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What We Know About The Saudi Attack


Today in Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left no wiggle room. He said he knows exactly who was behind last weekend's attack on two Saudi oil facilities.


MIKE POMPEO: I think it's abundantly clear, and there is an enormous consensus in the region that we know precisely who conducted these attacks was Iran.

SHAPIRO: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called those accusations false in a CNN interview.


JAVAD ZARIF: This is agitation for war because it's based on lies. It's based on deception.

SHAPIRO: Is it based on lies? Let's parse out exactly what the evidence shows about these attacks. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has been talking to experts about the satellite images and photos of wrecked drones and missiles that have been coming out of Saudi Arabia. And he's in the studio to walk us through what he's learned.

Hi, Geoff.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with the attack itself. Many people have seen pictures of the oil facility on fire. What do the photos tell experts about exactly what happened?

BRUMFIEL: Right. I mean, the first thing is it was big. So if you look at U.S. commercial satellite photos, they show at least 17 impact points. Saudi officials say that a total of 25 drones and missiles were sent. And to get that many weapons to go to the same place at roughly the same time requires some real coordination.

On top of that, these are big facilities. But the things that were targeted were valuable. There were some sort of towers that are used to separate oil from volatile chemicals, tanks that hold flammable gas, things like that. So take it altogether - it looks like a sophisticated strike carefully planned.

SHAPIRO: And is that why the U.S. doesn't give much credence to the claim by the Houthi rebels in Yemen that they were responsible for the attack?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. The Houthi rebels have been in this bloody civil war with a Saudi-led coalition for years. They claimed responsibility. But there's a basic math problem. They initially said they sent 10 drones, but as I just said, there were 17 impact points. So it just doesn't add up.

There's also a bit of a range issue. What we - the weapons we've seen from the Houthis before just can't reach these sites. The Houthis again claimed responsibility yesterday, but when I spoke to a researcher who watched their press conference - a guy named Fabian Hinz at the Middlebury Institute - he said there were just lots of problems with it. Here's what he said.

FABIAN HINZ: They show the preattack reconnaissance picture allegedly taken by a Houthi drone, and that one is just a satellite picture from last year.

BRUMFIEL: I mean, they literally took a picture from Google Maps and just put it up on the screen. There were lots of other inconsistencies. He's more convinced than ever that the Houthis didn't do this.

SHAPIRO: Talk about the other clues there are that might point to Iran.

BRUMFIEL: The biggest one is the weapons themselves. So the Saudis had a press conference yesterday. They put the remains of some of these drones and missiles on displays. At least some of the drones look similar to designs we've seen in Iran. But the real head-turner were the missiles - the remains of two cruise missiles that failed to reach their target. Hinz has studied these missiles. He says they are definitely Iranian designs. So we may not know where exactly these attacks were launched from, but we know the weapons used were of Iranian origin.

SHAPIRO: There have been calls for investigations. Do you think the public will ever know exactly where these did come from?

BRUMFIEL: I mean, I think there's a good chance, you know? There's a U.N. team headed to Saudi Arabia now. We may learn a little more from them. The United States has tons of surveillance in the region - drones, satellites, all kinds of sensors. They probably have more information. In fact, NPR's Tom Bowman has heard from two Pentagon sources that they have satellite pictures of Iranian soldiers setting up in Iran for the strike. So far, the U.S. hasn't released that information. You know, I think it could be very escalatory if they did, and that might be some of the hesitation.

There's also an opportunity to learn from the wreckage that the Saudis have gathered. Yesterday, the Saudis said that they might be able to back out some information. These weapons aren't terribly complicated. They're actually GPS-guided. It could be as simple as just picking up some coordinates from the hardware that remains from the attacks.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thanks a lot.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.