In a huge blow to the Saudi military, Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Muhammad bin Ahmed Al-Shaalan was killed in a Scud missile attack by Yemeni Houthi rebels on the giant King Khalid Air Base in the southwestern Saudi Arabia.
Also operating out of the base: A massive U.S. drone fleet.
The attack took place on June 6th, but was concealed under a blanket of secrecy until Wednesday, June 10th. Media reports only started circulating on Friday, in an effort to bury the news in the usual Friday afternoon dump.
For the Saudi's and their expensive, well trained military, the blow is both militarily significant and politically sensitive.
The attack happened at the largest Saudi air base, where the kingdom has for last two and a half months waged its air campaign to end the Yemeni insurgency.
Saudi and coalition air strikes, directed against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, have killed an estimated 2,000 people, including numerous civilians, women and children.
The delayed official disclosure of Gen. Al-Shaalan’s death Wednesday left more questions than answers. The terse three-line announcement read: “The Commander of Saudi Royal Air Forces Lieutenant General Mohammed bin Ahmed Al-Shaalan died Wednesday during a working trip outside the kingdom from a heart attack.”
Yet regional military sources report that the Houthis’ Scud attack caught the Saudis uprepared and came as a total surprise.
The only reaction from the air base came from American teams operating Patriot counter-missile batteries, which tried to shoot down the incoming missiles and managed to intercept only two or three out of a barrage of 15.
The U.S. anti-missile systems have been deployed to shield U.S. special forces units and drones fighting Al Qaeda in Arabia (AQIP) from the base. Yet since the start of the Yemen civil war, American drones have also been feeding the Saudi Air Force with information about Houthi targets and movements.
The missile attack on the Saudi air base represents a major escalation in the Yemeni war, with effects on the complex U.S. and Saudi relationship with Iran. The Yemen conflict has become a full on proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and through the Saudis America.
Regional intelligence experts found that Houthi Scud crews undoubtedly received precise data from Iranian intelligence about the whereabouts of Gen. Al-Shalaan and his top staff at the time of the attack.They were then able to time their attack for 3am before dawn and specifically target the base’s living quarters and aircraft hangars.
The attack likely had three purposes. For Iran, it was to strike a powerful blow against the Saudis and serve notice to America that it does not care for its drones in the region. On a more practical level, damage to aircraft and runways will slow down the pace of drone missions and Saudi air strikes.
Both the Saudi's and the Obama administration have been keeping the incident secret so as not to jeopardize the nuclear negotiations with Iran as they enter the final lap before the June 30th deadline.
Both parties would also rather not draw attention to their joint involvement in the conflict, nor the embarrassing defeat at the hands of Iran.