Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State in northern Iraq last week shot down a small drone the size of a model airplane. They believed it was like the dozens of drones the terrorist organization had been flying for reconnaissance in the area, and they transported it back to their outpost to examine it.
The drone exploded killing two peshmerga fighters who tried to lift it after it crashed, said Jabbar al-Yawar, secretary general of the autonomous Kurdish region’s defence ministry. “It seems it was booby-trapped.”
Le Monde reported on Tuesday that the drone had been intercepted in flight on 2 October and exploded near the Kurdish and French soldiers when it hit the ground. It was unclear, the French paper said, whether the drone was remotely detonated or carried a timed bomb.
Yawar, speaking from Irbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, said the French soldiers had been training Kurdish fighters near the site of the drone crash, close to the town of Dohuk.
The two wounded French soldiers were immediately returned to France for medical treatment. One of them was “between life and death”, according to Le Monde. It said other French soldiers were also lightly injured by the blast but gave no further details.
The French defence ministry confirmed on Wednesday that two special forces members had been injured.
In the last month, the Islamic State has tried to use small drones to launch attacks at least two other times, prompting American commanders in Iraq to issue a warning to forces fighting the group to treat any type of small flying aircraft as a potential explosive device.
The Islamic State has used surveillance drones on the battlefield for some time, but the attacks — all targeting Iraqi troops — have highlighted its success in adapting readily accessible technology into a potentially effective new weapon. American advisers say drones could be deployed against coalition forces by the terrorist group in the battle in Mosul.
For some American military analysts and drone experts, the episodes confirmed their view that the Pentagon — which is still struggling to come up with ways to bring down drones — was slow to anticipate that militants would turn drones into weapons.
“We should have been ready for this, and we weren’t,” said P. W. Singer, a specialist on robotic weaponry at New America, a think tank in Washington.
Military officials said that the Pentagon has dedicated significant resources to stopping drones, but that few Iraqi and Kurdish units have been provided with the sophisticated devices that the American troops have to disarm them. The officials said they have ordered the Pentagon agency in charge of dealing with explosive devices — known as the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization — to study ways to thwart hostile drones. This summer, the Pentagon requested an additional $20 million from Congress to help address the problem.
In recent months, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency both rushed to complete classified assessments about the Islamic State’s drone use. And the secretary of the Army, Eric Fanning, recently assigned a special office he had created to respond to emerging threats and to study how to stop drones.
Unlike the American military, which flies drones as large as small passenger planes that need to take off and land on a runway, the Islamic State is using simpler, commercially available drones such as the DJI Phantom, which can be purchased on Amazon. The group attaches small explosive devices to them, essentially making them remotely piloted bombs.
“This is an enemy that learns as it goes along,” said Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the top American military commander in Iraq until August.
Of the three known drone attacks in Iraq, only the one involving the Kurdish soldiers caused casualties. “The explosive device inside was disguised as a battery — there was a very small amount of explosives in it, but it was enough to go off and kill them,” said a senior American official who had been provided with a detailed report on the episode.
Last week, the Islamic State used a drone strapped with an explosive to attack a checkpoint. The device did not kill anyone but destroyed buildings. On Oct. 1, Iraqi troops shot down a drone that was only a foot long and a foot wide but had a small explosive attached to the top.
“The drone could only hold one small bomb in the middle of it — no bigger load could be on it,” said Gen. Tahseen Sayid, a senior Iraqi officer in the area.
The Islamic State first used drones to film suicide car bomb attacks, which militants have posted online. But American and Iraqi commanders said that earlier this year it became clear the group was using drones to help them on the battlefield.
In March, General MacFarland and American military commanders in Baghdad received an intelligence report that the Islamic State had posted surveillance video online that had been taken by a small drone. The video footage showed a newly created series of bases in northern Iraq where American and Iraqi forces were stationed.
Just days after the video was put up, a Katyusha rocket landed in the middle of an outpost of more than 100 American Marines, killing one who was rushing to get others to shelter in a nearby bunker. The strike was so accurate that military officials described it as a “golden shot” to pierce the defenses put in place, and there was speculation that a drone was used in the targeting.
General MacFarland said he did not believe the footage — which did not include positional data like GPS locations — helped militants.
“It couldn’t be used for precise targeting,” he said in a recent email exchange. “Its value was limited to propaganda.”
In the weeks afterward, American forces in the area unleashed a barrage of retaliatory airstrikes against Islamic State fighters who had launched the drone.
“Whatever capability they had, they lost a lot of it,” General MacFarland said, referring to the Islamic State’s operations in the area.
Throughout the summer, however, American troops in Iraq and Syria reported seeing small drones hovering near their bases and around the front lines in northern Iraq. In August, the Islamic State called on its followers to jury-rig small store-bought drones with grenades or other explosives and use them to launch attacks at the Olympics. There were ultimately no such attacks at the Games.
On the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, the United States has dedicated resources to take out the Islamic State’s drone capabilities. In the past 18 months, the United States has launched at least eight airstrikes that have destroyed Islamic State drones on the ground, according to news releases from the American military command in Baghdad.
Despite these efforts, military analysts believe that drones will continue to be a problem in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. A new report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point says that in the future, off-the-shelf drones used by terrorist groups will be able to carry heavier payloads, fly and loiter longer, venture farther from their controller and employ secure communications links. The center provided an advance copy of the report to The New York Times.
“The number and sophistication of drones used is also likely to enhance the scope and seriousness of the threat,” said Don Rassler, the center’s director of strategic initiatives.
Photo: ISIS fighter in Mosul – Reuters