Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, have become a critical element of asymmetric warfare in the Middle East. In recent years, militant groups have increasingly resorted to their use for tactical and wider strategic purposes, impacting stability and profoundly reshaping conflict dynamics between states and armed non-state actors across the region. Yet, as drones become more common, more readily available, and more sophisticated – offering improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and autonomous flight capabilities along with ever-expanding range, endurance, and payload capacity – the most promising (and concerning) developments are yet to emerge.
As recent studies have underlined, drone warfare in the region is bound to take on a more threatening form. In particular, the diffusion of inexpensive and readily available drone technologies, coupled with rapid advances in AI and autonomy, could in the coming years dramatically boost the capacity of militant groups to conduct coordinated and deadly attacks against a wide range of targets on and off the battlefield.
This Strategic Insight explores the security implications of the growing use of UAS by militant groups in the Middle East, focusing on current vulnerabilities and future threats. In particular, it looks at the various ways in which militant groups across the region have incorporated drones into their operating models, as well as the risks associated with the adoption and deployment of emerging and rapidly developing technologies.
Drone usage by militant groups in the Middle East has become widespread, diverse, and more sophisticated. Tactically, drones have been used for surveillance and reconnaissance tasks and as a platform to attack enemies or targets. Militant groups have also acquired and operated drones for broader organizational goals of propaganda and publicity.
Among militant groups in the Middle East, Hezbollah has the longest history in operating drones. Its first successful deployments are believed to have taken place in 2004 and 2005 when the organization employed Iranian-made, military-grade Mirsad-1 drones to conduct essential Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions in northern parts of Israel. During these deployments, the Mirsad-1 managed to elude Israeli air defense systems and safely returned to Lebanon before the Israeli air force could intercept it. Similarly, in 2012, the group flew an Iranian-made Ayoub drone over the Dimona nuclear complex. Although an Israeli aircraft shot down the drone, it is believed that imagery of the Israeli facilities had been captured and successfully transmitted.
Militant groups across the region have also used smaller off-the-shelf drones for various surveillance and reconnaissance tasks. For instance, Daesh (ISIS) militants, made extensive uses of mini-drones (spotter drones) equipped with smart cameras to plan assaults and gather information on their opponents’ movements and facilities as they subjugated much of Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq in 2014 and 2015. Various militant groups in Syria and Iraq have also used drones to locate targets for indirect fire attacks or conduct suicide attacks with great accuracy.
Drones as attack platforms
Militant groups’ interest in drones as attack platforms has also been varied. Direct attacks by groups operating in Syria and Iraq have initially taken the form of dropping explosives from small, commercially available drones. In 2016, for instance, several reports suggested that ISIS were using modified quadcopters to drop grenades, mortars and small bombs on Iraqi troops. Although lacking accuracy, these attacks are generally believed to generate considerable psychological and disruptive effects on opponents. Hezbollah is also reported to have employed small drones to drop cluster bombs on Syrian fighters.
Similarly, the use of drones as a delivery system for improvised explosives devices (IEDs) has been widely covered in the media, especially after an ISIS-operated drone carrying explosives killed two Kurdish fighters and wounded two French special forces soldiers in northern Iraq in 2016. Highlighting the rapid spread and adoption of available technology, this tactical innovation was quickly adopted by Kurdish fighters who, on various occasions since 2017, have organized attacks against the Turkish armed forces with IED-loaded drones seized from ISIS. Overall, the methods used for weaponizing such consumer drones have been shown to be effective and simple, requiring only minimal modifications.
Concerns also emerged over the increased use of “kamikaze drones” built to explode on impact as a cost-effective method to destroy or damage an opponent’s critical targets. In January 2018, Russia accused an unidentified Syrian rebel group of conducting a swarming drone attack on two of its military facilities in Syria, in which 10 low-tech drones were reportedly launched at the Hmeimim airbase while another three targeted the Tartus Naval base. The previous year, the Houthis in Yemen reportedly employed Iranian-built Qasef-1 military-grade drones to inflict important damage on the Saudi-led Coalition’s Patriot surface-to-air missile systems using open-source GPS coordinates of the Patriot’s positions.
Similarly, on numerous occasions, the Houthis have used Qasef and Samad drones to launch attacks against targets inside Saudi Arabia, including the commercial airport at Abha and Aramco oil-pumping stations in the vicinity of Al-Duadmi and Afif. They were also employed, alongside cruise missiles, to severely damage two major oil-processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in Eastern Saudi Arabia in September 2019. A few months earlier, Houthi forces successfully employed a drone in assassination capacity, employing a variant of the Iranian-made Qasef drones (Qasef 2k) packed with explosives to target high-ranking Yemeni military officers during a parade at Al-Anad military base, reportedly killing six in the attack, including the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Yemeni Army. Finally, increased attention has been given to the rapid spread of armed drones (equipped with missiles). Thus far, only Hezbollah is reported to have successfully carried out a drone strike – against Jabhat Al-Nusra in September 2014, which killed dozens of fighters.
Drones have proved to be an efficient tool for psychological warfare and for broader strategic and political purposes. Drones, in particular, have become an integral part of ISIS’s propaganda machine. On several occasions, video imagery of suicide bombing and ground operations – particularly the use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) – in Iraq and Syria captured by the group were then uploaded onto social media platforms or open-source networks in efforts to enhance its reputation, attract new recruits or boost its militants’ morale.
More generally, militant groups across the region have used propaganda material from drone footage to expose opponents’ weaknesses and brag about their achievements. Similarly, Hezbollah has extensively publicized its frequent drone deployments over Israeli territories since 2004, thereby becoming a key propaganda tool alongside its broader drone warfare capabilities. Drone operations conducted by Hezbollah (in 2012) and Hamas (in 2014) also served to send warning messages and highlight these groups’ capacity to attack a wide range of targets within Israeli territory.
Militant groups operating across the Middle East have shown both the capability and intent to adopt technology to increase the overall impact or lethality of their attacks. In recent years, drones have become smaller, faster, and more maneuverable. They can also fly longer and carry greater payloads. In particular, drone innovation has been fueled by breakthroughs in phone technology, with smartphone components – such as gyroscopes, accelerometers, GPS, processors, and cameras – being gradually integrated into the onboard technology of popular and widely available commercial drones. These technological advances have further enabled militant groups to conduct successful attacks.
Yet, as pointed out by military and security experts, the most significant (and potentially threatening) advancements in drone technology are in the area of autonomy. Essentially, drones in use today to attack enemies or targets require remote operation by human operators located within the range of the device’s command and control signals. With the emergence of artificial intelligence and machine learning, drones will likely soon require less human guidance and operate as autonomous weapons, making it possible for a few individuals to “unleash multiple machines that carry out a pre-programmed mission on their own.” Although no armed, fully autonomous drones are operational - even within the most advanced militaries -, the rapid pace of development suggests that these systems will soon become (increasingly) available for private users.
According to AI expert Paul Scharre, three maturing capabilities, in particular, are seen as being essential to the development of autonomous systems: the capability to maneuver intelligently through the environment to search; the capability to discriminate among potential targets to identify the correct ones; and the capability to engage targets, presumably through conventional forces. The last element has already been demonstrated: groups and individuals have, on repeated occasions, armed drones on their own. The first element – the ability to autonomously navigate and search an area – is already available for outdoor navigation and, according to experts, will soon be possible for fully autonomous indoor flight. The puzzle’s remaining piece is target identification, although deep learning techniques’ fast maturation suggests that this technology is within reach. A range of programs for training neural networks to perform facial recognition tasks is already available online on open-source software databases.
With autonomy comes mounting concerns over ‘swarms’ – the use of multiple, autonomous drones acting together to overwhelm a target. Pre-programed drone swarms have already been employed by militant groups in the Middle East, as demonstrated by the drone attacks on Russian bases in Syria mentioned above. Enabling autonomous collaborative behaviors represents the next step in this evolution, as it would not only allow groups to field large numbers of assets with a few human controllers, but also enable quicker reaction times, making it possible for the swarm to respond – with human-like decision-making ability – to changing events faster than it would be possible with one person controlling each platform. As armed forces worldwide are striving to develop AI-powered drone swarms to meet higher mission requirements, militant groups’ use of swarm technology will likely make drones soon a much more significant threat.
Drones have become a critical element of asymmetric warfare in the Middle East, with players from all sides now developing their use. While some militant groups, including Hezbollah and the Houthis, have mainly benefited from Iran’s support to build their drone capacity, other organizations have creatively leveraged commercially available technology to support a broad range of tactical and wider strategic purposes, from ISR and attack missions to propaganda and publicity. In both cases, rapid advances in drone technology have opened new ranges of security concerns and geopolitical uncertainty, forcing a reassessment of defensive measures and counter-drone technologies deployed by states across the region, including future risks associated with militant groups using AI-powered drone swarms to conduct coordinated and deadly attacks on and off the battlefield.
With drones becoming more advanced and sophisticated, regional governments should make immediate efforts to develop further preventative measures and effective tools to mitigate their nefarious use. Such measures and tools are an essential first step pending more advanced technologies, such as directed energy weapons, that should mature into safe, effective, and reliable drone-defeat systems in the years to come.
 See, Ash Rossiter, “Drone Usage by Militant Groups: Exploring variation in Adoption,” Défense and Security Analysis, Vol. 34, Issue 2, 2018, p. 6.
 Ibid, p.4; Tom O’Connor, ‘ISIS Has No Air Force, but It Has an Army of Drones that Drop Explosives,’
Newsweek, April 17, 2017,
 Ulrike Franke, “Flying IEDS: The Next Big Threat?” War on The Rocks, October 13, 2016.
 “Islamic State’s Multi-Role IEDs,” Conflict Armament Research, April 2017; Ahmed Aboulenein, “ISIS develops new IED that can be thrown, rifle-launched or dropped from drones,” Reuters, April 26, 2017.
 “The Rising Threat from Armed Drones,” The Soufan Center, January 12, 2018.
 Adam Rawnsley, “So, Bad News: Now Militants Are Using Drones as Projectiles,” Wired, July 2017.
 Wolfgang Rudischhauser, “Autonomous or Semi-Autonomous Weapons Systems: A Potential New Threat of terrorism?” Security Policy Working Paper, Federal Academy for Security Policy, no.23, 2017, p.3.
 When Robots Attack: Examining Artificial Intelligence, Autonomy, and Unmanned Threats, OSAC, OSAC Annual Briefing, 2018, p.16.
 Ibid, p.15.
 Paul Scharre, Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War, W.W. Norton and Company, 2018, p.123.
 Ibid, p.124.