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Iraqi Federal Police Are Weaponizing Off-the-Shelf Drones, ISIS-Style

Will this set a counter-terrorism precedent for other police forces?

Ben Sullivan

Ben Sullivan

The proliferation of consumer, off-the-shelf unmanned aerial vehicles weaponized by non-state actors like Islamic State has taken a new turn this week after the Iraqi Federal Police deployed the very same drones against Islamic State itself.

On March 1, reports sourced from Twitter indicated that the police force had begun surveilling and attacking Islamic State positions in Western Mosul with quadcopters. One day later, further reports showed a video feed from onboard a quadcopter that was striking Islamic State positions with the very same DIY bombs that Islamic State has been using. The drone used by the IFP appears to be a DJI Matrice 100—the same drone photographed by Agence France-Presse reporter Sara Hussein on February 23.

While consumer UAVs have been used as a force for good across the Middle East by humanitarian and security forces, this is the first known instance of a police force attacking targets with drones not originally intended for such tasks. What is not yet clear are the implications for companies like DJI, which simultaneously condemns the use of weaponized drones but likely supports the fight against Islamic State.

When Motherboard raised the issue with DJI, a company representative told us the matter is an "interesting point" but is just "the reverse side of the coin."

"Our stance still is that DJI makes consumer drones for creative and peaceful purposes," the representative explained via email. "We are dedicated to optimising our technology to enhance the benefits consumer drones provide to communities and we will continue to educate our users on safe and responsible flying."

Bellingcat analyst Nick Waters, who has been following the use of drones by Islamic State closely, told Motherboard that the drones actually have the capability to be more ethical than a normal weapon system.

"You get to see exactly what you're shooting at, they're surprisingly accurate (likely reducing civilian casualties) and when you only have one or two bombs you want to make sure you hit the target first time," he told Motherboard via Twitter direct message.

"They're better than firing a bunch of 107mm rockets into an area and hoping you hit something with 'ISIS' written on it," Waters added.

But when asked if the IFP's deployment of weaponized consumer drones could pave the way for other police forces around the world using such tactics, Waters dismissed the idea.

"The proliferation of drones, including armed drones, is definitely happening right now," he said. "I don't think armed drones will be used that much by normal police though: the Iraqi Federal Police is more like a very heavily armed gendarmerie than civil police. They've even got their own artillery!"

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