The unmanned jihad in the sky

Pierluigi Paganini August 16, 2016

UAV – “Go ahead, look up [points to the sky] … see the drone? No? It’s alright, because the drone sees you. Sees your face. We know who you are.

The scene is from the movie “13 hours – The secret story of the soldiers of Benghazi”: as the member of Ansar al-Sharia looks up, the high-res camera would photograph his face, send it to the US command center, and he would be identified and put in a watch list. Or blown up with hellfire if anyone pulled the trigger on the private contractors standing there.

Back in 2011 these insurgents would be far from guessing that the self-proclaimed Islamic State would have a significant fleet of reconnaissance drones today in Libya, Iraq and Syria (and also some bomber drones, according to unconfirmed reports). Not to mention the massive usage of surveillance drones by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham and other islamist insurgent groups fighting Assad’s Syrian Arab Army, as we can see from the several video footages of the “Battle for Aleppo”.

But the premises for radicals to use UAVs were set much before: during the second Lebanon war in 2006, Hezbollah had already used Iranian Ababil drones rigged with Chinese MZD-2 cluster bombs, crashing them against Israeli targets.

unmanned jihad uav

As of today, acquiring, customizing and adapting commercial drones to eventual “carry & drop” or “kamikaze” missions has recently become a hot topic on pro-ISIS communication groups and channels. And we have been monitoring them, 24/7.

On the 19th of July, we have intercepted a set of detailed instructions on how to carry out attacks in Rio, during the Olympics, where it’s mentioned the usage of “useful drones like Phantom4 armed with explosives” or “with knives attached all around, speedily steered onto the enemy” while its live camera would be streaming it online for the world to see.

Weeks later, they were already discussing prices and the best models to use in an attack: the A2 Delivery ($42.999 USD), the Sentinel + ($27.999 USD), the Sentinel + Lidar ($89.500 USD) and the Vanguard (from $37.999 USD) – although we can all get a toy drone with $100 USD, price was clearly not a problem for them here.

It was then that one of the group members presented the picture of a drone apparently rigged with some kind of plastic explosive, a small 5 second video of another drone adapted with a movable platform able to carry and drop objects, and several images of the same Chinese MZD-2 cluster bombs, while claiming that there was “no stopping the fire of jihad”.

This could even be a bluff. That may not be explosive material on the picture, and it can very well be just to show off – but we consider it highly unlikely.

These are all high-profile members in our extensive monitoring list, technologically savvy with a deeply ingrained religious rhetoric and hate towards the West. Their will is strong, as they’re constantly seeking new ways to spread terror

And with the advent of commercial drones paired with the growing private demand, for us, the conclusion is clear: it’s not a matter of “if” anymore, but just a matter of “when”. And we should be prepared for it.

About the Author Paolo Cardoso, Senior Analyst – Global Intelligence Insight

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Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – UAV, Drones)

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