New challenges in Syria as militants weaponized drones

Vivian Salama
Associated Press

Washington — Militant groups like Hezbollah and the Islamic State group have learned how to weaponize surveillance drones and use them against each other and coalition forces, adding a new twist to the wars in Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

Air Force Col. John Dorrian, the spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq, said the U.S. has seen militants use a variety of improvised drones and modified drones, adding, “there’s nothing very high tech about them.”

“They can just buy them as anybody else would,” he told reporters. “Some of those are available on Amazon.”

A video belonging to an al-Qaida offshoot, Jund al-Aqsa, purportedly shows a drone landing on Syrian military barracks. In another video , small explosives purportedly dropped by the Iran-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah target the Sunni militant group Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front. While Dorrian said the technology is not new, the videos are the first known demonstration of these capabilities by any militant groups.

While militants with drones are not a significant military threat, Dorrian said that the U.S. and its partner countries are taking it seriously.

Concerns are mounting after an incident involving coalition forces in Iraq this week. France’s presidential spokesman, Stephane Le Foll, said Wednesday that two French special forces were seriously injured by a drone that exploded once it was grounded near the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, where they are helping Kurdish forces aligned against Islamic State.

According to a U.S. official, two Kurds were killed in that drone incident near Irbil. The official said that the Kurdish forces found the drone on Oct. 2, and that it appeared to be a Styrofoam model plane that was taped together in a very rudimentary style.

The official said the Kurdish forces picked it up, carried it back to the base and were looking at it there when it exploded. The official said the drone appeared to be carrying a C-4 charge and batteries, and may have had a timer of some sort on it.

The official was not authorized to discuss the incident publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

Chris Woods, the head of the Airwars project, which tracks the international air war in Iraq, Syria and Libya, said, “there are a million ways you can weaponize drones — fire rockets, strap things in and crash them.”

“This is the stuff everyone has been terrified about for years, and now it’s a reality,” he added.

The U.S. military official couldn’t immediately authenticate the videos in question. But another former senior U.S. military official who viewed the videos said there was nothing to suggest they were fake.

A number of militant groups in the Middle East, including the Islamic State group, Jund al-Aqsa and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, as well as Hezbollah and Hamas, have all released videos indicating that they have surveillance and reconnaissance drones. Syrian anti-government rebels and militias loyal to President Bashar Assad were also flying cheap quad- and hexacopters as early as 2014 to spy on each other.

The surveillance drones allowed those groups to collect data on enemy bases, battlefield positioning and weaponry and improve targeting.

Lebanon-based Hezbollah has claimed to have armed-drone capabilities for nearly two years, but a recent video of bomblets hitting a militant camp near the Syrian town of Hama is the first known documentation.

The majority of these groups have access only to store-bought drones, similar to those available in the U.S., ranging in price from $1,000 to $3,000 and weighing between 5 to 10 pounds — certainly not enough to support a large bomb or rocket. Hezbollah is an exception, receiving most of its munitions — including its drones — from Iran.

Syrian skies are already bustling with traffic. Coalition forces have launched some 5,400 airstrikes on IS targets since September 2014. Drones account for only about 7 percent of America’s total air operations in Iraq and Syria.