The ISIS drone threat

by Paul Iddon.

In a 1993 televised panel discussion about the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and potential ballistic missile threats from countries like North Korea and Iran, scholar Russell Seitz briefly touched upon the simple forms in which asymmetrical threats can come.

“If you also buy an Apple Newton and a model airplane, you have just bought yourself a cruise missile,” he told the panel. “So we have already arrived at a rather dystopic future in which the appropriate technology on the consumer level makes it imperative that we address the problem.”

An ISIS drone modified to carry a 40mm rifle grenade in the attached plastic tube.

An ISIS drone modified to carry a 40mm rifle grenade in the attached plastic tube.

Seitz’s example is particularly prophetic in light of developments in the present Battle for Mosul. The Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group has managed to modify drones available to hobbyists into small bomb-dropping – bombs the size of grenades with “badminton birdies for tails” – aircraft. The Iraqis find the small nimble remote-controlled quad-copters difficult, but not impossible, to shoot down.

For its part the US military is taking note on how ISIS use these drones. “They’ve actually gone to almost swarm-level capability in a couple of cases,” said U.S. lieutenant general Michael Lundy. “That is a big area that we are learning.”

A Patriot missile belonging to a U.S. ally shot down an ISIS quad-copter in March. U.S. General David Perkins pointed out the obvious “overkill” involved in using a $3 million a piece missiles to shoot down very basic $200-300 drones that’s relatively easy for anyone to acquire (see from 14m54s in the full video below). Given their potential swarm capability identified by lieutenant general Lundy, ISIS or some other groups, could try and goad the U.S., and/or its allies, into firing off several expensive missiles in order to bring down these cheap pilotless aircraft.

Or, as Perkins put it: “If I am the enemy, I am thinking ‘I am just going to go on eBay and buy as many of these $300 quadcopters that I can and expend all these Patriot missiles’.”

Such a scenario is not wholly unlike Israel’s use of $50,000 a piece Iron Dome Tamir missiles to shoot down relatively inexpensive $500-1,000 home-made rockets used by the Hamas in Gaza. Or, for that matter, British use of air-to-surface Brimstone missiles, which cost around $250,000 each, to take out individual ISIS technical Toyota pickup trucks.

“In the big picture ISIS’s drones are more of an annoyance than a real threat to the security forces,” Joel Wing, an Iraq analyst who runs the Musings on Iraq blog, told Offiziere. “These drones serve three main purposes for ISIS,” he explained. “The attacking of civilians in liberated east Mosul, where they usually fly around looking for a crowd on which they can drop a grenade. The harassment of Iraqi forces, flying over them usually results in the Iraqi Security Forces trying to shoot them down, which stops them from doing whatever they were doing beforehand. And finally, they use these drones to spot targets for mortar and rocket fire and to direct car bombs. That’s actually probably their most important use for the insurgents.”

Last November, in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, ISIS reportedly used a drone to drop bombs on several densely populated areas, killing up to six people and wounding several others. This is a clear attempt on their part to terrorize the civilian population of that city, which they have been besieging for over two years now.

"After we moved forward, #Iraq forces shot down this weaponised IS drone that had been buzzing over us earlier. Pic credit our driver Alaa." — Sara Hussein, Reporter with Agence France-Presse (@sarahussein) 23. Februar 2017.

“After we moved forward, #Iraq forces shot down this weaponised IS drone that had been buzzing over us earlier. Pic credit our driver Alaa.” — Sara Hussein, Reporter with Agence France-Presse (@sarahussein) 23. Februar 2017.

On October 2 an ISIS drone rigged with a small amount of explosives killed two Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers and injured their two French military advisors.

Iraqi forces pushing into Mosul found a drone workshop belonging to the militants, showing their diligent efforts to weaponize these consumer products. A similar workshop was found in the city of Ramadi after it was liberated from the militants at the end of 2015. Both discoveries indicate that ISIS has been making earnest and organized attempts to weaponize drones to try and garner an edge over their enemies.

The US-led coalition shot an ISIS drone out of the sky for the first time all the way back in March 2015. “It was a commercially available, remote piloted aircraft, really something anyone can get,” remarked US Army Colonel Steve Warren following the incident. He also described it as little more than a “model airplane”, aptly echoing Sietz’s aforementioned two-decade old warning about the simplicity of such technology. However, unlike the drones today it seems that one was used for reconnaissance rather than attack purposes, so therefore required little or no modification. In late 2015 ISIS used a drone to film rocket attacks against the Turkish base in Bashiqa. Also, during its siege of the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani in late 2014 ISIS used drone footage of the city in its propaganda videos.

Iraq's armed forces have captured a Da'ish weaponised quadcopter and shuttlecock grenade depot in western Mosul in April 2017.

Iraq’s armed forces have captured a Da’ish weaponised quadcopter and shuttlecock grenade depot in western Mosul in April 2017.

The steady weaponization of these drones among such groups is alarming. Early last September, Jund al Aqsa, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, released a video purporting to show it is capable of dropping bombs from an unmanned drone on Syria’s Homs province. The Lebanese-based Shiite militia Hezbollah also demonstrated that it is capable of dropping unguided bombs from drones in Aleppo last August. Iran is a known supplier of military equipment to that particular group so those drones are purpose built for such attacks as opposed to ISIS’s modified commercial versions. An Iranian-made drone was also suspected in the bombing and killing of four Turkish soldiers in northwest Syria last November.

ISIS’s many enemies will likely force the group from the swaths of territory they control in Iraq and Syria while the militants’ drone program remains in its infancy. If ISIS had been able to remain in Mosul for longer it could well have devised more deadly drone weapons, possibly even enabling these tiny unmanned flying machines to unleash chemical weapons – ISIS already developed and deployed quite primitive chemicals against their Kurdish enemies in both Iraq and Syria – on densely populated areas in either Iraq or Syria.

In recent months these ruthless militants have demonstrated is that it is becoming easier for sub-state actors and terrorist groups to acquire relatively cheap technology and weaponize it to the extent that it could pose a very real threat to military and civilian targets alike.

This entry was posted in English, Iraq, Paul Iddon, Syria, Technology, Terrorism.

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