by Brianna Crandall — March 31, 2017 — Commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or “drones,” are a growing security threat in the West, according to jihadist media monitoring conducted by Jane’s by IHS Markit, an established worldwide provider of critical information, analytics and solutions.
“The Islamic State’s use of weaponized UAVs represents a growing security threat to the region and in the West more generally,” said Otso Iho, senior analyst, Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC). The JTIC team monitored and analyzed the growing use of UAVs for operational purposes by militant Islamist groups over the past 12 months, covering a broad range of propaganda channels and formats.
According to their report, the Islamic State has been the most notable and predominant militant group making use of UAVs in both propaganda and tactical military contexts. However, other militant groups in Iraq and Syria have used drones for reconnaissance and propaganda, and also to conduct attacks on their adversaries.
Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya illustrated its use of reconnaissance UAVs in its video “Winds of Rage” in 2016, while groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas have made use of drones against Israel. More recently, Islamist militant group Jund al-Aqsa released a video on September 2, 2016, purportedly showing a UAV dropping small, unguided explosive devices on military positions in Syria’s Hama governorate. The Islamic State has subsequently built on this, conducting multiple such attacks on security forces during ongoing fighting in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which it highlighted in its “Knights of the Departments” video released on January 24.
“The Islamic State is very particular with its propaganda. The group uses it as a weapon to inspire at home and abroad,” Iho pointed out. “When it calls on its followers to conduct attacks with knives, vehicles, and IEDs, the calls are answered. As such, the more frequent use of weaponized UAVs in videos — and the wider commercial availability of UAVs — is likely to be of inspiration for both supporters of the group and other militant groups beyond Iraq and Syria, and indeed beyond militant Islamist actors. Groups with lower profiles — such as right-wing extremists across Europe or dissident republicans in the United Kingdom — will appreciate the significant attention brought by attacks involving UAVs. It is possible that their use may have entered these actors’ tactical thinking as a viable weapon, given their widely publicized use and availability.”
“The force multiplier and value-add from a militant group’s perspective is enhanced by the propaganda value afforded by a UAV-facilitated attack, as well as the footage that can be recorded of such attacks and exploited for propaganda and recruitment purposes,” Iho said.
“Although the use of UAVs in an attack context — both in dropping munitions and in booby-traps — has garnered significant media attention through the novelty attached to it, its use as an effective military weapon in a battlefield context is limited more to symbolic and propaganda use,” said Chris Hawkins, JTIC analyst.
The commercially available UAVs used by the Islamic State — including fixed-wing Skywalker X7s or similar, and quadcopter-type UAVs — offer relatively small payloads, typically approximately 1-2 kilograms (kg). Although 1-2 kg of explosives could cause significant damage, this payload also has to include cameras and other navigational systems, meaning at least half of the payload could be used for explosives. This, coupled with a short operation time of between 23 minutes and two-and-a-half hours, means the efficacy of using drones in such contexts is largely limited to symbolic attacks, the JTIC report said.