Beyond the Buzz: Assessing the Terrorist Drone Threat
By: Scott Stewart | Stratfor.comFebruary 9, 2017

The Islamic State is taking to the skies as the fight for Mosul wears on. Over the past several weeks, the extremist group has been flaunting its use of unmanned aerial vehicles against Iraqi army and Kurdish forces in and around the city. Propaganda videos feature dramatic aerial footage of the precision attacks, and they have produced their intended effect, receiving heavy coverage in mainstream media outlets. So far, the Islamic State has deployed this technique only in Iraq and Syria. That's likely soon to change, though, considering the attention the group's drone attacks have been getting and the prevalence of drones in the West. Drone attacks are coming. But they do not necessarily portend death from above.

The Islamic State's use of drones is nothing new. Since 2014, the group has been using the technology to conduct reconnaissance on enemy defensive positions and to capture aerial footage of attacks for use in propaganda videos. It has also used drone video feeds to adjust fire from mortars, artillery guns and rockets against static targets. And though the group still employs drones for these purposes, over the past year, it has started using them offensively as well, either as guided airborne bombs or as vehicles to carry and drop ordnance on enemy targets. This new development has caused a stir in the media and stoked fears that Islamic State operatives could use the tactic in terrorist attacks outside the group's core territory.

Location, Location, Location

But what the Islamic State can pull off in a specific region it may not be able to pull off elsewhere. The group has long struggled to project its terrorism capabilities abroad, a shortcoming that led it to embrace the leaderless resistance model of terrorism in September 2014. This problem is not unique to the Islamic State, of course; al Qaeda went through the same process when it first adopted leaderless resistance in 2009-10. Its variable bombmaking capabilities exemplify the difficulty the Islamic State has had in replicating its regional successes abroad. Although the group itself has the skills and ability to produce a wide array of effective explosive ordnance, including suicide vests, vehicle bombs and booby traps, its grassroots operatives consistently struggle to make potent, reliable bombs. The Islamic State is not alone in this problem, either. As the cases of Najibullah Zazi and Faisal Shahzad illustrate, organizations such as al Qaeda have also had trouble transferring bombmaking know-how even to people who received in-person training.

The same doubtless goes for the Islamic State's drone program, whose early successes owe much to the environment in Syria and Iraq. Mosul in particular is an ideal place for the Islamic State to conduct drone operations — especially with the small, commercially available drones that the group uses. For one thing, the city offers a close-quarters urban combat environment where the battle's front lines may be across the river, across the street or even in the building next door. Enemy troops are never too far away and are easy for small drones with a limited range to reach. For another, Islamic State militants often operate drones from homes or mosques. Drone controls use radio-frequency emitters, making them easy for coalition collection platforms to identify and track down. But by surrounding themselves with civilians, drone operators shield themselves from airstrikes.

Mosul, moreover, is awash with military ordnance, military-grade explosives and demolition components — as are Iraq and Syria more generally. This gives drone operators and bombmakers alike ample material to work with in fabricating bombs and improvised explosive devices and saves them the trouble of making explosives entirely from scratch. Most of the Islamic State's drone attacks, in fact, involve lightweight military ordnance such as grenades, rocket warheads and bomblets from cluster bombs, occasionally modified to improve accuracy. Because of the drones' limited carrying capacity, these strikes do not yield the same destruction that mortar or heavier artillery fire could. But they allow for more precision than mortars or makeshift rocket launchers can provide.

The attacks have apparently rattled Iraqi troops enough that the government in Baghdad requested jamming equipment from the United States to prevent drone strikes. As the battle for Mosul drags on, however, the strikes will probably become less frequent. Even though the drones that the Islamic State uses are widely available on the market, the group will have a hard time replacing the ones it loses on the battlefield since Mosul is under siege.

Taking Drones Abroad

Beyond Iraq and Syria, Islamic State or grassroots jihadist operatives will be hard-pressed to find conditions as conducive to staging a drone attack. That said, the attacks themselves are not terribly difficult or complicated to coordinate, especially considering the abundance of commercially available drones in the West. The challenge lies in finding something sufficiently lightweight and deadly to drop.

This will prove difficult in the West, where military ordnance usually isn't just lying around. To carry out an effective drone attack, aspiring terrorists would have to depend on the fickle craft of bombmaking. But even the professionals whom the Islamic State sent to Europe for the November 2015 attacks in Paris encountered problems with their homemade explosives. (They had apparently honed their technique for making the improvised explosive triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, by the time of the Brussels airport attack in March 2016.) Primitive pipe or pressure cooker bombs — the weapon of choice in most jihadist bombings in the United States since 9/11 — would be too heavy to use in a drone attack and would likely prove ineffective, regardless. Besides, manufacturing explosives is becoming more difficult as awareness grows about how to identify aspiring bombmakers.

Preparing for the Inevitable

Still, it is only a matter of time before an Islamic State supporter attempts a drone attack in the West, given the group's influence over grassroots jihadists and the attention its drone operations have received in propaganda and media coverage. Other terrorist actors, from jihadists inspired by al Qaeda to anarchists, could also use the technique. In fact, Hezbollah — which, with help from Iran, has developed the most advanced drone capability of any terrorist group in the world — has already used the flying craft against Israel and rebels in Syria. (The group is unlikely to conduct a drone attack in the West, though.)

Lacking Hezbollah's state-provided military drone capability, most aspiring terrorists will have to make do with commercially available drones, which will limit the scale and efficacy of prospective attacks. A grassroots drone attack would probably prove far less deadly than a shooting or a vehicular attack, simply because manufacturing a lightweight, deadly drone munition is so difficult. If a drone attack were conducted in a large crowd, the panic it would generate may well cause more injuries than the device itself.

Furthermore, as awareness of the threat spreads, more countermeasures are being developed and deployed to prevent drone attacks. And these preventive measures, whether to physically stop drones or to interrupt their radio signals electronically, will evolve to keep up with advances in the technology. Even though terrorist attacks using drones are likely coming, their physical impact will be limited.

This article originally appeared on Stratfor.com