Drones targeting Saudi palace 'launched by Iran-backed group in Iraq'
26th February 2021

Explosive-laden drones that targeted Saudi Arabia’s royal palace in the kingdom’s capital last month ‘were launched by Iran-backed militia from inside Iraq’

  • Three drones launched from near border by relatively unknown faction on Jan 23
  • It exacerbated regional tensions amid Saudis’ war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels
  • But Iran-aligned rebels denied carrying out the attack targeting Yamama Palace

Explosive-laden drones that targeted Saudi Arabia’s royal palace in the kingdom’s capital last month were launched by Iran-backed militia from inside Iraq, officials claim.

A source within the militia in Baghdad told The Associated Press three drones were launched from the Iraqi-Saudi border by a relatively unknown faction, and crashed into the royal complex in Riyadh last month.

The move exacerbated regional tensions amid the kingdom’s yearslong war against neighbouring Yemen’s Houthi rebels. 

Earlier this month, the rebels targeted an airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia with bomb-laden drones, causing a civilian plane on the tarmac to catch fire.

And a group believed to have links to Iran wounded several Americans and killed a foreign contractor in a rocket strike on a US base in Iraq just days later. 

The Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, however, denied carrying out the attack that targeted Saudi Arabia’s Yamama Palace on January 23.

The comments by the senior Iraqi militia official mark the first time an Iran-backed group has acknowledged that Iraq was the origin of the attack, and points to the challenge Baghdad faces in halting attacks by Iranian-backed militia factions in Iraq.

It followed a claim of responsibility allegedly issued by a little-known group called Awliya Wa’ad al-Haq, or ‘The True Promise Brigades,’ that circulated on social media, calling it retaliation for a suicide bombing claimed by the Islamic State group in a Baghdad shopping district on Jan. 21.

The militia official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the attack, said the drones came ‘in parts from Iran and were assembled in Iraq, and were launched from Iraq.’ 

He did not disclose where along the border the drones were launched and did not provide more details about the group claiming the attack.

Iran-backed groups have splintered significantly since the Washington-directed strike that killed Iranian Gen. 

Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad more than a year ago. 

A group believed to have links to Iran wounded several Americans and killed a foreign contractor in a rocket strike on a US base in Iraq

Both were key in commanding and controlling a wide array of Iran-backed groups operating in Iraq.

Since their deaths, militias have become increasingly unruly and disparate. Some Washington-based analysts argue the militias have become splintered only to allow them to claim attacks under different names to mask their involvement.

A U.S. official said Washington believes the January 23 attack on the Yamama Palace was launched from inside Iraq. 

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not elaborate or say how the U.S. came to this conclusion.

An Iraqi official, also speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the U.S. intelligence was shared with Iraq’s government.

Launching a strike from Iraq would pose a challenge to Saudi air defenses, now focused on threats from Iran to the northeast and Yemen from the south. 

Such drones also are small enough and fly low enough to the ground to not be picked up on radar.

The attack comes as Iraq seeks to deepen economic ties with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies over a variety of investment projects. 

Last week, Iraq’s President Barham Salih visited the United Arab Emirates and Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein visited Saudi Arabia this week, apparently to discuss the attack.

Earlier this month, more than a dozen 107mm rockets were fired at the American military complex in Erbil airport that has hosted troops deployed as part of the international alliance fighting ISIS since 2014.

Earlier this month, the rebels targeted an airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia with bomb-laden drones, causing a civilian plane on the tarmac to catch fire

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was ‘outraged’ and vowed to ‘hold accountable those responsible’ without giving details on the injured Americans.

The bombardment was claimed by a shadowy group calling itself ‘Guardians of Blood,’ which US forces believe is one of many which have sprung up in Iraq as fronts for pro-Iranian factions. 

Iran condemned the attack and strongly denied rumours it was involved in the incident, before the United Nations then warned Iraq could spin out of control following the first attacks on Western forces in almost two months. 

Just days earlier, a passenger plane was engulfed in flames in Saudi Arabia after an airport was targeted in a drone attack later claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The group were said to have targeted the Abha International Airport in the south-west of the country, causing a passenger plane on the tarmac to catch fire, according to the kingdom’s state television.

The Iran-backed Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack soon afterwards, with military spokesman Yehia Sareai saying the group used four bomb-laden drones to target Abha airport.

‘This targeting comes in response to the continued aerial bombardment and the brutal siege on our country,’ Sareai said, noting that the Houthis consider the airport a military not civilian target.  

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