Recently, video emerged that showed Islamic militants in Syria had acquired a surveillance drone. It marked the first time such technology has been used by the burgeoning terrorist organisation, a RAND Corp. analyst said.
The consequences of the Islamic State — the terrorist organisation known as ISIS that has been characterised by its increasingly violent tactics in the Middle East — acquiring such technology could be dangerous, Colin Clarke, an associate political scientist at RAND Corp. who researches ISIS, told National Defence.
“This is the first time I’ve seen ISIS showing this kind of capability,” Clarke said. “[But] it’s not a total surprise simply because we’ve seen other similar … groups like Hezbollah or Hamas using these drones.”
A DJI Phantom FC40 unmanned aerial vehicle took the footage seen in the video, which was published on YouTube on Aug. 23, he said.
“[It’s] a spotter mini-drone, so it’s … got a smart camera. It’s really used for surveillance purposes to spy on enemy positions,” Clarke said.
Militants used the footage to survey the Tabqa military airfield, a key Syrian air base, that the group later captured. The base was the last government stronghold in the area.
“They … [used] this as a recon method to scout out what the base looked like before going in with a more kinetic attack,” Clarke said. “They used multiple suicide bombers to gain entry.”
Not only did the capturing of the base give ISIS a foothold in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, but it may have acquired surface-to-air missiles known as man portable air defence systems, or MANPADS, Clarke said.
The shoulder-launched missiles are capable of striking aeroplanes or helicopters at altitudes of up to 16,000 feet, he said. That kind of capability in ISIS’ hands is “scary,” he said.
While the drone may not have been critical in taking the base, it gave militants situational awareness they wouldn’t have had otherwise, Clarke said.
“Any small advantage helps. I’d say it’s kind of a force multiplier,” he said. “Any time you can get advanced information by scouting out a position before attacking it is helpful because it helps you plan exactly what kind of resources you are going to need.”
For now, it appears that ISIS does not have access to a more advanced armed UAV, though that is not entirely out of the question, Clarke said.
Hamas and Hezbollah, Islamic militant groups in Palestine and Lebanon, respectively, have shown previously that they have drone capabilities, he said.
Hezbollah allegedly flew a UAV over the Israeli city of Haifa in April 2013. Israel destroyed the aircraft.
In July, Israel allegedly shot down a Hamas-owned drone during Operation Protective Edge. Shortly after, the group released an image of what it says was one of its armed drones, though specific capability details were not released.
Hamas’ military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, has claimed it has engineered three drones — one that could be armed, one that could be used as a self-guided missile and one for surveillance, Clarke said.
Media outlets reported that these drones were variants of the Ababil-1, an Iranian-made UAV.
“If a group like Hamas has this kind of technology, then it’s inevitable … [and] only a matter of time before a group like ISIS gets this,” he said.
It is possible that groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah could one day acquire a more advanced drone if given to them by a state sponsor, such as Iran, Clarke said.
ISIS, on the other hand, does not have a state sponsor, which could make it more difficult to obtain an armed drone, he said. The group, which identifies as Sunni, lacks support from Sunni-backed states such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia, he said.
“Some of the traditional Sunni powers are very scared … the Saudis, the Qataris and Kuwaitis, of what could happen if ISIS sets their sights on Riyadh [in Saudi Arabia] or one of these other places,” Clarke said.
The unmanned aerial vehicle used by ISIS in the YouTube video is not sophisticated, Clarke said.
“It’s a pretty basic drone. It’s pretty simple. I wouldn’t say it’s sophisticated any more than the drones that people use in the United States now to take pictures of their wedding,” Clarke said.
However, having this kind of technology increases the group’s credibility, he said.
“[This] plays into the … narrative that ISIS is building, which is that we’re a different type of insurgent group [and] you’ve never seen anything like us. You’ve never seen this kind of propaganda, with their media front. You’ve never seen a group with this much money, which is arguably true. Or this type of arsenal,” Clarke said. “The recruits that are pouring into Syria and Iraq are by and large flocking to this group mostly because it has been successful.”
James Carafano, vice president for foreign and defence policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said it was unavoidable that ISIS would get its hands on a UAV.
“The notion that the United States was going to be the only country using operational drones was going to be something that was going to come to an end fairly quickly,” he said.
However, that doesn’t mean ISIS has a real advantage.
“Just because you have … [a drone] doesn’t mean you have much of an operational capability,” Carafano said. “A drone is a low-end capability for us, a drone is a high-end capability for these guys. And the capacity of us to overmatch that is pretty significant.”
If ISIS deploys a UAV, the United States could easily deploy a fighter jet in response, he said.
Should ISIS continue to invest in UAVs, it can expect to have enemies attempt to jam them or strike them, which adds another layer of operational complexity, he said.
“As soon as you get in the drone business, you have to get into the countermeasures to protect the drone from being shot down or electronically interfered with. That’s a whole other level of sophistication you have to get through,” Carafano said.
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