Drone attacks on Saudi Arabia from Iraq are a new threat

Saudi Arabia has a history of not retaliating for drone attacks backed by Iran.

A drone is seen with the NavSight BVLOS navigation solution. (photo credit: DROR BEN DAVID/MATRIX)
A drone is seen with the NavSight BVLOS navigation solution.
(photo credit: DROR BEN DAVID/MATRIX)
Drones are being used by pro-Iranian militias in Iraq to threaten Saudi Arabia. This has been an emerging threat since 2019 when the first alleged drone attack from Iraq took place, however little is known about the overall mounting problem. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that “fixed-wing drones laden with explosives and launched from Iraq smashed into the main royal complex in the Saudi capital Riyadh.” That alleged attack took place on January 23.  
Saudi Arabia has a history of not retaliating for drone attacks backed by Iran. For instance in September 2019 an unprecedented drone and cruise missile attack, using some 25 munitions, struck Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq facility. It is widely believed the missiles and drones flew over Kuwait and Iraq to come at Abqaiq from an angle that was not monitored well by radar.
Riyadh has a lot of advanced air defenses but it is vulnerable to drone attacks. Iran has increased it support for drone weapons used by the Houthis in Yemen. This is widely known because the US even put these drones on display at the Iran Materials Display at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C. The display, for those DC insiders who know about it, is called the “petting zoo.” It includes not only ballistic missile systems, such as a Qiam class missile guidance system remnants, but also an Iranian Shahed 123 drone. There are surface-to-air missiles, and small arms Iran has trafficked to Yemen and which were found in Afghanistan and Bahrain, as well as intercepted off the coast. The US Navy has intercepted several such shipments and reports indicate other naval partners have stopped Iranian smuggling of weapons to Yemen.
However, less is known about the drones Iran supplied to Iraqi based militias. Back in May 2019 the Daily Beast hinted that an attack on a pipeline in Saudi Arabia may have been linked to pro-Iranian groups like Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq. On June 28 the Wall Street Journal affirmed that the attack came from Iraq, not from Yemen as some had thought. Michael Knights at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted in late January 2021 that “Iran-backed militias have twice assisted the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in launching small explosive-laden delta-wing drones from Iraq into Saudi Arabia at ranges of 600-700 kilometers—first in May 2019 against the East-West oil pipeline.” This means attacks on January 23 or 26 may have come from Iraq. The US also expressed concern in July 2019 that Iraqi militias linked to Iran were using drones to watch US forces. Other sources agreed that the January 23 attack was from Iraq.  
Iran’s militias in Iraq now often create fake new cover groups or fronts for the IRGC hand in Iraq. For instance the January attack was attributed to previously unknown Alwiya Waad al-Haq. Riyadh has been cautious to blame Iraq because that would require Saudi Arabia to respond. In recent years Saudi Arabia has reopened a border crossing and begun flights with Iraq. Pro-Iranian groups in Iraq often accuse Saudi Arabia of being up to nefarious activity in Iraq, raising tensions. The new group in Iraq, translated as ‘Righteous Promise’ or “Righteous Pledge’ is likely just a front for Kataib Hezbollah. The US killed Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mhadi al-Muhandis and IRGQ Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani in January 2020.  
The name of the group is linked to another front group that appeared on February 15 during an attack on US forces in Erbil in northern Iraq. Called Saraya Awliya al-Dam, it is likely another front for Iran’s militias in Iraq.  
Iran outfits its allies in Iraq with explosive-laden drones. These are often called kamikaze drones because the drone itself is the warhead. They behave more like a cruise missile than a drone. An operator sets the coordinates for the attack and the drone flies into the target. Although some more sophisticated countries call this a “loitering munition” because the drone can fly around “loitering” waiting for the target, the Iranian variety likely does not communicate back to base. It flights a route and slams into the target. It’s not clear if the attack can be cancelled during the drone’s attack run.  
The February 19 piece by the Wall Street Journal alleges that a desert encampment used by the Saudi Royal family was also targeted by Iran. This would appear to indicate advanced Iranian intelligence, passed to the Iraqi militia. The guidance on the drone, perhaps involving gyroscopes previously linked to Iranian drones, would have been set quickly and then launched. The attack appears sophisticated, with drones avoiding air defenses and hitting a front gate and targeting a helicopter landing site.  
In contrast to the reports about the January attacks from Iraq, Riyadh has said recently it has foiled numerous drone attacks from Yemen. These include numerous incidents between February 13-16 and another on the 18th. The Houthis in Yemen, backed by Iran, seem to use drones almost every day against Saudi Arabia. On January 13 Newsweek claimed that the Houthis had a new Iranian drone dubbed Shahed 136, which has never been heard of before, based in Yemen. It is known the Houthis have the Qasef 1 and Qasef 2K, both derivatives of the Iranian Ababil-T and Ababil-B.  
What kind of drones are being flown from Iraq to target Iran? Not much is known about this key aspect of the drone threat from Iraq. However, the reports continue to grow and point to an emerging threat. That the drones can fly hundreds of kilometers and have targeted sensitive oil and leadership locations show that these are not simple drones, but sophisticated Iranian-backed operations. Iran is one of the world leaders in drone design, and it has a plethora of drone types, from the Muhajer to Ababil and Shahed lines of drones. It has reverse engineered a variety of drones it captured over the years, such as models based on the Predator, Sentinel, Hermes and other drones. Its drone program dates to the 1980s but it has vastly expanded their capabilities in recent years, making this a strategic arm. In February 2018 an Iranian drone flown from T-4 base in Syria even entered Israeli airspace and was shot down. Israel’s latest air defense capabilities have been upgraded to address emerging drone and drone swarm threats.   
The WSJ article points to Saudi Arabia being vulnerable to drone attacks. The challenge for Saudi Arabia is that it is a large desert kingdom, and it requires a lot of radar and also defense systems to stop drones. Most air defense systems that can address drone threats, are relatively short range. Many other air defense systems are not that capable or reliable in detecting or stopping drone attacks. Advanced militaries that make the hi-tech air defenses that a country like Saudi Arabia needs are all rapidly upgrading radars and interceptors to deal with the threat.