Thursday 25 May 2017

Loitering Munitions: The Islamic State’s Newest Threat?

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The battle for Mosul has entered its seventh month of fierce fighting for the largest city in the hands of the Islamic State, with the most difficult fight for Mosul's Old City still to be fought. Facing a much stronger opponent with a large number of armoured fighting vehicles, special forces and air support, the Islamic State employs tactics that have become so characteristic for this organisation in its fight against Iraqi forces, including the large-scale use of VBIEDs in the narrow streets of the city.

Apart from the use of proven weapons and tactics, the battle for Mosul also premiered several other weapons systems, 'Made in Islamic State', perfectly suited for the urban environment of the city and the way the Islamic State fights its battles. Arguably the best examples of this are the deployment of a new type of anti-tank rocket launcher as well as weaponised drones, both of which have widely publicised as their use intensified while the Iraqi Army captured ever more parts of the city from the entrenched Islamic State.

The latest Islamic State video release coming out of Mosul would go further into detailing some of the Islamic State's achievements in the production of weaponry and unmanned aerial and ground vehicles in the city. The video, 'We will surely guide them to Our ways', named in reference to Quran verse 29:69, would show the assembly and deployment of several weapon systems previously not seen before.


While the production of RPGs, recoilless-rifles and a homebred anti-tank rocket launcher is already a significant development, even more so is the combat debut of what appears to be a type of loitering munition, more commonly known as a 'suicide drone' (a somewhat inapt name as there is no human involved) against Iraqi forces in the city. While this threat has only received little coverage despite its potential, the drone's combat debut made painfully clear the current shortcomings of this new type of Islamic State munition.

Loitering munition is a relatively new concept that calls for flying munitions to loiter over the target area before striking a target chosen by a human operator or in some types, autonomously. This method has several advantages over conventional cruise missiles and guided rockets, which are programmed in advance to hit a set target. If no suitable target is found, the loitering munition self-destructs or in some cases can even return to base, thus allowing for much more flexibility in operations.

The Islamic State was previously reported to have utilised loitering munition in Syria on several occasions, mainly against regime forces in the besieged city of Deir ez-Zor. It however remains unknown if the unmanned aerial vehicles in question were supposed to crash themselves into regime positions with their payload of a single PG-7 rocket or were actually designed to drop these instead.

The Islamic State is not the first to have deployed loitering munition operationally. Indeed, such weaponry has already been used by Azerbaijan, Yemen's Houthis, Israel and the U.S. in conflict, the latter even deploying them in Syria. Another operator of such "kamikaze-drones" is North Korea, which currently operates the largest of the type. Of course, the crudely constructed contraption used by the Islamic State is hardly comparable to modern munitions in use with countries that produce professional grade weaponry, but the threat remains comparably hard to counter, and has the potential significantly escalate the unabating harassment of Iraqi forces trying to weed the terrorist group out of the city.

The possible production of 'suicide drones' by the Islamic State was first hinted in a leak of documents from the Islamic State in March 2017. These documents detailed a request of a Tunisian drone developer Abu Yusra al-Tunisi for permission and funding for the development and production of multi-purpose UAVs that could loaded with 20 kilograms of explosives to be used as an air-to-surface missile. A summary in English of the Islamic State document can be found below.

Islamic State
Willayat Halab
Soldiers’ Central Office


Name: Abu Yusra al-Tunisi
Age: 47
Profession: Specialised in industrial electricity and electronics with some humble knowledge in the field of aviation and aeronautics. 

To those who may be concerned, I present the Ababil project. It is a multi-purpose UAV, with uses including: 

1- To recon an area 30 km in diameter.
2- Can be used as an air-to-surface missile with +20 kg payload.
3- It can be used to distract the enemy through the use of more than one UAV at night or during the day.
4- To jam the enemy aircraft.

The project will require a team composed of:
- An electro-mechanic engineer.
- A fiberglass specialist.
- An expert in AutoCAD who knows how to work on CNC.
- A metalworker 

The project will cost around 5,000 USD and will require 3 months to complete. I will show you photos of a prototype that I worked on when I worked in the field of research and development. The project was stopped for unknown reasons.

While it is unknown if Abu Yusra al-Tunisi ever received permission and funding to continue his Ababil project, it is unlikely that the drone seen in the latest Islamic State release is in fact the Ababil. Not only did Abu Yusra al-Tunisi ask for permission and funding to develop drones in Wilayat Halab (Aleppo governorate) in Syria, the supposed payload of more than 20kg of explosives seems a much too heavy load for the drone shown in Mosul.

Although the Islamic State's release only shows a glimpse of the drone's flight (which can be seen at 8:43), it reveals interesting details on the operations of the drone. Based around a metal frame (part of which held together by duct-tape) the drone is the largest type to have been produced by the Islamic State, which until thus far has mainly used quadcopters, Skywalkers and various indigenous drones for obversation purposes. Although the Islamic State has showcased weaponised Skywalkers on several occasions, no such conversion is believed to be used operationally.

The operator of the drone is seen standing left, holding a controller in his hands. It is likely that this operator was only responsible for bringing the drone into the air, after which the radio-control was taken over by another operator with access to a screen from which he could see the path of the drone due to its inbuilt camera. Despite the clear view of the drone in the video, which reveals a fuel tank half-full, no payload is visible. Whether this means it was unarmed at the time or if the payload was potentially installed closer to the engine and thus difficult to spot is uncertain.

The screen indicates the drone flew for about ten minutes at a speed of around 110 kilometres an hour before it makes its descent towards a gathering of Iraqi Army vehicles and soldiers, including a M1 Abrams. Interestingly, the footage cuts away shortly before the drone impacts. Although it is implied this is because its payload detonated, it's also entirely possible that it actually diverted at the last moment, or that it simply crashed and did not carry any payload. In the latter case, the purpose of the drone might have been aimed more at testing and propaganda uses than actually providing a workable weapon.

With the profileration of drones seen in the world of today, the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) as a delivery platform of explosives to strike locations in the West is a threat to be taken seriously. The crudeness and obviously improvised nature does little to mitigate the fact that in an era where remotely controlled weaponry is increasingly easy to develop for factions such as the Islamic State it will become harder and harder to protect forces from such asymmetrical warfare tactics.

While this attempt at striking Iraqi forces with loitering munition was unlikely to be a success, the attack represents a growing threat that one day might become a widely deployed tactic in similar conflicts throughout the world. Although the Islamic State's days as a conventional force in Iraq are slowly coming to an end, more surprises are certain to await in Syria, and the conflict continues to develop in unpredictable ways that are sure to leave their mark on the way wars are fought in the future.

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