From Hobby to Weapon: The Rise of the Aerial-borne Improvised Explosive Devices

As the offensive in Mosul began, a small, unmanned airplane, reminiscent of remote controlled (RC) airplanes flown by hobbyists, flew over Kurdish Peshmerga fighters north of the city. Concerned about the nature and purpose of the vehicle, security forces downed the plane to eliminate any threat it may have posed.  A small group of soldiers went to investigate the crash. When attempting to dismantle the small aircraft, it exploded, killing two of the soldiers. The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was not merely a reconnaissance drone used for troop spotting or directing fire during combat operations. Instead, ISIS had taken a commodity, one that has provided countless hours of tranquil enjoyment to hobbyists, and turned it into a deadly weapon of war.

This incident was not the first noted use of a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) by ISIS, but it was the first time such UAV was armed with another favored weapon of ISIS: the improvised explosive device (IED). These aerial-borne IEDs pose a significant threat not only to fighting forces, but also to civilians caught in the fray. As with all other versions of IEDs (roadside, car-mounted, body-borne, etc.) these weapons are inherently indiscriminate. However, like vehicle-mounted and body-borne versions, these IEDs can be directed towards military and civilian targets more easily as the small aerial vehicles can bypass roadways and remain relatively undetected. This potential raises concerns about the greater chances of UAVs being used in retaliatory or “shock and awe” attacks on civilians and/or civilian infrastructure.


But what kind of UAVs does ISIS use? This is difficult to ascertain, though the Department of Defense recently diverted $20 million to understand the threat and come up with counter measures to the diversity of technology employed by ISIS, its report of ISIS’ capabilities remains out of public view. In general though, it appears ISIS employs two types of UAVs, larger, fixed-wing and smaller quadcopter models in its reconnaissance, propaganda, and now attack functions. Some of the fixed wing versions appear to be rather improvised, such as a simple flying wing design seen here  and here. This may be a design specific to ISIS, using what materials are available to them. At the same time ISIS has also deployed more conventional and over-the-counter fixed-wing RC airplanes retrofitted with surveillance equipment and/or explosive devices such as the Chinese manufactured X-UAV United Eagle Talon Fatso pictured here. Perhaps most interestingly, ISIS is also increasingly using quadcopter UAVs like the DIJ Phantom pictured here and here that can be purchased online for very little cost compared to national military UAVs such as the Predator or Reaper used by Iraqi and US Coalition forces.

These Improvised UAVs are a serious threat to fighting forces and civilians alike. ISIS has successfully used them in attacks, such as that on the Peshmerga fighters, as well as reconnaissance and propaganda video making purposes. However, since these devices are sometimes made of available and potentially poor quality material, the risk of failure remains high. If explosive-laden ISIS drones are downed by enemy fire, or fall based on faulty design, they are sure to arouse civilian curiosity. Since it appears that ISIS wires the explosives to detonate with a remote timer, like suicide vehicle-borne IEDs, or by rigging the explosive to ignite when certain components are moved or removed, curious civilians may become victims of these weapons.

Recently, and likely in response to the diverted funds and effort of the U.S. Defense Department, an electronic UAV counter measure weapon has been deployed in the field with some success. However, there may be additional challenges to forces using these counter measures in urban areas compared to open patches of land with direct line of sight and without the interference of other consumer electronics. This raises the risk from these weapons, especially given that other Jihadist groups such as Jund al-Aqsa in Syria have already shown the capability of retrofitting quadcopters to deploy explosives and return to base to be fitted with more. This gives irregular forces the potential to amass a small, yet potentially deadly, quadcopter bomber fleet. The difficulty of countering such a threat given how small and maneuverable these drones can be presents a serious challenge not only to forces engaged in active combat, but also off the battlefield.

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