ISIS turns to drones to direct suicide car bombers
Mosul - Faced with a diminishing number of fighters, the Islamic State (ISIS) is relying on retrofitted commercial drones to guide suicide car bombers to their targets and to launch small-scale air strikes on Iraqi forces.
The extremist group is spending freely on drone technology as it faces pressure from coalition forces, hacking store-bought machines, applying rigorous testing protocols and mimicking tactics used by US unmanned aircraft.
In all, a half-dozen storehouses ISIS used to make and modify drones have been found in Mosul, Iraqi military officials said.
The Associated Press visited the largest drone workshop uncovered, a warehouse in the Shura neighbourhood. Scattered among stacks of paper were pieces of styrofoam with fins and radio transmitters piled in the corners of the factory.
Most of the completed drones were destroyed by ISIS fighters as they retreated, Iraqi officers at the warehouse said. Spreadsheets the fighters left behind showed purchases totalling thousands of dollars a month for drone equipment.
One receipt, dated a few months before the operation to reclaim Mosul began, recorded the purchase of wires, silicon, electrical plugs, cables, rotors and GoPro cameras. Handwritten notes instructed drone operators to write daily “mission reports” and monthly reports “about the challenges and difficulties you face as well”.
All the accounts were headed “board of development and military manufacturing”, some sub-headed “air observation division”.
A cache of documents obtained in a smaller makeshift factory by a researcher in Mosul indicates that the group was testing small drones — normally used as playthings — with deadly intent.
The researcher, Vera Mironova, said the drone paperwork she discovered signals a programme for having machines make up for a shortage in manpower. The documents included part lists in English and Arabic. One file, marked “Tool Kit” contained a check-list of several dozen essentials: GoPro cameras and chargers, battery cable, laptop, explosives and devices made up the first five items.
Mironova, a labour economist by training and a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said the use of drones to drop explosives and to direct more deadly payloads was an adaptation to the decrease in the number of attackers available.
Early in the Mosul fighting, she said, suicide bombers tended to be deployed haphazardly, more to terrorise than to kill, but it did not take long before ISIS needed a new approach.
Iraqi security forces report seeing ISIS surveillance drones as early as 2015 in the fight for Ramadi in Iraq’s western Anbar province.
The first hints of the expanded tactics came in early 2016, when Turkish forces in northern Iraq saw toy-like drones overhead. Within 15 minutes of the sighting, they were attacked by accurate incoming fire, said Jonathan Schroden, director of the Center for Stability and Development at the Center for Naval Analyses.
“From there, it was pretty clear where that was headed,” Schroden said. “They will look to continue to mimic what the US and Western militaries have done with drones. They would look to integrate the kill chain.”
With Mosul’s streets filled with debris, the drones can serve as a way for operators to direct people, including suicide attackers, on the ground. The planes loaded with explosives do less actual damage but can sow panic among troops fighting the extremists.
“First, they come to observe and then they will return carrying bombs,” Major Firas Mehdi said.
Mehdi was hit with shrapnel in his leg when a drone dropped a small bomb on his position a week earlier. A small, black rotary drone flew over their position from the ISIS-held neighbourhood just a few hundred metres away.
An Iraqi special forces officer said at least three Iraqi troops had been killed by the drones and dozens injured.
Iraqi special forces Brigadier- General Haider Fadhil said, in addition to conducting surveillance and dropping bombs, the drones were being used to guide drivers of explosives-laden vehicles in real time.
“They were giving instructions by radio to the suicide driver and following his progress” by video feed, he said.
The small fixed-wing planes and choppers have appeared in several ISIS videos online, showing the drones observing Iraqi troop movements from the air and suicide car bombs hitting targets.
An Iraqi intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to journalists, said he believes most of the drone parts were purchased in Turkey and smuggled into Iraq through Syria and others were largely made from scratch.
“Some of the designs are so simple, there’s very little technical difficulty,” he said. (The Associated Press)