According to papers captured in Iraq, the Islamic State group has an extensive and bureaucratic framework for using small, commercially available unmanned aerial systems, or UAS.
In a report published by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, information gleaned from internal ISIS documents indicates how ISIS "has sought to cobble together, develop, and enhance its drone capabilities as well as manage its drone program."
According to the report, the 21 documents captured by a researcher in Iraq can be broken down into four categories, which include drone use reports, equipment lists/purchase requests, receipts or purchase forms and permission documents. The Combating Terrorism Center cautioned that this small document set likely only represents a fraction of internal material on UAS employment.
Analysis from the documents indicates that ISIS is very bureaucratic. Some of the documents were "standardized" UAS use reports that were filled out by operators post-operation and contained four sections. The first asked operators to fill out what type of mission they conducted — surveillance or weaponized, for example — group members involved, location of the mission and waypoint coordinates.
The second page was a checklist allowing operators to conduct pre- and post-mission confirmation of functionality of systems and equipment. Page three is also a checklist of tools and devices, and the fourth page asked operators to indicate if their mission was a success or failure.
ISIS also appears to have an "institutionalized" UAS program involving weaponized devices as early as 2015, the report suggested. In a separate October report, CTC indicated that ISIS was one of a handful of terrorist organizations with a "bona fide" drone program.
While ISIS’s drones are not that sophisticated — consisting mostly of commercial off the shelf devices — the group has proved adept and creative at do-it-yourself modifications to these systems. For example, the report notes that ISIS tried to protect drone feeds by acquiring encrypting video transmitters and receivers.
Without providing much of a crystal ball, CTC predicts from the documents that "In the short-term, we should expect the Islamic State to refine its drone bomb-drop capability. It is likely that the Islamic State’s use of this tactic will not only become more frequent, but more lethal as well."
These commercially available systems have been a worry for many military planners and operators, who warn that they could pose a risk to personnel. This has caused increased investments in countermeasures as well as a similar DIY approach to modifying current systems — such as counter mortar systems — to fight enemy UAS.
The democratization and widespread availability of technology is leveling the UAS playing field, leading some organizations to assess urban fighting environments will be more difficult in the future. These technologies can "disrupt military intelligence operations and jeopardize the plans, actions, and security of the war fighter. In turn, the intelligence officer, the war fighter, and others who often live and work on the margins and in the gaps of society can use many of these same technologies to skirt government control, as well as to enhance the effectiveness of their operations," said a reportfrom the Rand Corporation.
ISIS has been described as an adaptive and resourceful enemy using these commercially available technologies to great effect, leading the head of the NSA, Adm. Michael Rogers, to call the group"the most adaptive target I’ve ever worked in 35 years as an intelligence professional."