Militants and Drones: A Trend That is Here to Stay

Terror from above: a quadcopter drone with a homemade bomb used by Syrian militants. Image: Dmitrii Melnikov / Alamy

With drone technology becoming more affordable and accessible to non-state actors, the use of drones by militants poses an increasing threat.

On 24 July 2022, a kamikaze drone hit the Ayia Sofia church in the town of Al-Suqaylabiyah in Hama, Syria, leaving two dead and more than a dozen injured. Syrian jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is believed to have been behind the attack. Video footage suggested the possibility of a fixed-wing aircraft-type drone rigged with explosives that detonated upon impact. A month later, unknown militants carried out another drone attack on a US army base in Al-Tanf, Syria. The attack involved the use of multiple drones. The above cases are just two recent examples of militants’ use of drones, which have become ever more prevalent in conflict zones, particularly in the Middle East.

Classification and Usage Type

Drones used by militant groups have typically fallen into the categories of hobbyist and midsize military drones, owing to their ready availability and the lower costs involved. Islamic State (IS) has mainly used drones in the former category like DJI quadcopters, while groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Yemeni Houthis have used those in the latter such as modified versions of the Ababil, Qasef and Sammad drones. The type of drones available to groups is dependent on the level of external support the group has, which is discussed below.

Militant use of drones can be divided into two types: active-offensive and passive-defensive. Active-offensive use includes the use of drones in carrying out attacks. The Houthis, for example, have used drones offensively to strike strategic targets in Saudi Arabia and its allied countries, the most recent example being an attack on an oil facility in Abu Dhabi in January 2022. Between 2015–2017, IS modified quadcopter drones to drop munitions onto coalition forces on the ground, carrying out between 60–100 attacks per month.

Passive use of drones involves their use for surveillance, propaganda, and transport of weapons. In recent times, IS has shifted its use of drones from active-offensive to passive-defensive. This has become particularly prevalent in Africa. In January 2022, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) used quadcopter drones to shoot parts of a propaganda video showcasing its training camp in Nigeria. In July 2022, surveillance drones used by ISWAP were spotted over the position of Nigerian government forces just before the group carried out an ambush on them. Recent reports have suggested that Al-Shabaab in Somalia has used fixed-wing drones for surveillance and attacks. As for weapons transport, Pakistan-based militants have used quadcopter drones to transport weapons consignments across the border into Jammu and Kashmir in India to avoid detection.

Conditions for Use by Militants

The conditions for drone use by militant groups can be divided into three categories: external support, territorial control, and technical capability. All three factors are inherently interlinked. External support aids groups in accelerating and acquiring capabilities that would otherwise be difficult to obtain. Groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis have benefited from support in terms of transfers of technology and training from external parties. Evidence suggests Iranian influence in these cases. This has given them access to larger, more advanced fixed-wing drones of the midsize military category, as compared to other groups such as IS who have had to make do with hobbyist drones.

Drones were once exclusive to state military arsenals, but with the rise of drone use for commercial purposes, drone technology has become cheaper and more accessible

The next factor is territorial control. The Houthis and Hamas, for example, hold territory in certain parts of Yemen and Palestine respectively. This gives them the space and freedom to innovate with technology. External importation of technology is made easier by territorial control, as it allows for the opening of smuggling routes and provides a safer path for materials into militant-controlled territory. IS’s offensive drone use was at its highest in the 2015–2017 period, when the group controlled territory in Syria and Iraq. In 2017, IS declared that it had an indigenous division dedicated to developing drones and a vast procurement network for drone parts. From an analysis of propaganda output, there has been no evidence to suggest that HTS has an indigenous drone programme. However, the group holds territory in northwest Syria, which may allow the covert development of drones and make transfers of technology to the group from external parties easier.

Technical capabilities are often a limiting factor in the type of drone used by groups. The higher the capability, the more sophisticated the system used. One of the groups that has developed a sophisticated indigenous drone programme is Hamas. The group has a weapons development division that specialises in developing drones within its military wing, the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades. Hamas has developed specialist kamikaze drones that blow up on impact and reconnaissance drones for collecting intelligence. The group is also believed to have been developing underwater drone capabilities and drone swarm technology, which utilises a cluster of pre-programmed drones that are synchronised to attack a target together.

Backpack Destroyers: The Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost

Apart from hobbyist drones such as DJI quadcopters, one group of drones to watch are miniature loitering munitions such as the Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost. Similar to simple mortar systems, these specialised kamikaze drones can destroy military tanks and armoured vehicles. The Switchblade comes in two varieties, the Switchblade-300 and Switchblade-600.

The Switchblade-300 weighs only 2.5 kg, fits in a backpack and can be set up within minutes. It has a range of 10 km and an endurance of 15 minutes, with a GPS-guided precision system that is operated using a simple tablet by a ground controller. The Switchblade-600 is a slightly heavier system weighing close to 70 kg, with a range of 40 km and an endurance of 40 minutes. Not many specifics are known about the Phoenix Ghost. However, like the Switchblade-300, it is reported to fit in a backpack and has a much higher endurance of about six hours. Both the Switchblade and the Phoenix Ghost are alleged to have been sent to Ukraine by the US government to aid the country in its fight against Russia.

These systems are currently regulated under export control measures by the US Department of Defense, which means they are not commercially available. However, Switchblade systems have been found on the Dark Web and are going at prices between $4,000–7,000. The Switchblade has been used in conflict-affected countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. There is a possibility of them falling into the hands of militant groups, particularly in conflict zones. IS, for example, continues to be in possession of military-grade drones. From the group’s social media output, there have been at least 10 instances of IS capturing military-grade drones from government forces over the past two years, particularly in Iraq. Another example is the Taliban in Afghanistan, who have come into possession of several US-made midsize military Scan Eagle drones which were left behind after their August 2021 takeover of the country.

Trends for the Future

One of the key enablers of militant drone use is the commercialisation of technology. Drones were once exclusive to state military arsenals. With the rise of drone use for commercial purposes, drone technology has become cheaper and more accessible. Simple drones are even available in children’s toy stores. Militant groups have capitalised on this accessibility by weaponising such drones. This also makes it easy for lone actors to obtain and use them in attacks.

While militant groups are unlikely to come into possession of larger, hi-tech stealth drones, the technological threshold is decreasing and the accessibility of technology is increasing

One of the trends to monitor in the future is the use of drones to carry out limited-scale chemical or biological attacks. It does not take much skill or capability to mount sprayers filled with these agents onto quadcopters or to attach chemical-loaded munitions onto kamikaze drones. In June 2013, security forces in Iraq arrested an IS cell for planning to use remote-controlled helicopters to spray sarin and mustard gas over unspecified targets in Iraq, North America and Europe. Attacks like these are bound to have a substantial physical impact and an even greater psychological impact.

The next trend to watch is the use of drone swarms. These are extremely difficult to defend against. In January 2018, a Syrian rebel group allegedly attacked a Russian army base in Tartus, Syria with 13 crudely made drones packed with explosives. While there was no clear indication of synchronisation between the drones, the attack clearly highlights the danger of drone swarms.

While militant groups are unlikely to come into possession of larger, hi-tech stealth drones such as the Predator or the Reaper – which was recently used to kill Al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri – the technological threshold is decreasing and the accessibility of technology is increasing. The recent attacks in Syria and Iraq suggest that although the casualty rates and destruction caused by militant drones have been limited, groups have demonstrated creative prowess in the use and weaponisation of hobbyist and midsize aircraft-type drones. The psychological shock effect of drones, as with any unconventional weapon, is also an attractive feature for terrorist groups. As long as they become cheaper and easier to use, drones will be viewed as a useful addition to militant groups’ arsenals and will certainly be here to stay for the long haul.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Rueben Dass

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