Militant game-changer in the Middle East?


Earlier this year, the Yemen-based Houthis launched a drone attack on an oil storage facility in Abu Dhabi. The attack left three dead and six injured. Following the attacks, UAE officials foiled various other Houthi drone attacks and warned of the growing drone threat.

In addition to the Houthis, jihadist groups such as the Islamic State (IS), Hamas and Hezbollah have used drones for reconnaissance, propaganda and attacks, with IS being one of the most proficient in its use at the height of his powers. 2015 to 2017.

While recent attacks have brought the militant use of drones into the limelight, the questions that remain are “how likely is a massive terrorist attack involving drones” and “are drones changing really the militant deal?”​

Use of drones by the Houthis

Between 2016 and 2021, the Houthis reportedly carried out more than 4,000 drone and missile strikes on Saudi targets.

The first type of drone they started using was the commercially available DJI Phantom quadcopter, which was allegedly stolen from a local TV station.

Beginning in 2017, the rebels began using larger fixed-wing aircraft-type drones in attacks. These included the Qasef-1, Qasef-2k, Sammad-2 and Sammad-3, which hinted at Iranian involvement.

Houthi leader Saleh Alsmad unveils a Qasef-1 drone, claimed by the Houthis as an indigenous development, on February 26, 2017 in Yemen. Image: Hussam Al-Sanabani/Twitter

British think tank Conflict Armament Research noted that these drones were manufactured in Iran and supplied to Yemen. Other evidence suggests the Houthis learned to make DIY drones using a mix of local parts and high-end components smuggled into Yemen.

Use of drones by the Islamic State

IS, on the other hand, has mostly used commercial quadcopters. The group had also attempted to reverse-engineer US and coalition propeller-plane drones that had been shot down or crashed in Iraq and Syria, but it is unclear whether they were successful.

Much of ISIS’s use of drones was initially for surveillance, directing suicide bombers to targets and filming aerial footage for propaganda videos. IS had a dedicated unit and a highly sophisticated network for the acquisition and development of drones.

In late 2016, ISIS began crudely arming commercial quadcopters, using them to drop small bombs on Iraqi and coalition soldiers by attaching plastic tubes fitted with small munitions to the base of the drones.

Although it had a limited casualty rate, it had a substantial psychological effect on ground troops and was effective in destroying localized targets such as tanks and small military convoys.

In 2017, IS reportedly launched 60 to 100 drone attacks per month.

Use of drones in terrorist attacks

Despite their relative ease of availability, the use of drones in attacks has largely been confined to conflict zones.

An important factor in the militant use of drones is territorial control. The Houthis control a considerable part of western Yemen centered on Sanaa, which allows the group to ensure a sustained supply chain of materials needed to purchase and develop these weapons.

Territory also allows Rebels to launch frequent and consistent attacks on distant targets. The Houthi Qasef and Sammad drones, which have a range of 200 to 1,500 kilometers (125-930 miles) and a range of around two hours, allow launches against foreign targets from cover in the Houthis’ own territory.

ISIS’s offensive use of drones was most dominant during the height of its presence in Iraq and Syria. However, without territory, groups lack the safe space needed to source and innovate with drone technology.

Access and capacity of drones

The Houthis have access to more sophisticated drones due to outside influences. Although still considered low-tech, Qasef and Sammad drones have higher payload, range, and endurance than amateur drones, making them deadlier.

Standard commercial drones have a limited payload due to their small size. Quadcopters can only carry about 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of excess weight (which in the case of militarization means explosives), while some larger ones can carry a maximum of 5 kilograms (11 pounds). ).

This makes them more suitable for targeted assassinations and small scale attacks. In November 2021, three Shiite militias used two ready-made quadcopter drones equipped with explosives to try to kill the Prime Minister of Iraq Mustafa Al-Kadhemi in Baghdad.

One of the drones did not explode, while the other damaged a car and the interior of the Prime Minister’s house. No serious injuries were reported.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi speaks during a press conference in August 2021
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi. Photo: Eliot Blondet/AFP

Aircraft-style drones deployed by the Houthis can carry a much higher payload of between 30 and 45 kilograms (66-100 pounds) and are therefore more lethal.

A successful drone attack also depends on external conditions such as weather and wind speed. These add an extra layer of complications in performing attacks compared to conventional attack methods.

A game changer?

Drones remain a major problem for security services because they fly at much lower altitudes than aircraft and are thus able to avoid detection by most radar systems designed to target objects flying at higher altitudes.

Additionally, the ease with which commercial drones can be purchased and weaponized lowers the threshold of accessibility to actors with malicious intent. For example, some Houthi drones are said to have been duplicated from German civilian technology with help from Iran.

Activists are likely to see drones as a useful addition to their current arsenal. Although drones are likely to be a game changer in limited ways, they add a level of complexity to military operations.

Aircraft type Drones vs Commercial Drones, ready to go

The threat from the use of drones by militant groups can be seen as twofold.

First, there is the threat stemming from more sophisticated fixed-wing aircraft-type drones like those used by the Houthis. These drones will remain a significant threat in conflict zones like Yemen.

So far, the Houthis have focused on strategic targets such as oil installations, defense establishments and airports. However, this does not rule out the possibility of drone attacks on more populated civilian targets.

Second, there is the threat of standard drones such as commercial quadcopters. These instruments have more limited lethality due to their lower weight, endurance, and range. Nonetheless, they can be an attractive option for lone actors or cells in localized small-scale attacks or targeted assassinations.

These drones are widely available and their armament does not require a lot of skills and abilities.

Most IS militant cells outside the Middle East have demonstrated strong capabilities in developing improvised explosive devices. Mounting them on commercial drones doesn’t require much more technical skill, as some have described it as something a “sophisticated high school kid could put together”.

In fact, there have been a number of foiled ISIS-linked plots in Indonesia and Malaysia using commercial drones.

Thus, the proliferation of dual-use technologies such as drones must be appropriately regulated to prevent it from being misused by malicious actors, and governments must remain aware of the threat they pose.

Portrait of Rueben DassRueben Dass is a research analyst at the International Center for Research on Political Violence and Terrorism, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

His research interests include terrorism and counterterrorism in Southeast Asia; chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) terrorism; and the terrorist use of unconventional technologies and weapons.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflectand the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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