Experts are divided over whether a vast arsenal of captured Houthi weaponry offers insight into the rebel group’s strategy in the fight for the critical Yemeni port-city of Hodeidah, or whether the group has already adapted.
Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) disguised as rocks and cooking pots, sea mines, and advanced infrared-detonated devices were all exhibited to media in Abu Dhabi yesterday as evidence of Iranian support for the Houthis, who have waged a three year war against the internationally recognised government of Yemen.
Weapons on display included Explosively Formed Penetrators, a special shaped charge designed to penetrate armour effectively that found widespread use among Iranian-backed groups against American troops in Iraq.
Several of the rock-shaped IEDs were identical to devices seized from Iranian-backed groups operating in Bahrain, and devices found aboard the Jiahn-1 and Iranian arms-ship seized off the coast of Yemen in July 2013.
Beyond their ingenuity and innovation, a unifying feature of many of the devices were the indiscriminate nature of their operation. “There are innovative, but there is no quality control,” said one coalition officer with technical weapons expertise. “Iranian-backed Houthis are using these with no discrimination between civilian and military” targets, he added.
The coalition officer, whose name and rank was withheld at the request of the coalition, told reporters that there was concern that Houthi militants may have mined Hodeidah as part of a scorched-earth strategy to inflict damage on the city’s infrastructure before being forced out of it.
“We are concerned they may have heavily mined the port itself with such devices,” the coalition official said.
Prospects of a peaceful Houthi withdrawal from the city appeared distant following a prime-time TV address in which Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al Houthi declared the group “will continue to fight to defend our land.”
Hodeidah’s port is vital to Yemen’s food supply, with more two-thirds of the famine-stricken country’s aid passing through it.
Coalition officials claim to have defused almost 30,000 IEDs and mines since the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen began over three years ago, and they claim to add to that tally by 300 more every week. Unmarked minefields may scar the Arab world’s poorest country for years to come, they say.
“They drive out and drop the mines randomly, the Houthis do not have maps of where they have left these explosives,” the official added.
However, Alex Mello, a security analyst at Horizon access, noted that the urban environment of Hodeidah may not be favourable to the Houthi’s traditional tactic of indiscriminately laying IEDs.
“The Houthis are mostly mountain fighters and historically haven’t been very comfortable fighting in urban terrain or defending urban areas. Until now we haven’t really seen them try to properly defend a large urban area,” he told The National.
“In Hodeidah we’re now seeing some signs the Houthis are attempting to mount a proper urban defence, including use of berms, roadblocks, tunnels, and repurposing buildings into prepared fighting positions.
“The large civilian population inside Hodeidah also prevents them from using their preferred tactics of laying down minefields everywhere, though they might use mines to partition the city and isolated civilians inside their neighbourhoods like they did during the Sanaa fighting late last year.”