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The Islamic State Is Pioneering a New Type of Drone Warfare

Documents found in Mosul reveal more information about how the group is turning consumer technology into tools of war.

While the Islamic State's drone operations have seen varied levels of success in Syria and Iraq to date, newly uncovered documents belonging to the terror group show just how organized its drone units are. Discovered in a facility formerly under the control of Islamic State near Mosul University by Harvard researcher Vera Mironova, and provided to West Point's Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), the papers highlight the Islamic State's surprisingly organized, yet undeniably resourceful approach to drone warfare.

Islamic State (IS) has been conducting surveillance and improvised bombing sorties with off-the-shelf consumer drones and quadcopters dating back to at least 2013, according to CTC, but the group's drone operations didn't become widespread public knowledge until a booby-trapped drone containing a bomb killed two Iraqi soldiers in October 2016, sparking extensive media coverage.

Since then, numerous reports and images—alongside propaganda material from Islamic State itself—have proven the group takes its newfound approach of weaponizing consumer drones as a serious strategy. The US government  sees the threat IS and its drones poses as very real too, allocating funding for more advanced counter-drone efforts in the near-term. US soldiers have even been photographed deployed with anti-drone technology such as the US-made Drone Defender from Battelle.

Now the newly uncovered documents add much sought after intelligence for those working to combat the Islamic State's latest weapons.

"The discovery and capture of internal documents produced by the Islamic State and its predecessor organizations have demonstrated that the group is fairly detail-oriented and bureaucratic when it comes to its operations," according to Don Rassler, Muhammad al-`Ubaydi, and Vera Mironova, analysing the documents found by Mironova on the CTC website.

Mironova, a research fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University, obtained the documents while conducting field research in Mosul, embedded with an Iraqi military unit. The forms include pre- and post-mission checklists for drone operators, purchase lists, and checklists of tools and devices, including off-the-shelf components available online such as GoPro cameras and replacement quadcopter blades. One document details the purchase of Chinese-manufactured X8 Skywalker drones, the very same drones that were featured in a propaganda video released by the Islamic State in January.

One of the recovered documents. Image: Vera Mironova

"The 21 documents themselves can be broken down into four main categories: drone use reports (2), equipment lists/purchase requests (11), receipts or purchase forms (6), and permission documents (2)," the authors write. "The standardized four-page form that Islamic State drone operators needed to fill out contained four main sections. On the first page, drone operators were asked to provide the following details about their mission: type of mission (out of six pre-set options that they could select, two indicated weaponized drone missions: 'Bombing' and 'Explosive Plane'), group members who were involved, location of the mission, and waypoint coordinates for the flight. (The two drone use forms in the collection were both for 'training' missions.)"

The purchase lists, which also include items such as GPS units and memory cards, show that while the Islamic State's drone units are not sophisticated, they are resourceful and DIY-minded, say the CTC. The items on the lists are readily available from online outlets such as AliExpress and HobbyKing, and servos designed to deploy small ordnance such as the bombs shown in Islamic State propaganda videos are particularly clever.

"They help to pin down some of the specifics of the Islamic State's drone program,"

"The documents are an intriguing look behind the scenes and they also offer new details," Rassler told Motherboard in an email Wednesday. "Those details are not in and of themselves earth-shattering, but they help to pin down some of the specifics of the Islamic State's drone program, such as: where bureaucratically the drone program falls within the broader organization; how the program is managed (to include the paperwork associated with the program, early objectives of the effort - as reflected by different mission types listed on the forms, and how it was being overseen across geographic areas); and the type of commercially available equipment that the group has been both using and seeking to cobble together/enhance their drone capabilities."

Maynard Holliday, drone expert and ex-Pentagon defense specialist, told Motherboard over the phone this week that the Islamic State's use of drone warfare is inventive. "They're an adaptive enemy who take advantage of asymmetric capabilities, because they have no Air Force, they don't have a Navy, and so they improvise," he said, speaking to Motherboard from his home in California. "And so they are improvising at a rate that we are trying to keep up with."

Another recovered document. Image: Vera Mironova

Holliday likened the rise of Islamic State's drone warfare to that of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). "It harks back to the IED issue. As technology kind of diffused through [Islamic State], they were able to take cell phones and abandoned munitions from the Iraqi Army and National Guard and then jury-rig these IEDs, and now you have these commercial drones that don't show up on anybody's radar, and can be navigated by line of sight."

The documents don't reveal any concrete information about how Islamic State plans to use drones in the future, but the researchers are able to speculate that the omission of quadcopter-style drones on the purchase lists is perhaps indicative of a future, more long-range strategy.

"This, and the showcasing of an X8 Skywalker drone (one of the fixed-wing bodies that was requested by the Islamic State in the documents) in its recent video, suggests that the Islamic State might be eyeing the use of fixed-wing drone platforms for other operational purposes, including using them to penetrate facilities and/or conduct longer-range surveillance or attack missions," the researchers write.