“From the drone of the army of the Islamic State.”
I am proud, though not particularly pleased that we began reporting on the use of sUAS by various non-state actors some time ago. Last week Le Monde reported that on October 2, two French paratroopers had sustained serious injuries and two Peshmerga had been killed when they opened a booby-trapped consumer “hobby” drone. This is the first known instance of a drone being used as an IED. The story is starting to get some traction in the mainstream news.
This post is a summary of a number of articles beginning with a report in CNN.com by Peter Bergen from August 2014.
In a video uploaded to YouTube on Saturday purportedly by the terrorist group ISIS, various scenes of jihadist propaganda flash across the screen: militants reading verses from the Quran and examining a map of northern Syria, clips of violent clashes and explosions.
But this video had something else in it that previous videos released by ISIS have not: Surveillance footage apparently shot by a drone. The almost 14-minute video shows aerial views of Syrian Army Military Base 93 near Raqqa province in northern Syria.
ISIS militants attacked the base on August 7, deploying suicide bombers driving truck bombs to soften up resistance in scenes that are also shown in the videotape that was released Saturday.
The caption over the surveillance footage of the Syrian military base reads: “From the drone of the army of the Islamic State.”
In January 2015 TheWeek.com ran a story called This Is ISIS Favorite Drone.
In the past year, several ISIS media outlets and forums have shown the terror organization using civilian drones to scout and plan for battles on the ground in Syria and Iraq. And as it turns out, the group’s favorite model is also one of the most popular drones in the U.S. — the DJI Phantom.
In the Syrian city of Kobane last month, YPG fighters (the Syrian Kurds militia) allegedly shot down a few of these drones supposedly under ISIS’s control. Now an ISIS supporter has published a new how-to guide on a popular forum for the group. The post provides technical instructions on how to operate DJI Phantoms for military use without risking the drone or the fighter operating them remotely.
Probably the most substantive report was written by David Hambling for Popular Mechanics in December 2015. If the name sounds familiar it is because I featured David and his new book called Swarm Troopers in a recent edition of Dronin’ On. This is the new math that anyone can understand. “With modern combat aircraft costing upwards of $100,000,000, the military will face a choice between a single manned plane or a swarm of fifty thousand drones. Except that off-the-shelf electronics are getting more powerful and cheaper, so small drones will continue to fall in price while getting ever more capable.”
In the Popular Mechanics article, Hambling provides a lot of detail that has been largely ignored by everyone but the military.
Unlike many jihadi groups, ISIS has proven itself tech-savvy—the organization is known for its use of social media, for instance. This latest development is not surprising, as it follows a long history of drone usage. In late 2014, during the battle for Kobane, ISIS started using footage taken from drones in their propaganda videos. Around the same time, ISIS started using quadrotors for battlefield reconnaissance. A number of them, mainly DJI quadrotors, were reportedly shot down or captured by Kurdish fighters, according to a news report from December 2014. These drones were apparently used as artillery spotters, finding targets and correcting the fall or fire for mortar crews.
By early this year, ISIS drones had become important enough to be targeted by U.S. airstrikes. A CENTCOM report in March mentions that “Near Fallujah, an airstrikedestroyed an ISIL remotely piloted aircraft and an ISIL vehicle.”
No less august a magazine than The Atlantic came out with an article this week detailing the activities of the US Joint Improvised Threat-Defeat Organization or JIDO. The article includes a number of technologies including the by now infamous Battelle Drone Defender.
Battelle reports that they’ve sold more than a hundred to customers within the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security, and militaries around the world, but getting them in the hands of the Peshmerga has been a challenge. Also, what works in the open desert — shooting electromagnetic energy at drones — may not work in a dense urban environment with lots of consumer electronics around. That could prove a problem when the fighting moves into Mosul.
A much more detailed assessment of the threat and the implications comes in the form of three articles in WarOnTheRocks.com self-described as:
War on the Rocks is a platform for analysis, commentary, debate and multimedia content on foreign policy and national security issues through a realist lens. It features articles and podcasts produced by an array of writers with deep experience in these matters: top notch scholars who study war, those who have served or worked in war zones, and more than a few who have done it all.
This is what sets us apart from similar web publications: experience. In fact, we are confident that there is no other web-based publication on war and foreign policy out there that has been blessed with this much experience from its collection of regular contributors.
The first post came October 13 and is entitled Flying IEDS: The Next Big Threat?
The drone was most likely commercially available, not unlike those some War on the Rocks readers fly in a park on the weekend. Regardless, this was an inevitable development. For a while now, civilian drones have appeared on the world’s battlefields, having come full circle: Drones were initially an exclusively military technology, but civilian use has grown exponentially over the last few years, and we are now seeing these systems flown by non-state actors across the world’s hotspots. Both sides in civil wars now use off-the-shelf drones, from Ukrainian separatists to the Iraqi interior ministry. Even Western states are purchasing and using commercially-available platforms, including the Dutch and German navies as well as U.S. Special Operations Command.
Noting that “The media is already going in overdrive about ISIL’s armed drones,” the author takes the position that:
Flying IEDs are not a game changer, but they add a level of difficulty to military operations, and they have the potential of making life for deployed troops even more perilous. The rationale of using flying IEDs is similar to using suicide bombers: They can ensure a charge explodes at the most opportune moment to cause the biggest effect. And drones provide non-state groups with airborne capabilities. Given that threats from the air have been largely absent in the wars that have occupied Western troops since 9/11, this adds a new psychological element to drone IEDs, even for veterans with several tours under their belts.
The Democratization of Airpower: The Insurgent and the Drone conjures a much darker vision. The video at the top of the post shows how a very small explosively formed projectile (EFP), one that can easily be carried by a drone, can blow a hole through a 1/2″ thick piece of steel. The consequences are game changers:
This changes the tactical problem for all forces in a counterinsurgency. Rather than using drones as Western militaries do, non-state actors can adopt the concepts of “bringing the detonator” or attacking critical targets. In the first, the drone delivers a small amount of high explosive that ignites the explosive potential provided by the target. If flown into a fuel truck, an ammunition dump, or the wing of an aircraft, the drone can set off a much greater explosion. Or it can focus its small charge on vulnerable but critical equipment such as radars, communications centers, key leaders, etc. A carefully planned campaign might focus on shutting down a critical air base or shutting off fuel shipments into the country by destroying fuel tankers.
But wait because it actually gets worse.
IEDs can now hunt you.This pilot has clearly developed the skills to intercept and follow a moving target.
In the author’s view, these kinds of threats are very difficult (OK potentially impossible) to consistently defend against. Which leads him to a review of some of the countermeasures currently being evaluated. He ends on a cheery note.
The one spot of good news is that insurgents have not been particularly good at employing new or cutting-edge technology. Unfortunately, they have proven to be very creative in using technology that is widely available in society. This is a concern because drones are rapidly moving from cutting-edge to pedestrian. As they become pervasive, we can expect to see insurgents and terrorists use them very creatively. It is essential we make use of the very short time available to develop defenses against these systems.
The third article, Why The Flying IED Threat Has Barely Started, is seasoned by firsthand experience. Mark Jacobsen is a USAF C-17 instructor and a doctoral candidate at Stanford. What makes this article so interesting is that the author spent two years:
“…Founding and running Uplift Aeronautics, a nonprofit aimed at using drones to deliver humanitarian aid to besieged communities in Syria.”
So what we have here is a guy who’s been there, done that and has a very keen understanding of that things cost and what it takes to actually create a useful, reliable drone.
Our paradigm was premised on using swarms of drones to push small amounts of cargo through contested airspace. We were acutely aware that our aircraft would make formidable weapons, so spent much of our time developing security features to prevent misuse. The learning curve we painstakingly climbed over those two years is the same learning curve that non-state actors are
His experience foreshadows the evolution of the commercial drone market.
My team’s cargo drones cost about $700 in parts, flew at 35 miles per hour, and could autonomously airdrop two pound payloads at 80-mile range (or four pounds at 40 mile range), usually hitting within 15 to 50 feet of the intended coordinates. Thanks to highly customizable autopilot software, it was trivial to turn off all data links, which rendered the drones immune to some electronic countermeasures. If the GPS was jammed, the drones could continue flight with at least some accuracy using a magnetic compass. We wrote software that generated semi-randomized flight plans to enhance swarm survivability. Our intent was to push humanitarian aid through contested airspace, but adversaries could use similar technology for attacks.
The scary part is that drones that can deliver two pounds as far as 12 miles can be built for less than $300. Which is less than the price of an RPG round. But we very quickly come to the part where it’s easier said than done.
One drone startup after another has failed or disappointed. My own team had countless crashes and a serious fire before we dissolved. Our experience was hardly unique. In a recent humanitarian drone challenge, ten world-class teams had several crashes, a fire, and various technical problems between them. This is the learning curve that drone entrepreneurs must climb, including terrorists
To paraphrase Clausewitz, everything with drones is very simple, but the simplest thing is hard. Some non-state actors may indeed develop terrifying weapons, but they will be the exceptions for now. I suspect most terrorists are still trying to evolve past flyaways and frequent crashes, like drone hobbyists everywhere. [And too] Component reliability hasn’t exactly been improving.
The IED threat will grow rapidly as more reliable systems fill the void above consumer video drones. The requisite technologies are developing rapidly, and many new startups are working in this space. As better systems appear, simple deliveries of explosives will become much easier.
The technology is still in its toddler years, and today’s widely available consumer drones are not ideal weapons. It is the next generation of drone technology that has me worried, and it will be here soon.
For more about this, I refer you to a number of other posts. When Toys Go To War looks at the use of drones purchased at the bazaar in Baghdad. Small Drones Are Equalizing The Battle is a report from a Canadian who served in Afghanistan that looks at swarm economics. Quick. Turn Off Your iPhone And Dig A Hole includes a number of stories on the impact on US military doctrine. ISIS Is Impacting The Battlefield With sUAS is based on a New York Times story and includes a Homeland Security threat assessment.
Finally, correctly or incorrectly, DJI, the world’s premiere manufacturer and undisputed market leader is often named as the manufacturer. Here is DJI’s Statement on Media Reports of IED Incident in Iraq.
Media have reported in recent days that a drone launched by the Islamic State with an improvised explosive device attached to it claimed the lives of two Kurdish fighters and injured two French Special Forces soldiers in Iraq.
Though the make, model and provenance of the drone have not been shared by authorities, as the global market leader in consumer drones, DJI feels obliged to speak up about this situation and the use of consumer-drone technology.
First, the use of consumer-drone technology to harm anyone is deplorable. Any loss of life or injury in such a manner is tragic. Those who carry out such acts should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. When governments come to us with lawful requests, DJI is ready to provide whatever technical assistance we can to those investigating this and other attacks.
UPDATE From Al Jazeera about an attack in Afghanistan. 10/3/16
The Afghan Taliban has uploaded a drone footage showing a suicide bomber driving into a police base and blowing it up in the southern Helmand province.
The fighters say the footage proves that they can now deploy drones as an “addition to their sophisticated possessions of advanced technologies”.
The 23-minute-long video, which begins with a self-proclaimed suicide bomber speaking in front of an explosives-rigged Humvee, was released on Saturday appears to be authentic, according to the Afghan defence ministry.
“The remote-controlled drones to capture footage of their [Taliban] fighters conducting attacks is nothing but to instill fear among people and to indicate how far they can get in defeating us, but in fact, using a drone is not something they can call an achievement,” Dawlat Waziri, spokesman for the defence ministry, told Al Jazeera by telephone.
“You can get a drone anywhere, in any shop. They found or bought one, and used it.”
UPDATE A really solid analysis by Dan Gettinger at the Center For The Study Of The Drone at Bard College is entitled Drones Operating in Syria and Iraq. I particularly like the use of imagery from social media to identify the various aircraft.
In Syria and Iraq today, there are more drones, made in more countries, and flown by more groups, than in any previous conflict. Once primarily the domain of technologically advanced militaries such as the United States, drones are being adopted by less technologically advanced militaries, militias, and non-state actors with increasing frequency, and these groups are adapting the technology to a range of operations.
This publication provides a guide to the systems that are reported to be operating in Syria and Iraq. Based on analysis of visual media, we have found that at least 32 different identifiable drone models made in six countries have been reported to be operating in the conflict. Of the 32 types of systems, 10 were made in the United States, nine in China, six in Iran, four in Russia, two in Israel, and one in Turkey. The majority of the drones are light hand or rail-launched small tactical surveillance drones. Of these, eight recreational hobby drones have been identified from the reports. A handful of other unidentified and homemade drone types have also been spotted.
The conflict represents the first known use of many of these systems in actual combat.
UPDATE While not exclusively focused on drones, the article is entitled How ISIS’s Drone Army Is Guiding Suicide Bombers From The Sky. The tag line is ISIS drones are the extremist group’s eyes in the sky for suicide car bombs in the streets in the battle for Mosul…
A convoy of black Humvees crawls along a dirt track on the eastern outskirts of Mosul on an overcast morning in late November. The vehicles stop at an Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) command post and soldiers begin unloading a pile of unmanned aerial vehicles from the back of one of the armored vehicles. The drones range from off-the-shelf, consumer-grade quadcopters to homemade, fixed-wing craft assembled from duct tape and the kind of corrugated plastic ordinarily used for signs.
“These are daesh drones,” a soldier explains, “and we captured them.” [“daesh” is local slang for ISIS]
Since the start of November, ISF have been fighting to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State, known locally by its Arabic acronym daesh. They are discovering though that with two-and-a-half years to prepare their defenses, ISIS militants are well entrenched in Iraq’s second-largest city.
Drones have emerged recently as a crucial and lethal part of the group’s defensive strategy. Beyond their tactical value, analysts also see drones as a further example of the group’s adaptability, suggesting that further new developments may await the Iraqi armed forces as they penetrate deeper into the heart of the so-called caliphate.