Drones, Drones Everywhere

The Kadhimi assassination attempt shows that small drones in the hands of terrorists or insurgents pose a particularly nasty problem.

Arriving at his villa in the al-Mintqa al-Khadraa, or Green Zone international district along the Tigris River on Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was attacked by a “suicide quadcopter.” This was an improvised explosive device of a different and newly popular kind: a small, commercial-quality drone fitted with a cluster-bomb-like munition.

While most speculation about the thus-far anonymous attack has focused on the likely perpetrator—probably one of Iraq’s Iranian-backed militias collectively known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces—and the politics—Hashd candidates were drubbed in recent parliamentary elections, winning just 17 seats in the 329-member legislature—the biggest import of the moment might be military and strategic. The assassination attempt may have been less than a complete technical or tactical success, but it’s a harbinger of things to come, things to worry a lot about.

The details of the attack remain hazy, but the basic facts are clear. It was launched from somewhere near the Republic Bridge, about two miles upriver from the Green Zone as the crow flies. Two or perhaps three drones carrying small IEDs were used; all but one were shot down. David Hambling’s analysis in Forbes is insightful: The Green Zone is heavily defended, not least in regard to drone attacks, benefitting from “some of the U.S. military’s most advanced drone jamming hardware. …The fact that the attack drones apparently avoided jamming suggests they may have been on a pre-programmed flightpath with no direct link between drone and operator to jam.” 

The munitions on the downed drones failed to detonate, but they reveal a certain level of sophisticated fusing: when the bomb is released, it spins a propeller-like apparatus that arms the device, which explodes on impact. This is often loaded into a cuplike holder that is, in essence, “tipped over” to release the munition. The bombs themselves carried what is known as a “shaped charge,” designed to penetrate armor or other protection rather than simply scattering shrapnel. 

Improvised suicide drones have been used sporadically for several decades, employed by irregulars from Colombia to Lebanon to Syria and Iraq; Iranian proxies—Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and now Iraqi militias—and the Islamic State have been quick to adopt the technology and the tactics. The “quadcopter,” familiar to millions of hobbyists, has four vertically mounted propellers that stabilize the drone’s flight, is far more accurate than the insurgents’ first wave of drone attacks, which often were small flying-wing-style aircraft that dropped recycled mortar rounds as they passed over a target area.

A report compiled in 2018 by the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point on the Islamic State’s drone program provides a view of low-end drone proliferation. Like ISIS itself, the drone effort was rapidly institutionalized and drew upon worldwide sources, initiated by “two Bangladeshi brothers who leveraged companies in the United Kingdom, Bangladesh and Spain that they establish to move funds, drones, and other dual-use components to and on behalf of the Islamic State,” beginning perhaps as early as 2015. In the course of the program, the group surmounted a variety of cost and technological problems, eventually developing a “novel weapons system constructed from commercial components” that “challenged … states’ ability to respond,” and exploiting “gaps and seams” in countermeasures such as jamming.

The report also predicted that ISIS’s successes “could serve as an inspiration for other terrorists and/or nation-states and proxy groups”—a prognostication borne out by the Kadhimi attack. The report also forecast rapid development in drone tactics, targets, and weaponry and suggested that attacks by multiple drones, possibly launched from different points on land and sea, would proliferate. Indeed, experts who study the future of warfare have long foreseen the advent of drone “swarms” that could overwhelm even sophisticated and layered defenses. Nor was the counterterrorism center sanguine about the prospect of limiting insurgents’ access to the needed technology: “important supply chain gaps of knowledge likely exist.” Although professional weapons-trackers, including nongovernmental organizations who specialize in such work, have been able to track components to their source, there are almost certainly too many holes in the drone dyke to plug them all effectively for long.

The Middle East has become a particularly fertile field for drone development and experimentation. The Yemeni Houthis, also backed by Iran, delight in using larger drones to attack oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere around the Persian Gulf. Houthi spokesman Gen. Yahya Saree proclaimed 2019 the “Year of the Drone,” and the Houthis have more than fulfilled that boast and continued to acquire new capabilities. In September 2019, the Houthis struck the massive processing plant at Abqaiq in northeastern Saudi Arabia, sending a wave of 10 drones and cutting Saudi oil production in half—a loss of about 5 percent of global production—for several weeks and causing a brief tremor in international financial markets.

But perhaps the most striking display of drone power came in Turkey’s intervention in the 2011 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the oft-contested Nagorno-Karabakh region and subsequently in Libya. In both cases, Turkish drones turned the tide in favor of its allies, Azerbaijan and the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli—also in both cases defeating opposing forces backed by Russia. The stars of the shows were the Bayraktar family of drones, particularly the medium-altitude TB-2, similar in size, endurance, and armament to the U.S. Predator, but at a cost of about $1.5 million compared to the $60-million-plus price tag of the American-made aircraft. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama—himself an enthusiastic drone hobbyist—declared that its heavy investments in drones have made Turkey a Middle East “regional power” that has “decisively shaped the outcomes of three conflicts and promises to do more of the same.” 

An argument can be made that Turkey’s drone dominance could be stabilizing—even if it serves President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s occasional Ottoman dreams and domestic repression. Yet drone proliferation has thus far proved to be a mostly destabilizing phenomenon, and, if the Kadhimi assassination attempt is any indicator, small drones in the hands of small bands of terrorists or insurgents will pose a particularly nasty problem. It is easy to imagine that such groups are working on ways to deliver strikes using weapons as small but far more lethal than reworked grenades.

We must expect that the drone proliferation problem will have an American domestic dimension as well. At that moment, there are something like 1 million commercial-use drones registered with the FAA, and perhaps five times as many hobby drones. . The international drome market is estimated to be worth almost $20 billion now, and to double in size by 2027. There are almost certainly members of Antifa or Proud Boys who own quadcopters.

Finally, there are both philosophical and security angles to the Kadhimi attack. For several decades, there has been an inconclusive debate about the ethics of drone warfare and its standing within the philosophical tradition of “just war.” This theory, formulated, adapted, and refined across millenia and foundational to Western political philosophy, generally holds that there are two tests legitimating the use of armed force: ius ad bellum, that is, criteria to be met before going to war; and ius in bello, the norms governing the conduct of armed conflict. Within the tradition, the question of assassination--even when aimed at political or uniformed military leaders--has been a thorny one. As the act of killing appears to become more precise and to diminish the imminent risk to an attacker—two developments that mark the development of armed drones in particular, but also confound the use of precision-guided weapons in conventional conflicts, cyberware and near-earth space—the U.S. and allied militaries now rely frequently on the rulings of military judge advocates. Events such as the botched strike that resulted in the U.S. killing of an Afghan aid worker wrongly thought to be an ISIS terrorist will sustain and likely accelerate this trend.

But what is anathema to modern civil society is manna to terrorists and insurgents. The Kadhimi attack seems to have achieved its political purposes, underscoring the weakness of the Iraqi prime minister’s position and reminding Iraqis that the Iranian-sponsored militias, rejected at the ballot box, remain a powerful force. The combination of cheap, widely available technology, chop-shop manufacturing ingenuity, and thoughtful employment to highlight opponents’ vulnerabilities may be a uniquely Baghdad brew, but the recipe is globally appealing. In an America unhappily prone to political violence, it is indeed a cause for worry.