New chal­lenges in Syria as mil­i­tants weaponize drones

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

WASH­ING­TON: Groups like Hezbol­lah and the Is­lamic State group have learned how to weaponize sur­veil­lance drones and use them against each other, adding a new twist to Syria’s civil war, a US mil­i­tary of­fi­cial and oth­ers say. A video be­long­ing to an Al-Qaeda off­shoot, Jund alAqsa, pur­port­edly shows a drone land­ing on Syr­ian mil­i­tary bar­racks. In another video, small ex­plo­sives pur­port­edly dropped by Hezbol­lah tar­get the mil­i­tant group Jab­hat Fatah al-Sham, for­merly known as the Nusra Front.

A US mil­i­tary of­fi­cial, who spoke anony­mously be­cause he wasn’t autho­rized to dis­cuss the mat­ter pub­licly, said the US mil­i­tary is aware of the de­vel­op­ment. Com­man­ders have warned troops to take cover if they see what they might have once dis­missed as a sur­veil­lance drone, and they have warned their part­ners to do the same, he said. Con­cerns are mount­ing af­ter an in­ci­dent in­volv­ing coali­tion forces in Iraq this week. France’s pres­i­den­tial spokesman, Stephane Le Foll, said yes­ter­day that two French special forces were gravely in­jured by a drone that ex­ploded once it was grounded near the north­ern Iraqi city of Ir­bil, where they are

help­ing Kur­dish forces aligned against Is­lamic State. The head of the Air­wars project, which tracks the in­ter­na­tional air war in Iraq, Syria and Libya, said the weaponized drones are clumsy, but they can do dam­age. “There are a mil­lion ways you can weaponize drones - fire rock­ets, strap things in and crash them,” Chris Woods said. He added: “This is the stuff ev­ery­one has been ter­ri­fied about for years, and now it’s a re­al­ity.”

The US mil­i­tary of­fi­cial couldn’t im­me­di­ately au­then­ti­cate the videos in ques­tion, adding that most of the in­ci­dents they are aware of in­volved weaponized drones that sim­ply crash into their tar­gets. But another for­mer se­nior US mil­i­tary of­fi­cial who viewed the videos said there was noth­ing to sug­gest they were fake. A num­ber of mil­i­tant groups in the Mid­dle East, in­clud­ing the Is­lamic State group, Jund al-Aqsa and Jab­hat Fatah al-Sham, as well as Hezbol­lah and Ha­mas, have all re­leased videos in­di­cat­ing that they have sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance drones.

Syr­ian anti-govern­ment rebels and mili­tias loyal to Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad were also fly­ing cheap quadand hex­a­copters as early as 2014 to spy on each other. The sur­veil­lance drones al­lowed those groups to col­lect data on enemy bases, bat­tle­field po­si­tion­ing and weaponry and im­prove tar­get­ing. The ex­trem­ist Is­lamic State group launched a so­phis­ti­cated pro­pa­ganda video in 2014, “The Clang­ing of the Swords, Part 4”, boast­ing about its cap­ture of the Iraqi city of Fal­lu­jah. The video opens with drone footage over the west­ern Iraqi city be­fore cut­ting to vi­o­lent ground footage de­pict­ing its ad­vance across Iraq.

Le­banon-based Hezbol­lah has claimed to have armed-drone ca­pa­bil­i­ties for nearly two years, but a re­cent video of bomblets hit­ting a mil­i­tant camp near the Syr­ian town of Hama is the first known doc­u­men­ta­tion. The ma­jor­ity of these groups have ac­cess only to store-bought drones, sim­i­lar to those avail­able in the US, rang­ing in price from $1,000 to $3,000 and weigh­ing be­tween 5 to 10 pounds - cer­tainly not enough to sup­port a large bomb or rocket. Hezbol­lah is an ex­cep­tion, re­ceiv­ing most of its mu­ni­tions - in­clud­ing its drones - from Iran.

“It’s not go­ing to change the over­all bal­ance of power in the re­gion, but it mat­ters by the very fact that these are things that are nor­mally be­yond the ca­pa­bil­ity of in­sur­gents or ter­ror­ists groups,” said Peter Singer, au­thor of the book “Wired for War: The Ro­bot­ics Rev­o­lu­tion and Con­flict in the 21st Cen­tury,” and a se­nior fel­low at the New Amer­ica Foun­da­tion.

Syr­ian skies are al­ready bustling with traf­fic. Coali­tion forces have launched some 5,400 airstrikes on IS tar­gets since Septem­ber 2014. Drones ac­count for only about 7 per­cent of Amer­ica’s to­tal air op­er­a­tions in Iraq and Syria be­cause the US is “stretched re­ally thin” with drone op­er­a­tions in Afghanistan, Ye­men, Pak­istan and else­where, Woods said. Rus­sia is also show­ing off its own drone ca­pa­bil­i­ties - al­beit some­what prim­i­tive com­pared to the US Last month, the Rus­sian De­fense Min­istry launched a live on­line broad­cast of drone footage of the be­sieged Syr­ian city of Aleppo to “pro­vide trans­parency of cease­fire regime im­ple­men­ta­tion.”

There is no ques­tion the mil­i­tant groups are out­matched in the sky. But as cells linked to the Is­lamic State group pop up across Europe and the United States, the real con­cern is the po­ten­tial im­pact these ex­per­i­men­tal small, fly­ing bombs could have if launched over crowded cities. “You al­ready see things hap­pen­ing in Ukraine, gangs in Mex­ico are us­ing drones, and in Ire­land, gangs there are us­ing sur­veil­lance,” said Wim Zwi­j­nen­burg, a se­cu­rity and dis­ar­ma­ment pol­icy ad­viser at Nether­lands-based PAX for Peace. “Add a small amount of ex­plo­sives to a small drone, and even the psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tor is pretty sig­nif­i­cant.” — AP

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