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The Islamic State Conducted Hundreds of Drone Strikes in Less Than a Month

A database of 113 images collated by a military analyst proves the scale of the terror group’s drone effort.

Over a hundred images of Islamic State drone attacks during the first 20 days of February highlight the terror group's sustained commitment to using consumer unmanned aerial vehicles as part of its overall war strategy.

Nick Waters, a military analyst at open source investigation house Bellingcat, collated the images [Dropbox]—screenshots from Islamic State's own media channels propagating on-board video footage from bombing sorties. Waters told Motherboard that the database shows the scale of Islamic State's drone effort.


"We're only seeing the successful attacks: how many attacks missed, malfunctioned, [or] were shot down," he said. "This means there are many more drone missions we haven't seen."

Earlier in February, Motherboard reported on a hoard of drone-related documents belonging to Islamic State discovered in Iraq by a Harvard University researcher. Analysed by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, the cache of information highlight Islamic State's creativity and innovation in drone tactics.

"The documents are an intriguing look behind the scenes and they also offer new details," West Point analyst Don Rassler told Motherboard at the time.

Waters himself extensively analysed Islamic State's drone operations in a February investigation titled Death From Above: The Drone Bombs of the Caliphate, throwing light on the finer details of the types of munitions and weapons release systems used by IS. Waters' latest investigation, however, emphasizes the terror group's wide use of drone-deployed munitions through images alone.

"By far the greatest utility that drones offer is as an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance platform," Waters told Motherboard. "This kind of capability allows IS to use their forces much more efficiently, concentrating their forces in the right area at the right time and providing situational awareness to commanders on the ground during combat."

As a British ex-infantry platoon commander, Waters said he would have been salivating at the thought of having this kind of capability before, during, and after a combat action. "We used Desert Hawk a couple of times which was, to put it bluntly, a bit shit," he said.

"It shows that IS can strike with a small munition with surprising accuracy with near complete surprise into areas that are believed to be safe," Waters told Motherboard. "This kind of capability doesn't change anything strategically, but it does mean that soldiers on the ground have to pay attention to the sky as well as to the ground, which is busy enough already."

As 2017 rolls on and off-the-shelf consumer drone technology becomes cheaper and easier to get hold of, Islamic State's drone operations aren't likely to abate, but analysts like Waters are using the group's propaganda images to glean as much information as they can to understand the enemy. "The database also shows the kind of munitions that IS are using are nearly always modified in some way," he said.  "It demonstrates their ability to produce home-made arms and munitions at an industrial scale, and effectively alter munitions that they have captured."