As ISIS drones die, dan­gers live

Some see avail­abil­ity, so­phis­ti­ca­tion of com­mer­cial pi­lot­less de­vices as threat in U.S.

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By W.J. Hen­ni­gan

WASH­ING­TON — U.S. airstrikes and local mili­tias in eastern Syria have hob­bled Is­lamic State’s deadly drone pro­gram, U.S. of­fi­cials say, but coun­tert­er­ror­ism ex­perts warn that the ter­ror­ist group’s in­no­va­tive use of the in­ex­pen­sive tech­nol­ogy may spur other aerial at­tacks around the globe.

A spe­cially trained unit of Is­lamic State pi­lots flew small quad­copters and model-plane-sized drones, some­times a dozen or more at a time, to stream live video of U.S.-backed ground forces and to drop crude mu­ni­tions on them in both Iraq and Syria.

By evad­ing ground de­fenses with re­mote-con­trolled de­vices bought on the in­ter­net, the mil­i­tants pi­o­neered an asym­met­ric but suc­cess­ful tac­tic on the bat­tle­field, much as the grow­ing U.S. fleet of mis­sile-fir­ing Preda­tor and Reaper drones has changed mod­ern war­fare.

In the bat­tle for the Iraqi city of Mo­sul, which gov­ern­ment forces re­cap­tured in July, dozens of Iraqi troops were killed or wounded by 40-mil­lime­ter grenades and light ex­plo­sives dropped from buzzing over­head de­vices so nu­mer­ous that one U.S. com­man­der likened them to killer bees.

It was, U.S. of­fi­cials later ac­knowl­edged, per­haps the first time since the Viet­nam War when the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary was pow­er­less against enemy air­craft — in this case air­craft only a tiny frac­tion the size of U.S. war­planes.

Un­til now, small drones mostly sparked se­cu­rity alerts in Amer­ica by fly­ing near the White House, near air­ports and in other re­stricted zones.

But the avail­abil­ity and so­phis­ti­ca­tion of com­mer­cial drones now are seen as a threat to the United States, some ex­perts ar­gue.

“We do know that ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions have an interest in us­ing drones,” newly con­firmed FBI Di­rec­tor Christo­pher Wray told a Se­nate hear­ing last week. “We have seen that over­seas al­ready with some fre­quency. I think that the ex­pec­ta­tion is that it is com­ing here, im­mi­nently.”

Ni­cholas Ras­mussen, the di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Cen­ter, told the same panel that his agency has been co­or­di­nat­ing with law en­force­ment and avi­a­tion reg­u­la­tors to study ways to de­fend against small drones used in ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

“Two years ago, this was not a prob­lem,” he told the Se­nate Com­mit­tee on Home­land Se­cu­rity and Gov­ern­men­tal Af­fairs. “A year ago this was an emerg­ing prob­lem. Now it’s a real prob­lem.”

Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ates in the Philip­pines, Libya and Ye­men al­ready have used drones for sur­veil­lance. So have the al-Qaida af­fil­i­ate in Syria, Hezbol­lah in Le­banon and the Tal­iban in Afghanistan.

The threat spurred the Army to is­sue a handbook in April to urge com­man­ders to as­sign ded­i­cated ob­servers to track small drones and to train sol­diers in what it called “Coun­terUn­manned Air­craft Sys­tem Tech­niques.”

Gen. Ray­mond Thomas, head of Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand, said small drones were the “most daunt­ing” threat his com­man­dos faced in Iraq and Syria last year.

He re­called once dur­ing the bat­tle for Mo­sul when the Iraqi forces’ “ef­fort nearly came to a screech­ing halt” be­cause the sky was filled with buzzing ro­botic air­craft.

“At one point there were 12 killer bees, if you will, right over­head,” he said dur­ing a con­fer­ence in Tampa, Fla., in May.

The Pen­tagon has rushed elec­tronic jam­mers and other spe­cial­ized equip­ment to help Iraqi se­cu­rity forces shoot down or neu­tral­ize Is­lamic State drones.

The Pen­tagon has also launched mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar pro­grams to im­prove de­fenses, in­clud­ing lasers that can dis­able a drone in the air and guns that fire small nets to nab them mid-flight.

Few of the gee-whiz mea­sures have pro­duced tac­ti­cal suc­cess on the bat­tle­field. Iraqis and U.S.backed Syr­ian forces instead have tried to shoot them down with au­to­matic weapons, with mixed suc­cess.

With few reme­dies, the U.S. has chiefly re­lied on tar­geted airstrikes. In some cases, crews used GPS data re­cov­ered from the tar­get­ing sys­tems of downed drones that showed where they were launched, ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly on in­tel­li­gence mat­ters.

Over the last two months, U.S. war­planes have de­stroyed sev­eral Is­lamic State drone de­pots, ma­chine work­shops and pi­lot schools, the of­fi­cials said.

The airstrikes also killed eight com­man­ders said to be re­spon­si­ble for ob­tain­ing, arm­ing and dis­tribut­ing the drones down smug­gling routes be­tween Iraq and Syria.

Col. Ryan Dil­lon, the Bagh­dad-based spokesman for the cam­paign against Is­lamic State, said the U.S. sought to re­move the mil­i­tants’ “tac­ti­cal abil­ity to get their sys­tems air­borne.”

“We achieved the great­est ef­fect against their pro­gram by sim­ply killing the peo­ple that have weaponized it,” he said.

There are clear signs of suc­cess. U.S.-backed fight­ers have re­ported seeing seven small drones last month in Iraq and Syria, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. mil­i­tary task force in Bagh­dad.

That’s down from more than 60 drone sight­ings ear­lier this year, espe­cially dur­ing bat­tle for Mo­sul.

Is­lamic State had a sep­a­rate di­vi­sion to pur­chase the drones from com­mer­cial web­sites and other sources in China, In­dia and Turkey, ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials.

En­gi­neers in Is­lamic State up­graded the power sys­tems. so the de­vices could fly longer and drop crude mu­ni­tions on op­pos­ing forces.

DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/GETTY

A mem­ber of the U.S.-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces near Raqqa in­spects a downed drone, re­port­edly used by ISIS.

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