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The Ultimate Rise of non-State Actors?

BY Antonino Occhiuto



The Ultimate Rise of non-State Actors?

On 14 September 2019, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for a ballistic attack that targeted Saudi Arabia’s (KSA) Abqaiq oil complex—the largest crude oil stabilisation plant in the world, operated by the state-owned energy major Aramco in the Kingdom’s East. Understanding whether the strikes were launched from Houthi-controlled areas in Northern Yemen or if the weaponry was operated by Tehran and its proxy militias on the Iraq-Iran border is relevant to understand wider geopolitical implications. Regardless, this attack demonstrates the unprecedented capability of non-state actors to hit the interests of a powerful state and hurt the global economy.

Unprecedented Capabilities

Houthi rebels have been fighting a Western-backed, Saudi-led Arab coalition which intervened in Yemen in March 2015, since the Iran-backed militia ousted the government from Yemen’s capital Sana’a. Iran has been supporting Yemen’s rebels to ensure that its main regional rivals—KSA and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—remained entangled in a complex and expensive war. More recently, the Islamic Republic sought even closer coordination with the Houthis. Since the appointment of Hossein Salami as commander in chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s proxies throughout the Middle East began receiving more sophisticated equipment from Tehran. Equipment such as new Iran-made UAV-X drones and Zelzal missiles—especially in their -2 and -3 variant—are proving to be extremely useful in the Houthi’s asymmetric warfare. This would not be the first time that the Houthis use drones and missiles to target Saudi Arabia and its oil infrastructure. For instance, in May 2019 the group launched drone attacks that hit KSA’s crucial east-west pipeline which connects Saudi Arabia’s oil producing regions on the Gulf coast with the city and refining hub of Yanbu on the Red Sea. In August 2019 Houthi-operated drones also struck the Shaybah oil field, near Saudi Arabia’s border with the UAE. However, the scale of the latest attack in Abqaiq is unprecedented. According to the New York Times, US investigators theorise that the 14 September attack was carried out using the new Iran-made UAV-X—which according to a UN report has a range of up to 1.500km and therefore is able to reach Eastern Saudi Arabia—and cruise missiles launched directly from south-western Iran.

Asymmetry in Perspective

The frequent use of drones, missiles and the establishment of an extensive network of proxy militias fits perfectly with the wider definition of asymmetric warfare. Asymmetric warfare includes an array of tactics that can be adopted by state and non-sate actors alike to target opponents that are clearly superior in terms of conventional fire power. Carrying out asymmetric military operations tends to be less costly in financial terms while allowing the attacker to strike in a number of different ways, which are often difficult to predict and prevent. A variety of tactics from covert acts of sabotage to suicide bombing missions fit into the asymmetric category.

Salami Tactics

Tensions between Tehran, Washington and its Arab allies reached a critical level in in the period between April and July 2019, before an apparent attempt to de-escalate last August. In fact, the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil must be understood within the wider US-Iran standoff in the Gulf. The US believes that the attacks on Saudi Arabia did not originate from Yemen but from the Iran-Iraq border, where Tehran has trained and equipped an array of affiliated militias and deployed the Quds Force—the IRGC group responsible for overseas operations. Crucially the new IRGC commander, Hossein Salami, is a fervent advocate of the need for the Islamic Republic to retaliate by hitting US interests and allies throughout the Middle East, as Tehran pays an increasingly heavy toll due to Washington’s sanctions. The attack immediately forced Riyadh to shut almost 50% of its oil production capacity and took down 5% of global crude output. Tehran’s economy is certainly set to benefit from an increase in the price of oil it continues to sell—mainly to China—despite the US sanctions. However Iran’s course of action is considered confrontational and unacceptable by the US administration and as a threat to the global economy, given the importance of the oil price on economic growth – especially in the West. President Donald Trump was quick to declare that Washington was “locked and loaded” to retaliate while the US Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, pinned the blame squarely on the Iranian state for “an attack on the global economy and the global energy market”. The attack carries a severe risk of escalation especially in case that KSA and US intelligence prove that the Iranian state was directly involved.


Whether the attack came as a Houthi initiative or whether it was orchestrated and coordinated by the IRGC leadership, this unprecedented attack on the infrastructures of the world’s oil largest producer has the potential to unleash a major escalation in the Gulf which would have a severe impact on the international energy market, maritime routes and global trade. Amid such context, on 2 October 2019, EGIC will discuss the implications of the various interactions between states and non-state actors such as terrorist groups and proxy militias. This high level conference will focus on specific scenarios concerning the situation on the ground in Libya, Syria and Iraq as well as the fight for legitimacy opposing the nation-state and the various narratives of non-state actors. This event brings together important speakers such as Michael Stephens, Senior Research Fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and Alessandro Minuto Rizzo, President of the NATO Defence College Foundation.

The conference will take place on 2 October 2019 (16:00 – 19:00) at the Centre for American Studies, Via Michelangelo Caetani 32, Rome. Registration is also available on our website: