most prominent missiles that the Houthis claim to have manufactured and used in its offensive operations, especially targeting Saudi installations, including the attack that targeted Yanbu oil refineries on July 22, 2017.
It was the first time that this type of long-range missile had been used to strike targets in the Kingdom more than 1,200 km away from Houthi launch sites.
The UN team of experts said that it examined the remnants of the missiles fired at Riyadh on July 22 and concluded that they match the Iranian Qiam-1 missile design and manufacture in many features of the internal design, characteristics and external dimensions, stressing that this indicates that the two missiles were manufactured by one entity.
The team indicated that these missiles had been transferred from Iran to the Houthis in parts and then reinstalled in local workshops, adding that the technology was transferred in the form of a modular system, which required missile engineers to take over the assembly of the missiles and test their operability before launching them.
Two military sources in the Yemeni Ministry of Defense’s Chief of Staff office told Almasdar Online that since 2015 Tehran has started sending its experts to provide field support to the Houthis in their war to control Yemen. They added that the largest smuggling operation of this kind was carried out by Iran during the airlift of Iran's Mahan Air in March 2015, prior to the Saudi-led coalition’s launch of Operation Decisive Storm. Iran then continued to smuggle experts by sea to Yemen’s coasts.
"The number of ships and boats carrying Iranian elements has increased off the Yemeni coast, some of which were seized with their members after they penetrated Yemen's waters," the sources added.
At the end of September 2015, the Saudi-led coalition announced the arrest of 14 Iranians southeast of Oman’s Salalah port. They were onboard an Iranian ship heading to the Houthis and loaded with various weapons and ammunition, including 15 missiles and four guidance systems to launch them.
On May 21, 2016, the Yemeni government, through the then-Minister of Fisheries, Fahd Kafain, announced the detention of seven Iranian ships with 89 Iranians on board after they entered Yemeni waters. In October 2016, Kafain said that 40 Iranian medium-sized ships had attempted to enter into the territorial waters of Yemen.
According to the two military sources, and a third source familiar with smuggling activity, there are two main routes used by the IRGC to smuggle its experts to Yemen.
The first route comes through the coasts and ports of Hodeidah. The IRGC transfer their experts on Iranian ships to small ports in northeast Africa and/or on regular trading ships passing through dead drop points off the coast of Hodeidah, where the Houthis receive them and transport them by small fishing boats to Yemen’s shores.
The second way is by transporting them to Oman or a meeting point off its coasts, or meeting points off the coast of Somalia. Then the Houthis coordinate their smuggling to Al-Mahra governorate, from where they are transported to Saada via the desert road parallel to the border with Saudi Arabia, which is monopolized by smuggling networks.
Iran’s Sana'a corps
On December 21, 2021, the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced the death of IRGC-QF officer, Hassan Irlo, three days after leaving the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, on a humanitarian initiative, claiming that he had contracted coronavirus.
On October 17, 2020, Tehran announced the arrival of Irlo to Sana’a, in his capacity as an extraordinary ambassador with “absolute powers.” The internationally recognized Yemeni government considered his mysterious and surprising method of arrival an extension of Iranian interventions in Yemen and its support for the Houthi militia’s expansionist war aimed at controlling Yemen and international trading routes in the Red Sea.
Irlo was considered a hardline Iranian military leader, as reports indicate that he formerly led the exercises conducted by the IRGC-QF for Iranian proxies in the region, including the Houthis, at Imam Ali camp in Tehran and the Bhunar camp in Kharg city, north of Tehran. This indicates that the purpose of sending him to Sana’a was of a high-level military nature.
In December 2019, Washington revealed the presence of a leader in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard named Abdulreza Shahlai in Sana'a. Announcing a reward of $15 million for information on his activities. The US special envoy to Iran, Brian Hook, said that Shahlai runs the Quds Force's operations in Yemen by supporting the Houthis and providing them with advanced weapons and training.
The European Union, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain had added Shahlai to the wanted lists in 2018. The US Treasury had put him on the terrorist list for his connection to the assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, in Washington in 2011.
Before all that, the Yemeni Vice President, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, had announced on March 27, 2017, the discovery of 150 Iranian and Lebanese military experts from Hezbollah and an Iraqi from the Popular Mobilization Forces in Sana’a. He added in a statement to "Al-Riyadh" newspaper that more than 58 Iranian experts were managing the battle of Hodeidah and working on installing naval mines.
What is Iranian diplomacy hiding?
For nearly two decades, the Yemeni government has accused Iran of interfering in Yemeni affairs by arming the Houthis and supporting them to destabilize Yemen and the region. Iran’s diplomats and political officials continue to deny these claims.
In recent years, nine high-ranking military leaders and IRGC officers have spoken about the Iranian role in the war in Yemen and the direct support they have provided to the Houthi militia. Some of these leaders have been affiliated with the Houthis since their coup against the internationally recognized Yemeni government in September 2014, bragging about the weapons, military technology and equipment, including ballistic missile systems and drones, they have supplied the Houthis.
Unofficial translations of Iranian military commanders commenting on their role in Yemen:
1. Assistant Commander of the IRGC-QF, Rostam Qasemi
April 21, 2021: “All the weapons the Houthis have come from our help…We helped them with the technology to make weapons.”
Interview with Russia Today
2. Iranian Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Baqeri
October 2019: “We provide advisory and intellectual support to Yemen (the Houthis).” "The Revolutionary Guard is responsible for this, and we will remain on the side of Yemen (the Houthis) until the aggression is pushed back."
Interview with Phoenix channel, China
3. Deputy Commander of the IRGC, Ali Fadavi
May 31, 2019: "Iran supports the Houthis in Yemen with everything it can." "Helping the Houthis in every way is obligatory on us according to the Qur'an, and we are fulfilling this duty." "What prevents sending Iranian forces to Yemen, as is happening in Syria, is the siege imposed on Yemen."
Interview with Iran TV 3
4. Commander of the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbiya headquarters, Major General Ghulam Rashid
September 25, 2021: The Houthis are among six popular and ideological armies established by Qassem Soleimani in the region that will fight for Tehran. These armies are the "deterrent force against aggression against Iran."
Speech in "Commemoration of the 41st Anniversary of the Holy Defense"
5. Iranian forces spokesman Abolfazl Shakarji
September 22, 2020: "Tehran transferred its technological experience in the defense field to Yemen so that the Yemenis (Houthis) could manufacture missiles and drones themselves."
"Tehran sends military experts and advisors to Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon"
A statement to Russia Today
6. IRGC Commander Major General Hossein Salami
December 30, 2014: "Ansar Allah (Houthis) is now playing an important role in Yemen, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, which happened thanks to taking the values of the Islamic Revolution as a model."
Speech at a research forum about three months after the Houthi coup in September 2014
January 1, 2016: “The popular forces in Syria, the Ansar Allah group (Houthis) in Yemen, and the Lebanese Hezbollah became important players in determining the region's equations. Friday sermon in Tehran”
December 12, 2016: "The project of the Iranian Republic will extend to Bahrain, Yemen and Mosul after the fall of the Syrian city of Aleppo, and these are all divine promises." "Iran continues to provide unlimited support to the Houthis, and Iranian missiles can destroy enemy targets in any region."
7. The current commander of the IRGC-QF, Esmail Qaani
May 2015: "Ansar Allah" (Houthis) received training under the banner of the Islamic Republic, and Hezbollah is working on a training and armament program there.”
April 22, 2021: The commander of the Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, and his companion, Muhammad Hijazi, jointly established the resistance fronts in the region.
Speech during the funeral of Brigadier General Muhammad Hegazy, deputy commander of the IRGC-QF and former commander of the Basij Force.
8. Operations assistant at "Thar Allah" base in Tehran, Major General Nasser Shabani
August 7, 2018: "We told the Yemenis (Houthis) to shoot the two Saudi oil tankers, and they did."
Interview with the Iranian Fars Agency
August 7, 2018: "Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis, Ansar Allah in Yemen, represent the Iranian extension in the region."
Interview for "Etimad Online"
9. Former commander of the IRGC, Lieutenant-General Muhammad Ali Aziz Jafari
December 5, 2014: "Tehran revived the Bahrain revolution, breathed a new spirit into the Yemeni revolution, and was able to emerge as a major dominant force in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen."
Iranian Revolutionary Guards website "Sepah News"
Edited by Casey Coombs