By David D. Kirkpatrick, Christoph Koettl, Allison McCann, Eric Schmitt, Anjali Singhvi and Gus Wezerek, The New York Times: The Trump administration said Iran was most likely behind the attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities on Saturday, citing intelligence assessments and satellite photographs showing what officials said was evidence of Iranian involvement.
Trump administration officials said that the attacks might have involved a combination of drones and cruise missiles and that they did not originate from Yemen, where the Iranian-backed Houthi militia claimed responsibility. Iran has denied any involvement.
The publicly available evidence is consistent with a few aspects of the White House claims. But American officials have offered no evidence beyond the satellite photos, which analysts said were insufficient to prove where the attack came from, which weapons were used and who fired them.
We analyzed the satellite photos that the Trump administration released, comparing them with independent sources when possible, to determine what they show and what they leave unclear:
The sophistication of the attack far exceeds that shown in previous attacks by the Houthis, raising the likelihood of direct Iranian involvement.
The satellite photos alone are not enough to support American claims that the strikes appeared to have come from the direction of Iran or Iraq.
There’s not enough evidence to show what kinds of weapons were used, but the precision of the strikes is consistent with a guided missile.
Military analysts who have studied the Yemen war say that the range, scale and complexity of the attack on the Saudi oil installations far exceed any capabilities that the Houthis have previously demonstrated.
American officials released satellite photographs showing what officials said were at least 17 points of impact at two Saudi energy facilities, though not all of the weapons necessarily hit their targets.
At one facility, Abqaiq, satellite imagery showed damage to storage tanks and a processing train.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia launched a campaign to try to roll back a takeover by the Houthis, a Yemeni faction backed by Iran. The war has killed thousands of civilians and put more than 12 million people at risk of starvation, but has failed to dislodge the Houthis from control of the capital and much of the country.
Although the Houthis have often used drones to try to attack Saudi Arabia, they have generally relied on the Samad 3, an inexpensive, small, slow and clumsy drone that is unlikely to be able to penetrate Saudi air defenses and reach targets with the accuracy and coordination seen over the weekend.
More recently, they have used a more advanced drone, the Quds 1. It could be described as a small cruise missile or a large drone with a payload approaching that of a cruise missile.
Analysts say this is what the Houthis appear to have used to hit the Abha International Airport in southern Saudi Arabia a few months ago. But the Quds 1 lacks the range to get from northern Yemen to the oil installations in Saudi Arabia.
The range, scale and precision of the latest attack — including the successful penetration of Saudi air defenses and the avoidance of obstacles like power lines and communication towers — far exceeds anything the Houthis have ever done.
Still, some security specialists say that the Houthis have greatly improved their drone and cruise missiles, with what American officials say is important help from Iran.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has been training its militia proxies in the region, from Lebanon to Yemen, in more sophisticated warfare using drones. After Houthi missiles targeting Saudi Arabia were intercepted, Iran moved to train Houthis in drone technology, taking groups to Iran to master assembling, managing and repairing drones.
Independent satellite imagery from Planet Labs showed the same damage as the imagery released by the Trump administration. Storage tanks were hit in a consistent pattern and from the same direction, another indication of the attack’s precision.
Administration officials have not publicly said where they believe the attack originated from. They did say that the satellite imagery was consistent with strikes from the north or northwest, which would point to an attack coming from the direction of Iran or Iraq, rather than from Yemen.
But the satellite photographs released on Sunday were not as clear-cut as officials suggested, with some appearing to show damage on the western side of the facilities, not from the direction of Iran or Iraq.
Even if the impact points indicated that the portions of the facilities that were damaged faced Iran or Iraq, security analysts say, that does not prove where they were launched from. Cruise missiles can be programmed to change course, hitting a wall opposite the direction from which they were fired.
“The origin of the attacks has to be established,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “If they came from Iran, that’s a game changer.”
Administration officials said on Sunday, without offering evidence, that the attacks came from a combination of drones and guided cruise missiles.
The satellite photos do not offer enough information to determine what kind of weapons were used. But Adam Simmons, a geospatial analyst at Midgard Raven, said the precision and consistency of the damage to the storage tanks was consistent with some type of guided munition, such as a missile.
Analysts also pointed to photos of what appears to be missile wreckage posted on Saudi social media that could provide further clues about how the attack was carried out. The location and date of the photos could not be confirmed, but the images seem to be new.
The wreckage appears consistent with a Quds 1, said Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, though he cautioned that further confirmation was needed.
If the photos of wreckage are connected to the attacks, it would make it less likely that the attack originated in Yemen, because the range of the Quds 1 missile may not be enough to reach the site, Mr. Hinz wrote in a blog post.
Administration officials said on Sunday they would move to make more evidence available in the coming days. Forensic analyses of the recovered weapons could answer questions about what they were, who manufactured them and who launched them.
First published in The New York Times. Cartoon by Dave Granlund.