aerial photo | Analysis: UAVs in the wrong hands

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Analysis: UAVs in the wrong hands

25th July 2017 – 14:13


Andrew White

in London

With the proliferation of commercial-off-the-shelf UAVs employed by extremist organisations in the Middle East, the defence and security sector continues to ramp up capabilities to not only detect such threats but also effectively counter them.

Operational vignettes from northern Iraq and Syria regarding the utility of weaponised UAVs by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) continue to be reported by coalition forces while secure commercial chat channels are being used as a covert means of communication by these militant groups.

Encrypted and anonymous communications nodes including chat channels such as Telegram, Whatsapp, Threema and Signal are being used to educate combatant leaders, groups and even so-called ‘lone wolves’ worldwide.

Undoubtedly the largest growth area for terrorist organisations in the Middle East is the proliferation of UAV intelligence across the Internet. Israeli cyber intelligence specialist company Sixgills said it has witnessed significant uplift in not only information but also activities since the start of February 2017.

The company described multiple UAV attacks on Syrian and Iraqi military forces: ‘A wealth of information can be found on Telegram, a secure encrypted messaging application operating in the deep web.’

The German/Russian-based Telegram application continues to emerge as the jihadists’ preferred application for encrypted communications. 

Intelligence reveals how recent UAV attacks have resulted in claims of 14 fatalities; 25 injuries; and damage to 14 military vehicles; as well as the destruction of two vehicles over a three day period of attacks in Iraq and Syria.

Examples include a supposed 6 February attack, publicised by the IS news agency ‘A’amak’, which involved a mortar munition being vertically dropped from a UAV or ‘airborne IED’ (ABIED) onto military vehicles.

‘IS published the results of these attacks which have included dozens of casualties and destruction of military vehicles, such as HWMMVs. Following this release, an increasing amount of IS and pro-IS Telegram channels have disseminated photos of the UAV attacks and have praised IS technological capability.

‘Some of the people on those channels commented on potential future IS technological improvements that will increase the UAV’s size, payload and capacity. They also noted the potential equipping of the UAV with bacterial or chemical materials,’ Sixgill officials explained.

A separate but similar attack, also publicised by Telegram, was executed on a Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) position in Salah ad-Din Province, Iraq.

Supporting Internet channels described how IS elements were now launching ‘missiles and mortars’ from UAVs while publicising images of supposedly Ukrainian-manufactured quadrotor UAVs carrying anti-tank weapons and mortar tubes capable of launching such munitions.

‘Some of the people on those channels commented on potential future IS technological improvements that will increase the UAV’s size, payload and capacity. They also noted the potential equipping of the UAV with bacterial or chemical materials.’

Sixgill official

However, Sixgill also warned of a further uplift of capabilities by IS in this area within just weeks of these attacks. On 24 February, news emerged from A’amak regarding an ABIED attack which destroyed an Iraqi security force HMMWV in Mosul. According to Telegram chat rooms, the type of mortar dropped from the UAV was ‘different’ to those used before.

Comments in such chat rooms included support for the development, detailing that such a capability would ‘be a nightmare for the enemy’ and that the use of it ‘will be distributed to other provinces’.

Such aerial payloads are reportedly made from lightweight plastic and able to be manufactured locally, while UAS have also been seen with solar cells to enhance mission endurance. Further suggestions indicated an expectation to see such systems increase endurance and carrying capacity, with further experimentation into biological payloads.

Information suggests that increased payload capacity has led to the ability of IS UAVs to carry larger munitions with 70mm unguided air-to-surface Hydra-type rocket capabilities being referred to. Other changes in tactics, techniques and procedures include the utility of a double-mortar payload carried by a single quadrotor UAV.

Sixgill officials added: ‘Another indication, this time to a future development of the IS UAVs, was noted by a top pro-IS Telegram channel, referring to the attack of IS operatives in the Yemeni province al-Bayda, against the Houthis. The attack was covered by an UAV and photos of it were released by IS.

‘Beyond the success of attacks, pro-IS Telegram channels also provide insurgents with the educational ability to share military-related knowledge, ranging from physical training through to weapons manufacturing and technology-related tutorials…with the aim of IS supporters around the world carrying out attacks’, Sixgill warned.


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