The Islamic State’s Armed Drone Program

Posted in: Conflict, West & Central Asia | Posted on

In a departure from previous armed groups, the Islamic State (IS) have invested heavily in the development of new weapons with a great degree of success. In an attempt to leverage a form of advanced reconnaissance and air power, they have modified and operated drone aircraft. IS have previously used such aircraft in a variety of roles during the Iraq and Syrian conflicts including reconnaissance, propaganda, and target acquisition. However, starting with the recent Battle of Mosul, IS have successfully expanded their drone usage to include arming them with bomblets and explosives, creating a new challenge for the forces arrayed against them. These armed drones present a major development in their military capabilities.

A document released by IS and discovered by Westpoint’s Counter Terrorism Centre details the types of drone missions sought and undertaken by IS. This report claims that as early as 2015 IS began considering the use of armed drones in their missions for the purposes of ‘bombing’ and as ‘explosive planes’.1.Combating Terrorism Center During the February 2016 investigation of an IS drone workshop in Ramadi, researchers for Conflict Armament Research (CAR) found a deconstructed MANPAD anti-air missile launcher and several homemade drones, which they speculate were attempts to construct armed drones.2.Islamic State’s Weaponised Drones (conflictarm.com/publications/)

However it was not until September 2016 that the first use of an armed drone by IS was confirmed. In an incident in the Wukuf region during Operation Euphrates Shield, three Turkish soldiers were wounded by a ‘suicide drone’ (i.e. a single-use exploding drone) that was laden with explosives.3.Hurriyet: “Turkish soldiers wounded in ISIL drone attack” In October 2016 IS attempted two failed suicide drone attacks on Peshmerga forces in Iraq, while a third usage successfully killed two Peshmerga fighters and wounded two French soldiers.4.Washington Post In December 2016 photographs emerged from Deir ez-Zor allegedly showing the remnants of downed IS drones armed with RPG warheads, including one that appeared to be homemade.5.Defense One: Islamic State drones

Embed from Getty Images

This shows a clear pattern of IS developing and experimenting with armed drones, backed by documents hinting at their planned development and usage for quite some time. It was in early 2017 that IS made significant headway in their armed drone program, successfully modifying quadcopter drones to drop bombs as well as managing to produce them on a large scale. This type of drone was first utilised in east Mosul against advancing Iraqi troops. Videos and battlefield reports from January show ground forces being harassed by such drones. In February IS released a video titled ‘Knights of Dawawin’ along with several picture reports to advertise their drone program. This video showcases the extent of drone strikes in Mosul, with large numbers being used to target infantry, armoured vehicles, and even tanks with surprising accuracy. While it is difficult to accurately determine the number and frequency of attacks, they appear to be quite high. IS sources frequently release images claiming to show multiple drone strikes per day. This has been independently confirmed by a coalition adviser who’s said that IS tend to launch at least one attack daily, while an Iraqi soldier has reported coming under attack from multiple swarms of 4-5 drones for an hour at a time.6.Defense One: Islamic State drones Following their successful use in Mosul, armed drones in this style were deployed all over IS’s self-proclaimed caliphate, with videos and pictures being released by IS to demonstrate their new capabilities. They have been used particularly extensively in Raqqa where IS is battling the Syrian Democratic Forces. One fighter there described how each day his position was targeted 15-16 times by bombs dropped from IS’s armed drones.7.Newsweek: “ISIS drones rigged with munitions in Raqqa”

The drone used in Mosul was the ‘Phantom’ with some customary adaptations. This is produced by the Chinese company DJI (Da-Jiang Innovations Science and Technology Co.).8.dji.com/cn The common modifications include a plastic tube attached to the underside of the drone allowing the bomb to be housed vertically, as well as a release mechanism installed to drop the bomb. IS have purchased large numbers of ‘servomotors’, which were likely used as the release mechanism.9.Combating Terrorism Center These are small motors that can create linear or rotary movement. The DJI Phantom is the model that has been used most commonly in Raqqa as well. However the customary modifications are different, instead of using a tube the bomb is held in place with a strap horizontally. A picture showing off the modification on a drone captured by SDF fighters also confirms servomotors are used as the release mechanism. In Deir Ezzor armed drones have also been used, however alongside DJI’s Phantoms several different unidentified black drones have been used. This all shows a significant regional variation in IS’s armed drone program.

As well as modifying the drones IS also had to produce the bombs to be dropped from them. Based on pictures and bombs that were captured, it appears that in Mosul they would normally feature a 40mm grenade attached to a purpose-built body and tail. The latter component was made from plastic using a mould, and contained more explosives packed inside. 10.Islamic State Multi-Role IED’s (conflictarm.com/publications/) IS in Raqqa released a video showing how they produced their drone bombs. It is less sophisticated compared to those used in Mosul, with a tailfin made from wood as well as being held together with tape and glue. However unlike in Mosul where 40mm grenades were repurposed, IS in Raqqa made the explosive warhead from scratch, using an unknown type of explosive combined with a point-detonating fuse. There are significant differences between these two bomb types, and they are only two of the many which IS has utilised. So, like the drones themselves, there appears to be significant regional variation in the payloads that are dropped from them.

The fact that the core armed drone design spread so quickly from Mosul to other IS controlled areas of Iraq and Syria shows there is some overarching communication. This is supported by a statement made by the IS Emir of Raqqa who said, “The brothers’ experiences [in Mosul] have been passed on to all the wilayat”. However, based on the regional variations in both drone and payload, it is likely each area operates their program with some degree of independence. This is supported by the IS wali of Wilayat al-Jazira specifically referring to an aviation brigade as belonging to that wilayat.11.Combating Terrorism Center Rather than there being a single IS drone program it is possible there is a more decentralised network operating somewhat independently of each other, with overarching communication.

Embed from Getty Images

Videos have twice emerged showing IS to have successfully modified fixed-wing drones for bomb-dropping capabilities. One was featured in the aforementioned ‘Knights of Dawawin’ video carrying two bombs, while another video from Raqqa featured a drone which carried four bombs. Neither drone is shown to have been used in combat, meaning only the ‘quadcopter’ design has been confirmed to drop bombs. IS have also developed their drone program in other ways. In one of the final videos released from Mosul, IS revealed a completely homemade fixed-wing drone. It was capable of flight and according to the video was a ‘suicide drone’, which IS used to target a large group of Iraqi forces. Some scepticism has been directed towards it being a functioning ‘suicide drone’. However even if it wasn’t IS have still managed to build from scratch a large and complex fixed-wing drone that is proven capable of flight. A further indication of IS continuing development of drones came in Raqqa, when SDF fighters discovered a drone workshop where fixed-wing drones were being built from scratch. As well as part-built drones there were also several deconstructed US led Coalition drones which had crashed or been shot down. It appears IS were using them for parts. All of this indicates that despite having proven and effective armed drone capabilities, IS are continuing to develop new and improved drones.

The overwhelming majority of the equipment for IS’s armed drone program has been acquired from outside the territories they control. This includes the drones themselves as well as a variety of individual components. IS documents discovered in a Mosul drone workshop revealed that GoPro cameras, memory cards, GPS units, digital video recorders, extra propeller blades, radio control systems, and servomotors had all been either already purchased or requested for future purchase, providing a closer glimpse of their technical design and logistical network. 12.Combating Terrorism Center Estimates suggest that IS has spent thousands of dollars each month on drone parts.13.newsinfo.inquirer.net/867328/is-using-drones-other-innovating-tactics-with-deadly-effect These parts typically originate from various countries including South Korea, Japan, Turkey, and China.14.Islamic State’s Weaponised Drones (conflictarm.com/publications/) However, IS likely made the purchases in neighbouring countries, especially Turkey, and then smuggled them into their territory.

Video footage of IS’s armed drones in action show them bombing targets with respectable accuracy. While propaganda videos are likely to show only the accurate bombings, the number of hits suggests that the drone pilots have undergone training. This is corroborated by photographs showing a large group of IS members learning how to operate drones.15.MEMRI report: “Jihadi drones” While this ‘evidence’ could have been produced purely for propaganda purposes, drone operating is an acquired skill and it is efficient to teach large groups simultaneously. A fake plastic bomb found in east Mosul, likely used as a training tool, provides yet another clue.16.Bellingcat Further evidence that has emerged from east Mosul includes mission reports written by drone operators which indicate that they underwent training missions.17.Combating Terrorism Center The US led coalition has also carried out airstrikes against IS targets they deemed as being responsible for ‘drone pilot training’.18.Inherent Resolve Coalition report, 9/7/17 This varied evidence suggests that IS have dedicated considerable time and resources to drone operator training.

IS have been known to keep extensive documentation on many aspects of both their governance and military. Their drone program appears to be no exception. Documents uncovered include many receipts and purchase requests, handwritten notes and, of special interest, drone operator reports. It appears that IS requires their operators to fill out these reports during and after each operation. The first section typically comprised of a series of checklists pertaining to the particular mission. The second section is usually a ‘pre’ and ‘post’ operation checklist to ensure the system and equipment functions correctly. The third section features a checklist of all the things the drone operator needs to successfully carry out this operation. The final section allows the operator to outline the success of the mission and add notes for future improvement.19.Combating Terrorism Center A set of notes discovered in another workshop confirmed that operators were requested to fill out reports after each mission, as well as to write monthly reviews.20.newsinfo.inquirer.net/867328/is-using-drones-other-innovating-tactics-with-deadly-effect IS have clearly invested significant effort into preventing failure, minimising risk, and assessing areas for improvement. This indicates a significant degree of professionalism and dedication to their drone operations.

The history of IS’s armed drones show they have been in development for some time, and they have recently succeeded in producing and deploying them en masse. At this stage the drones themselves are not particularly sophisticated and their known modifications are simple. However despite their military setbacks IS is still putting significant effort into developing and improving their drones, and with time their sophistication will likely increase. The real ingenuity of the program lies in its mostly non-technical aspects, in both producing armed drones on a large scale and keeping meticulous records of their use. By ensuring that their drones are effectively designed, and that their operators are both well-trained and able to affect future missions through feedback channels, IS have developed an armed drone program that has become a lethal adversary in the field. IS have managed to add a new dimension to the battlefield, giving them a range of new tactical options with which to defend and expand their caliphate. Despite their proven effectiveness, these drones will not change the outcome of the war. But that is little comfort to those fighting on the ground, who are having to face IS’s ingenious new weapon that attacks from above and without warning.

References   [ + ]

Robert Postings

Robert Postings is a writer for the International Review whose research focus is the Islamic State. He is currently working on a research paper for the Counter Extremism Project analysing IS activity on Facebook.

Follow me on: Twitter