Is ISIS Building A Drone Army?

As U.S.-led coalition forces confirm they shot down an ISIS drone this week, experts warn the extremists could soon adapt the technology for battle purposes.

CBP Photos/Alamy

The self-proclaimed Islamic State—also known as ISIS or ISIL—has added drones to its arsenal, and for the first time, the U.S.-led coalition took one of their drones out, officials announced Wednesday.

“Near Fallujah, [Iraq,] an airstrike destroyed an ISIL remotely-piloted aircraft and an ISIL vehicle,” said a Wednesday press release from the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF), which speaks on behalf of the 62-member U.S.-led coalition conducting strikes in Iraq and Syria.

This week, the unmanned drone had been conducting surveillance nearby, U.S. military officials told The Daily Beast. The drone was then loaded into a vehicle, which was subsequently destroyed—along with the drone—by coalition forces on Tuesday.

Some at the Pentagon were quick to dismiss the threat of ISIS drones, noting there was a big difference between what ISIS could have purchased off of Amazon.com (as such drones are apparently available there), and the Reapers and Predators deployed by coalition forces.

While experts agree, they also warn that ISIS could convert this kind of technology into something deadly.

“ISIS surely has surveillance drone capability. It is nowhere near what [the coalition] has, but [the] civilian use drone market is so big, and live-linked camera technology so common, it really is inevitable that ISIS will have surveillance drones,” says Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst with the Middle East Security Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War.

“They don’t have reusable attack drones, but I think it is just a matter of time before they jury-rig surveillance drones into flying IEDs. Basically, they could turn them into little kamikaze drones.”

Officials could not say whether it was a coalition drone that took out the ISIS drone or whether the U.S. or its allies used more conventional firepower. They also said they could not provide any details about the specific kind of drone destroyed, other than to describe it as something that could be bought commercially.

U.S. military officials told The Daily Beast that they believe the drone in question is one of several owned by ISIS but that fighters only recently started seeing them appear on the frontlines. They believed the unmanned drones are used to conduct surveillance, possibly in real time.

“This is a new trend as far as I know,” CJTF spokesman Army Capt. John Moore told The Daily Beast.

The first evidence of ISIS using some kind of overhead surveillance came nearly a year ago when the group released a video called “Clanging of the Swords, Part 4.” The hourlong video opens with images shot over a city in western Iraq. There is nothing in the piece to suggest that ISIS had real-time surveillance capability, but it definitely had the tools to take video images from the air.

Iraqi security forces and Shiite-dominated militias are currently engaged in heavy fighting against the Islamic State in the central Iraqi city of Tikrit, where ISIS appears to be losing its footing. But ISIS has maintained its grip on the western Iraqi province of Anbar, where Fallujah sits and the hit on the drone occurred.

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The first use of drones by armed jihadi groups appears to be by Hezbollah, which reportedly began launching drones in 2005, courtesy of Iran, according to a cable released by Wikileaks. In the 2005 missive, the then-U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, reported that a source had informed the U.S. that “Syrian intelligence was involved in the decision to launch the Mirsad-1 [UAV] over Israel.” The following year, during its war with Hezbollah, Israeli Air Forces said it shot down several Hezbollah drones.