The official story was clear: Saudi forces shot down a ballistic missile fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebel group last month at Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh. It was a victory for the Saudis and for the United States, which supplied the Patriot missile defense system.
“Our system knocked the missile out of the air,” President Trump said the next day from Air Force One en route to Japan, one of the 14 countries that use the system. “That’s how good we are. Nobody makes what we make, and now we’re selling it all over the world.”
But an analysis of photos and videos of the strike posted to social media suggests that story may be wrong.
Instead, evidence analyzed by a research team of missile experts appears to show the missile’s warhead flew unimpeded over Saudi defenses and nearly hit its target, Riyadh’s airport. The warhead detonated so close to the domestic terminal that customers jumped out of their seats.
The warhead appeared to explode near an airport terminal.
This side is
The missile body
Satellite image from DigitalGlobe via Google Earth
Saudi officials did not respond to a request for comment. Some U.S. officials cast doubt on whether the Saudis hit any part of the incoming missile, saying there was no evidence that it had. Instead, they said, the incoming missile body and warhead may have come apart because of its sheer speed and force.
The findings show that the Iranian-backed Houthis, once a ragtag group of rebels, have grown powerful enough to strike major targets in Saudi Arabia, possibly shifting the balance of their years-long war. And they underscore longstanding doubts about missile defense technology, a centerpiece of American and allied national defense strategies, particularly against Iran and North Korea.
“Governments lie about the effectiveness of these systems. Or they’re misinformed,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an analyst who led the research team, which shared its findings with The New York Times. “And that should worry the hell out of us.”
Shooting down Scud missiles is difficult, and governments have wrongly claimed success against them in the past.
The missile, seen in this video released by the Houthis, is believed to be a Burqan-2, a variant of the Scud missile used throughout the Middle East. It traveled about 600 miles.
Saudi and American officials have accused Iran of supplying the Houthis with the missile, a charge that Tehran denies. A recent United Nations report found evidence that the missile had been designed and manufactured by Iran, according to a Security Council diplomat. Reuters first reported the U.N. findings.