A Glimpse Into Islamic State’s Drone Program

Islamic State drone

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More and more attention has been drawn to the Islamic State drone threat ever since the group killed two Kurdish soldiers in October 2016 with a bomb hidden within one of its drones that Kurdish forces downed in Iraq. The Islamic State was able to achieve this feat through an act of deception, as the two Kurdish soldiers were killed by the bomb after they had taken the drone back to their base to inspect it.

Creativity and innovation were also reflected on the video released in January, 2017 which highlighted a new capability: dropping small bomb-like munitions on its enemies or onto crowds from the air. This included hitting stationary vehicles and tanks while its drone loitered and filmed the incidents. Despite these achievements, it is also important to remember that the videos are edited pieces of propaganda, which likely have been carefully crafted to make the group look impressive.

The recent discovery of a small batch of internal Islamic State documents, which were recovered in Mosul, Iraq and provided to the US Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), provides an inside look into how the group has sought to cobble together, develop, and enhance its drone capabilities as well as manage its drone program.

Several insights can be drawn from the documents, according to the CTC website:

First, the Islamic State is fairly detail-oriented and bureaucratic when it comes to its operations. Indeed, analyses of previous caches have all pointed to an organization that has sought to institutionalize the capture of data. Also found were checklists to help operators conduct their missions.

The documents confirm the CTC findings that the organization has had a formal, institutionalized, and resourced drone unit as early as 2015, if not before; the organization is managing broader geographic drone activity; and that in 2015 the Islamic State already had plans to use its drones as attack weapons.

The equipment and purchase list items show the Islamic State’s efforts to acquire predictable items like a GoPro camera, memory cards, GPS units, digital video recorders, and extra propeller blades. Yet, on the other hand, the lists also speak to the group’s efforts to secure, modify, and enhance the range and performance of its drones, whether commercially procured or otherwise. For example, to protect the transmission of their drone video feeds, members of the group wanted to acquire encrypted video transmitters and receivers. A long-range radio control relay system produced by Foxtech was also included on a number of acquisition lists (so the group could extend the range of its drones), as were various types of servo motors.

The documents provide few insights into the Islamic State’s future drone plans. In the short-term, the Islamic State is expected to refine its drone bomb-drop capability. It is likely that their use of this tactic will not only become more frequent, but more lethal as well.

One surprising omission from the acquisition lists, which could be telling, were requests for quad-copter-style drones. When requests for drones were featured in the documents, they were for fixed-wing airplane bodies. While fixed-wing drones cannot hover and stay in place, they offer certain advantages such as being able to fly much farther from their controller than quad-copter variants. This suggests, according to the CLC, that the Islamic State might be eyeing the use of fixed-wing drone platforms for other operational purposes, including using them to penetrate facilities and/or conduct longer-range surveillance or attack missions.