National Security

The New Weapon of the Islamic State

“The availability of inexpensive remote-controlled flying drones…has not been missed by ISIS and affiliated terrorist organizations.”

Recently, a video has been made available of two ISIS fighters releasing an armed drone. The fixed wing drone flies off into the distance followed by another drone to take video. The first drone can be seen flying over Mosul in the direction of an Iraqi position. The drone drops its payload—a small explosive—over the Iraqi position.

Drones are the new weapon ISIS forces are employing. ISIS has reported the formation of a select group of fighters they call the “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen Unit” and announce that it is “a new source of horror for the apostates!” according to the group’s official al-Naba newsletter.

In the al-Naba newsletter, ISIS said, “The army of the Islamic State has revealed its use of the unmanned aircraft weapon for the first time.” It described an “aerial bombardment” of Iraqi forces around Mosul and said that “most of the hits were precise and inflicted losses in the ranks of the apostates.”

Although their effect so far has been minimal, US officials confirm that the terrorist group appears to have crossed a threshold with its use of unmanned aircraft. The use of drones by ISIS began almost two years ago, but those were exclusively for surveillance. Now with this new development, ISIS is using the commercially available drones as armed weapons in the fight against the Iraqi forces backed by the US.

The US and Iraqi forces are taking the new weapon seriously

Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a Washington nonprofit group that analyzed dozens of incidents for a new report on Islamist militant groups’ use of drones, said, “They’re now showing that these devices can be effective on the battlefield. With the way these groups use social media, my worry is that they’re also putting the idea into people’s heads that this is something you can now do.”

The small and inexpensive drones ISIS is using are nothing like the Predator and Reaper drones the US operates. Although too small to carry much of a payload, even a small bomb—like what has been seen on the drones—can kill or wound soldiers and destroy equipment.

ISIS-connected social media videos have shown strikes using small bombs and rockets. Although many attacks are off-target, the drone attacks are a threat for residents in some parts of liberated eastern Mosul, according to Iraqi news accounts.

Iraqi troops are also reacting to the drone threat. They are not only looking for the enemy in front of them but also searching the skies for ISIS drones. Videos released by the Islamic State show multiple instances in which bombs were dropped close enough to Iraqi troop positions to cause injuries.

Pentagon officials acknowledged that coalition forces are employing countermeasures against drones. The US is taking steps that include early-detection systems and electronic jamming while also increasing the search for factories and staging areas where the aircraft are being constructed or modified for weaponized use.

After the retaking of Ramadi from ISIS, Iraqi forces discovered a small workshop where workers were attempting to manufacture drone parts from scratch. Photographs taken inside the captured drone factory showed homemade wings, fuselage parts, electronics, camera controllers, and gyro sensors for flight control according to an analysis by Conflict Armament Research, a London-based nonprofit group that investigates weapons trafficking.

Additional facilities built to modify commercial drones have been uncovered in Mosul in the past few weeks, all pointing to an “increasing use by ISIS of weaponized drones,” said James Bevan, executive director of Conflict Armament Research.

Air Force Col. John L. Dorrian, the spokesman for the US-led coalition opposing the Islamic State, said at a news briefing,“Although dangerous and effective as a propaganda tactic, [a drone] has a limited operational effect on the battlefield and will not change the outcome.”

The availability of inexpensive remote-controlled flying drones—those that anyone can readily buy—has not been missed by ISIS and affiliated terrorist organizations. Drones have been used by terrorist groups for several years. Hamas, Hezbollah, and others have all used the drone as a weapon. Hezbollah has repeatedly used drones in its fight with Israel and their efforts in Syria. The group has released videos showing a drone dropping bomblets on Syrian rebels.

The greater threat

In the US alone, over one million civilian drones were sold in 2015. On a global level, multiple millions of drones are sold and purchased, ranging from small toy drones to larger commercial models used by the agricultural industry, filmmakers, law enforcement, and many others.

In 2011, a physics graduate and model hobbyist from Massachusetts was accused of planning to launch small drones with bombs against the Pentagon and the Capitol, according to an FBI affidavit.

In January, May, and again in October of 2015, drones were crashed or flown onto the White House property. Two of these events were due to hobbyists losing control of their drones, but one was deliberate.

At the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. in 2016, one scenario mapped out by US officials and presented at the special session spelled out the danger in remarkable detail. It imagined radioactive material had been taken from a medical facility by “insiders” and sold to extremists through the internet’s secretive “dark web.” That material would then be used in an attack in the US. The use of a dirty bomb is one scenario. With the advent of the terrorist drone, the possibilities of the targets, delivery, and distribution of nuclear material are endless.

The biggest issue for terrorists in developing a dirty bomb has been acquiring high-grade materials. One safeguard at the forefront of preventing such a scenario is the security of dangerous radioactive materials. The highly radioactive materials, as found in military weapons facilities and nuclear power plants, is constantly under guard. The less hazardous material, like that used in industry and medical facilities, is not secured at the same level. Mainly because of this lack of control, thousands of “lost supplies” of radioactive material have been reported over the years.

ISIS doesn’t need to purchase radioactive material on the black market. The Islamic State is believed to have seized around 90 pounds of low-grade uranium from Mosul University in Iraq after taking over the city in 2014. Due to the material having limited toxicity, its use would likely cause more of a panic than serious harm. The level of radioactivity is not high enough to be useful as a destructive attack. Most of the damage from the release of radioactive material would be psychological and economic.

ISIS has already deployed crude chemical weapons with their use of mustard and chlorine gas. Is it such a stretch to imagine a drone releasing nuclear material over a wide area? The use of a drone for this type of attack could have many advantages. As Lone Wolf radicalized terrorists continue to raise their heads in the US and other parts of the world, many countries are at a much greater risk than ever before from this new-found weapon system, which almost anyone can acquire and operate.

Since June 2014, when ISIS declared the establishment of their caliphate, the Islamic State, or inspired groups and individuals, have conducted more than 140 terrorist attacks in 29 countries other than Iraq and Syria. Those attacks have killed at least 2,043 people and injured thousands more.

The Islamic State’s drone campaign has raised the spirits of many of the group’s supporters. Their announcement of the development and use of weaponized drones, as well as the plethora of ISIS-produced videos on the internet, triggered euphoric discussions on social media platforms used by Islamist militant groups. Still, while ISIS claims this is just the beginning of drone operations and experts anticipate they will surface in new locations, the devices will still have limited operational impact on the battlefield.


Jon Harris

Jon Harris is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and former Army NCO, Sergeant Morales Club member, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community. He is published in Army Trainer Magazine, authored regular columns in several newspapers, and is the author of the Cold War novel Breakpoint. His adventures as a security contractor in Afghanistan and Iraq can be found on He holds a B.S. in Government and Politics and an M.S. in Criminal Justice and is currently completing his Juris Doctor degree.

Join the conversation!

We have no tolerance for comments containing violence, racism, vulgarity, profanity, all caps, or discourteous behavior. Thank you for partnering with us to maintain a courteous and useful public environment where we can engage in reasonable discourse.