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Explosives-carrying drones apparently could reach Israel

Iranian kamikaze drones said spotted in the possession of Yemen’s Houthis

Tehran fires cruise missiles during naval exercise in apparent show of force; Newsweek publishes satellite images purporting to show advanced UAVs

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative: Reporters film the scene during a media presentation of what Saudi officials say is the wreckage of Iranian-Houthi suicide drones, in Khobar city, Saudi Arabia, April 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Illustrative: Reporters film the scene during a media presentation of what Saudi officials say is the wreckage of Iranian-Houthi suicide drones, in Khobar city, Saudi Arabia, April 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

The American magazine Newsweek published satellite images purporting to show advanced kamikaze drones in Yemen that the outlet said Iran could use to attack countries in the region, including Israel.

These unmanned aerial vehicles, identified as Shahed-136 loitering munitions, were more advanced than the models of suicide drones already known to be in the Houthis’ possession, with an operational radius of approximately 2,000 to 2,200 kilometers (1,240 to 1,370 miles), meaning Israel is within their range.

An unnamed expert who provided the satellite images to Newsweek said the purpose of these drones was to give Iran the ability to conduct strikes on a variety of targets in the Middle East without them being clearly traced back to Tehran.

“What they’re trying to achieve is plausible deniability,” the expert told the outlet, “as in being able to strike either a US, Saudi, Gulf, or Israeli target and then having the strike traced back to Yemen, and hoping for deniability against any kind of retribution.”

Houthi fighters chant slogans as they take off to a battlefront following a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters for the Houthi movement, in Sanaa, Yemen, August 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

The Houthi rebel group in Yemen has possessed suicide drones — UAVs packed with explosives that are designed to be flown directly at targets — for several years, but the variety seen in the Newsweek report Thursday were more powerful.

Also on Thursday, the Iranian military fired several cruise missiles as part of a naval drill in the Gulf of Oman, state media reported, in an apparent show of force amid heightened tensions with Israel and the United States.

Various kinds of surface-to-surface cruise missiles successfully hit their targets in the gulf and northern part of the Indian Ocean, the report said.

“Enemies should know that any violation and invasion of Iranian marine borders will be targeted by the cruise missiles from both coast and sea,” said Adm. Hamzeh Ali Kaviani, spokesman for the exercise.

This image made from a video released on Jan. 13, 2021, by the Iranian Army shows a helicopter landing on Makran logistics vessel during a navy drill. (Iranian Army via AP)

The two-day drill began Wednesday when the country’s navy inaugurated its largest military vessel. The exercise took place as Tehran squared off against the United States in an escalating tit-for-tat over its nuclear program and amid a long-simmering conflict with Jerusalem, which bubbled to the surface this week as the Israeli military reportedly conducted a massive series of airstrikes on Iran-linked targets in eastern Syria in the predawn hours of Wednesday morning.

These reports came as advanced air defense batteries were seen deployed around the southern Israeli city of Eilat, amid concerns of an attack from Yemen by the Iran-backed Houthis.

Iron Dome and Patriot missile defense batteries were first spotted earlier this month. The Iron Dome is generally used against rockets and mortar shells, but can also intercept small drones and cruise missiles. The Patriot system is used primarily to defend against ballistic missiles and larger aircraft like fighter jets and unmanned aerial vehicles, including the types of suicide drones mentioned in the Newsweek report.

In recent weeks, the Israeli military has also reportedly sailed a submarine through the area, sending the vessel through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea. Due to the shallow depth of the canal, submarines can only pass through it above the water, where they can easily be spotted. As such, the move was generally seen as a show of force directed toward Iran.

In an interview last month, IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said Israel was tracking Iranian movements around the region, and that Israeli submarines were quietly “sailing everywhere.”

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