At a press conference on Jan. 8, Saudi Arabian Brig. Gen. Turki Al-Maliki, spokesman for the Arab coalition fighting for control of Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, presented video evidence that he alleged justified an imminent attack on the Red Sea port of Hodeidah. The port serves as a lifeline for humanitarian aid into the country, which has been locked in a grinding, brutal civil war since 2014.

“Hodeidah port is the primary port for receiving Iranian ballistic missiles,” he claimed. “The missiles are put together and assembled in [the port] under the supervision of Iranian security officials.”

Al-Maliki announced he had proof. A two-second video clip followed, panning across a day-lit warehouse, featuring weaponry on display. “This is in a specific location inside Hodeidah port, which is composed of workshops of ballistic missiles, which are then transported out of the port,” he explained. Al-Maliki didn’t reveal the address.

The following day, Misbar, a fact-checking website focused on the Middle East, debunked the allegation, noting that identical footage first appeared in the 2009 documentary Severe Clear, about U.S. Marines invading Iraq in 2003. The film, which had its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival, showed troops inspecting warheads.

Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree declared it a “loud scandal,” and soon after, Al-Maliki issued a correction. “The footage was erroneously passed from a source, we are dealing in an area of operations that has many sources, and this comes within the marginal error of dealing with sources,” he said.

Severe Clear director Kristian Fraga tells The Hollywood Reporter it was surreal to watch his project — with such themes as the manipulative and corruptive effects of war imagery — itself became a MacGuffin in the saga of another intractable regional conflict. “It’s disturbing,” he says of the misappropriation. “You hear everyone brings their own point of view to a film, but you never dream of someone taking your work out of context and using it for nefarious purposes.” (Severe Clear, Fraga notes, was widely downloaded on BitTorrent during its festival run before appearing on Netflix and Amazon; it’s currently available on Tubi.)

The Severe Clear incident is “like a plot point out of a modern-day John le Carré novel,” muses Jacob Shapiro, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and director of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project. Experts in Middle Eastern affairs and information warfare are fascinated by the episode, which highlights the perpetual struggle within intelligence circles to separate intention from incompetence, as well as the increasing weaponization of sophisticated video in the public-relations battle for narrative control. (In early February, the U.S. alleged it had uncovered a Russian plan to stage a false-flag operation by disseminating footage of the aftermath of a faked attack; actors allegedly were to play mourners, purportedly as a pretext to invade Ukraine.)

“States have always tried to portray facts to their best advantage,” says Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. “What’s changing — getting easier, cheaper, better — is advanced video editing software.”

Saudi analyst Ali Al-Ahmed, head of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, notes that the Severe Clear revelation comes as the Arab coalition appears to have stepped up plans to lay siege against the Houthis to break a stalemate in a conflict that has entered its eighth year. “The Saudis need to end this war, and to do this, they need to squeeze the Houthis,” he says. “One of the best ways to do this is this port, Hodeidah, but the United Nations previously brokered an agreement that it wouldn’t be targeted, so they needed a reason to bomb it.”

The war has already resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions of Yemenis to flee their homes and onto the brink of famine. According to the U.N., the conflict is currently the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

The Severe Clear clip’s sourcing is a matter of debate. “It would not be surprising if the Iranians planted this for the Saudis in order for this ‘egg on their face’ moment to happen,” says Prof. Ryan C. Maness, director of the Department of Defense Information Strategy Research Center at the Naval Postgraduate School. “However, this could have been Saudi propaganda in order for them to justify the actions taken, as they have been purveyors of disinformation for their domestic audiences as well.”

Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, head of the nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, observes of the original sourcing of the footage: “We don’t know if it was the Iranians, who wanted them to step on a rake, or somebody else who has a grudge, but intelligence pays for information, and that sets up an incentives problem. So maybe there’s a Yemeni who gets paid by the Saudis and feels a desire to produce. When you pay people, they give you what you want.”

Lewis notes that the underlying problem appears to have been basic vetting. “It’s a level of incompetence that’s extremely hard for me to fathom,” he says, noting that the weapons in the clip are clearly Al-Samoud 2 missiles. “Any Saudi intelligence or military person who’s been working on this issue would know that’s not the kind of missile the Houthis have been using.”

Al-Ahmed explains that if the Saudis were duped, their mindset is at fault. “They are desperate for justification,” he says, “and people know it.” Adds Robert Allen, an instructor at Tulane’s School of Professional Advancement whose lengthy foreign service career has included a tenure with the State Department’s diplomatic security mission in Afghanistan: “You become biased when you want it to be true — whether it is or it isn’t.” (Al-Maliki’s mea culpa included a reminder that “the fact that this film is from an erroneous source does not mean that Houthi militias are not using and militarizing ports, specifically the Hodeidah port, and it cannot be said that the Houthis do not use civilians for protection purposes. Houthi violations are clear to all.”)

The Saudi Embassy in Washington declined to comment, referring THR to Al-Maliki’s statement. For his part, Fraga has been fielding calls from lawyers. “They’ve been telling me I should think about suing the Saudi government,” he says. “That’s not in our game plan.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *