Drones have become rather prominent in recent wars. Until quite recently, a discussion of drones and terrorist groups would be assumed to refer to the contentious debate about the use of drones against terrorists. But in the last few years a new problem has arisen: the use of drones by terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State (ISIS), Hezbollah, Houthis, Jabhat al-Nusra, plus non-religious groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In the recent years, these terrorist groups have carried out drone attacks targeting different sites in middle east countries such as military bases, petroleum storage sites, airports, and so forth. These attacks has urged middle east countries to enhance its security strategies to counter the possible drone attacks of terrorist groups.
Shortly after ISIS declared its “caliphate” in 2014, it began using drones as part of what were essentially conventional military operations to expand the borders of its statelet, and as the U.S.-led Coalition closed in on ISIS’s Iraqi “capital”, Mosul, in 2016-17, drones became a major feature of the terrorists’ defensive strategy. One of the men chiefly responsible for the drone program a British jihadist named Junaid Hussain. Hussain also doubled as ISIS’s cyber security guru, and was one of its terrorism “guides”, coaching Western supporters of ISIS through acts of terrorism in Western cities.
It is crucial to note that the drones were not used simply as a direct military tool—to drop ordnance or carry out reconnaissance—but were used as a propaganda instrument, that is as an indirect means of strengthening ISIS. ISIS used drones to capture footage of its operatives carrying out suicide car bombings, for example, and this footage was then be used in media products that helped ISIS’s cohesion and recruitment.
Al-Qaeda has been much less active in utilising drone technology, but Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian branch, now known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), was an exception, particularly when it came to drones’ use as a media and propaganda tool, and the mainstream insurgents that HTS embedded with carried out a famous drone swarm attack on a Russian base in Syria in January 2018, using home-made drones “assembled from a small engine, cheap plywood, and a number of small rockets”.
With the destruction of the caliphate in 2019, and ISIS recovering out in the rural desert areas, the drone program has become much less important to its tactics, but as drones get cheaper and more various all the time, by the next time ISIS flares up it will have many more options. Probably the most prominent non-jihadist group to have made serious use of drones is the PKK. The PKK has used drones as part of its terrorist campaign against Turkey, and to try to counter the Turks’ efforts to uproot the PKK from their mountain hideouts in northern Iraq, with some success.
Hezbollah and Houthis have used drones to attack different targets. Hezbollah has carried out several attacks against Israeli targets using Iranian drones. For instance, Hezbollah launched three Iranian drones last July against the Karish offshore gas field, located in the sea between Israel and Lebanon. The drones that Hezbollah has used belong where they were manufactured and Iran has trained Hezbollah fighters on how to use drones in camps inside the Syrian soil. They were also trained by Iranians on how to assemble drones parts after it escaped from Iran through Syria. Likewise, Houthis are supported by Iran to enhance its military capacity especially with drones. Shahed 131 and 136 are examples of Iranian manufactured drones that are used by Houthis to attack several countries. Furthermore, Hezbollah has offered trainings for Houthis militia on the ways to assemble Iranian drones and carry out drones attacks.
It is perhaps not surprising, in this situation, that the world’s pre-eminent terrorist state, Iran, would be involved in the creation and proliferation of drones. The Iranian regime achieved an important propaganda victory over the Americans in December 2011 by downing a U.S. RQ-170 “Sentinel” drone over Iranian territory. That then-President Barack Obama admitted in public that he had asked for the drone back, and the Iranians had refused, only compounded the humiliation. But it turned out to be much more materially damaging than that.
The Iranians were not new to the drone game—they began using them late in the terrible war the Iranian Revolution waged with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s—but the technology captured in 2011 has jumpstarted Iran’s drone capabilities over the last decade and Iran has fed these capabilities throughout the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) network across the region. The IRGC division in Lebanon, Hezbollah, has used drones as part of Iran’s relentless war against Israel, and the IRGC’s Ansar Allah in Yemen has repeatedly used drones to harass Iran’s great regional rival, Saudi Arabia. The Iranians used drones directly, in a strategic-level attack on the Saudi oil industry, in September 2019.
Drone technology has now become much cheaper and more widespread, with a variety of perfectly legitimate and legal commercial and even recreational uses. As well as the massive cost, a Reaper measures 36 feet in length, with a wingspan of 66 feet, limiting ownership to those with such storage space. Now, a drone capable of carrying an explosive payload measures about a foot in length and not much more across, and can be bought on Amazon for fifty dollars.
Overall, drones are a force multiplier, for terrorists and counter-terrorists alike, providing cheaper and often more accurate alternatives—whether it is to jets in decapitation strikes against terrorists, or attacks by terrorists on oil facilities. Having drones in the hands of terrorists is both a source of concern and a serious risk that threatens the stability of countries and the safety of citizens. Terrorists tend to use drones and take advantage of their special characteristics: easy, cheap, and reliable. Therefore, this is a serious and critical challenge for policy makers in the field of security and counter-terrorism who are required to take action to limit the threat posed by drones.