CENTCOM: ISIS producing weaponized drones in Iraq

It ain’t exactly a Predator, but it could do the job if our coalition partners aren’t careful. Jeryl Bier at the Weekly Standard has been keeping up with ISIS’ use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for over a year, when the first notice of them began slipping into CENTCOM reports about mission assessments in Iraq and Syria. The reference to UAVs, remote piloted aircraft (RPAs), and drones began popping up in the spring of 2015 without any explanation of their use or threat status. After the anti-ISIS coalition struck a drone-related site near Mosul, the Department of Defense finally confirmed that ISIS had a drone-production program that included weaponized flights:

The United States military has confirmed what previously was only hinted at: the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS, is producing its own drones—and they are weaponized. A “rocket and unmanned aerial vehicle factory” was among the many targets hit by the coalition near Mosul, Iraq this week. …

Asked about the factory, a CENTCOM official responded that it was being used for rocket, UAV and IED [improvised explosive device] production. “The Coalition has seen several types of unmanned aerial vehicles being used as weapons delivery systems or for surveillance,” the official replied. “ISIL was outfitting commercial drones to use against Coalition forces. The Coalition takes this threat seriously and has implemented increased force protection measures and improved UAS counter-measures to protect Coalition forces and our partners on the ground.”

At the time the drone program first surfaced, the Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef noted that the Pentagon seemed dismissive of ISIS’ efforts:

This week, the unmanned drone had been conducting surveillance nearby, U.S. military officials told The Daily Beast. The drone was then loaded into a vehicle, which was subsequently destroyed—along with the drone—by coalition forces on Tuesday.

Some at the Pentagon were quick to dismiss the threat of ISIS drones, noting there was a big difference between what ISIS could have purchased off of Amazon.com (as such drones are apparently available there), and the Reapers and Predators deployed by coalition forces.

While experts agree, they also warn that ISIS could convert this kind of technology into something deadly.

“ISIS surely has surveillance drone capability. It is nowhere near what [the coalition] has, but [the] civilian use drone market is so big, and live-linked camera technology so common, it really is inevitable that ISIS will have surveillance drones,” says Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst with the Middle East Security Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War.

“They don’t have reusable attack drones, but I think it is just a matter of time before they jury-rig surveillance drones into flying IEDs. Basically, they could turn them into little kamikaze drones.”

This new report sounds a little more substantial, but it still sounds more like conversion of commercial drones for one-time weapons use rather than a Predator production line. Furthermore, conditions on the ground have changed for ISIS since their capabilities on surveillance first came to light. Not only did the coalition take out one of their drone facilities, the close-in battle for Mosul will complicate their ability to take advantage of whatever capacity they have left in drone use. They will be more focused on the house-to-house fighting and potential avenues of retreat for the next few weeks than in getting surveillance or using drones to hit targets from above, let alone for longer-range attacks for which surveillance works best.

The more worrisome aspect of this will be the potential to deploy this technological capability in terrorism abroad. If they can figure out how to convert drones of significant size into what would be rudimentary guided missiles, that would allow them to hit soft targets practically anywhere without risking their rapidly declining ranks of jihadis. We wouldn’t see trucks hitting Christmas markets, but instead a torrential rain of explosive drones dropping onto unsuspecting civilians. It’s still probably more efficient to plant bombs rather than fly them, but it opens up another area of vulnerability while we’re still catching up to those about which we already know. This underscores the need to crush ISIS sooner rather than later, and to eliminate this and other future terrorist innovations.