Middle East

Using Daesh tactic, Iraqi forces weaponize small drones

Members of the Iraqi forces attempt to fly a drone to spot positions of Islamic State (IS) group jihadists in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on March 13, 2017. AFP / ARIS MESSINIS

MOSUL, Iraq: Inside an armored vehicle in Mosul, a colonel scans live footage from a drone flying above the Iraqi city, hunting targets for a new weapon deployed against militants. Daesh (ISIS) has used small commercial drones to drop explosives on advancing Iraqi forces since they launched the offensive to retake Iraq’s second city in October.

As the battle now focuses on recapturing west Mosul, Col. Hussein Muayad’s federal police forces have adopted the tactic, equipping their own remote-controlled surveillance drones with 40-millimeter grenades that are usually fired from grenade launchers.

“Residents would stare at the sky” during the Mosul fighting, fearing Daesh drones, says Muayad, wearing a black jacket over his federal police uniform. “Now it’s the enemy whose eyes never leave the sky.”

The mustachioed police officer in his 40s is clearly proud of the new military tactic.

“They used to hit us once. But we can hit them up to four times with a single drone,” he says.

Lt. Gen. Raed Shakir Jawdat of the federal police, who are taking part in the battle alongside a special forces unit, says the “new military tactic” has been very effective. “Dozens of terrorists have been killed and wounded. Jihadi movements have been paralyzed.”

Muayad sits surrounded by four television screens, a black drone at his feet. A dozen oblong explosive devices tipped by the small, rounded grenades are nearby, pin near one end and a netted skirt taken from a badminton shuttlecock on the other.

“That’s so it keeps its balance as it falls,” Muayad says.

Chain-smoking cigarettes, the colonel watches the live footage of a weaponized drone as it slowly buzzes over the devastated streets of west Mosul.

The device slows to a hover above a white car near the front line.

“A vehicle providing logistic support, used to transport fighters or food,” Muayad says.

But there is no strike on the car, due to the presence nearby of a device designed to jam drone commands that Iraqi forces set up to protect themselves from Daesh attacks.

The colonel shows AFP footage of previous attacks. The munitions fall in slow motion on a group of fighters gathered in front of a mosque. More explosives are dropped on a car, small clouds of gray smoke erupting on the screen.

“West Mosul is very populated. The roads are very narrow,” Muayad says. “The point with these drones is to have very precise strikes to target the terrorists, not the residents.”

“Day and night, there are always 12 drones in the air, ready to strike,” Muayad says. But he refuses to say exactly how many drones, which can each carry up to four grenades, the police operate.

The devices have been equipped with an extra battery to prolong their flight time and can now cover a distance of 8 kilometers, up from less than 5 kilometers before.

Inside a ravaged courtyard in a neighborhood recently recaptured from the militants, Capt. Baraa Mohammad Jassem from the Rapid Response Division silently observes a surveillance drone about to take off.

He too says his elite Interior Ministry force has “perfected” drones available commercially so they can drop explosives on the enemy. “We took the ... idea from the Daesh terrorist organization.”

Daesh has carried out drone attacks throughout the Mosul operation, with the first record of a deadly attack coming a few days before the drive was launched in October, killing two Iraqi Kurdish fighters and wounding two French special forces soldiers.

Over the past months, the militant group has posted footage online filmed by the cameras of its own remote-controlled drones of explosive devices being dropped on armored vehicles and four-wheel-drive convoys.

Jassem says that the new technique has been useful to Iraqi forces, particularly when they retook important public buildings earlier this month.

“With a night drone, we found and carried out a strike on a group of eight jihadis, hitting them directly,” he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 17, 2017, on page 8.




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