Jihadi terrorist use of drones became a growing concern in the US and abroad. In July 2015, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security published an intelligence assessment warning of the possible use of unmanned aircraft systems by the terrorist. This warning was followed by videos released by jihadi groups in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, showing surveillance and reconnaissance missions carried out by drones. The surveillance drones allowed those groups to collect data on enemy bases, enemy positions and weaponry for targeting. Gaining experience with the new capabilities jihadists moved to use drones in real time, guiding drivers of suicide car bombs (VBIEDs) to direct their VBIED attacks to gain maximum damage.
By late 2016 jihadists learned to further exploit these drones, first, by filling small quadcopters with explosives to act as booby traps. Later, such drones were equipped with rudimentary weapon carrying and release devices. These methods were used extensively against Iraqi forces in the battle of Mosul. These techniques are now widely used by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS formally announced its drone operation capabilities in January 2017, with the establishment of a new ‘Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen’ unit, a fleet of modified drones equipped with bombs. ISIS claimed that its drones have killed or wounded 39 Iraqi soldiers in a single week.
According to press releases issued by ISIS, the group has developed two distinctive attack drones – a booby-trapped “suicide drone” and a recoverable attack drone that can drop bombs from the air. Videos published by the ISIS faction in Northern Iraq (Ninweh) showed such a flying wing drone design loaded with two weapons carried underwing.
The commercial drones used by Islamic State usually weigh 10 – 50 pounds and are capable of dropping one or two small bombs from an altitude of 150 – 1,500 ft. (5 – 500 m’). The videos show reasonably good hit accuracy on attacks from a height of 200-350 meters, while attacks from higher altitudes tend to drift away and cause bombs to miss their targets. Besides the improved accuracy, another advantage of using vertical drop from hovering drones is that most ground sensors are not useful detecting drones at zenith.
The munitions used were mostly improvised, and include warhead made from 40mm grenades, hand grenades or small mortar bombs fitted with an impact fuse. Some of the munitions use standardized plastic tails manufactured by injection molding. Others included various retarding elements, such as textile bands, badminton or nylon bags, all are designed to position the weapon downward as quickly as possible, thus maintain high accuracy without using guidance techniques. The release mechanisms employ various means, from armed grenades stored in cups to various remotely controlled, electromagnetic drop mechanisms. While bombs with small high-explosive fragmentation charge are effective mainly against soft targets, heavier bombs recorded in video demonstrated more extensive damage to armored vehicles (these effects could be faked, though). As the effect of these small warheads is limited, in some instances drone attacks were used to attract the enemy attention and distract from the real attack by a VBIED heading at them.
The combat record of the new weapons triggered a new interest in counter-UAV (C-UAV) capabilities currently unavailable in the region. While US forces have deployed some off-the-shelf capabilities since 2016, most of the C-UAV technologies were not exportable by US companies. Such countermeasures are required to warn the unit on the presence of drones in their area and have the ability to disrupt and defeat those drones when required.
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