Since the introduction of drone technology to the battlefield, countless academics, policymakers, and military planners have pondered a disturbing question: what happens when other countries or non-state actors have access to them? In Syria, we may be starting to see the effects that the dissemination of drone technology will mean for the future of war.
In late August, ISIS released a 14-minute video of the preparation, planning, and execution of an assault on a Syrian military base in the northern part of the country. The video, entitled in English, "Disperse Those Who are Behind Them," is like many jihadist propaganda videos: it begins with a long segment of Quranic verses that are meant to justify the attack, shows militants examining a map of the region, and contains gruesome battle scenes, including two beheadings. However, the video is of special note for one reason: ISIS employs a drone for aerial surveillance of the base.
Below are two images of the group using what appears to be large print-outs of Google maps to plan the assault:
Below are three images of ISIS drone aerial surveillance, with the first conspicuously labelled, "From the lens of an Islamic State drone."
ISIS would end up attacking the base on August 7th, capturing large segments of it after launching three suicide attacks on its gates, and securing control over much of the region around Raqqa. It appears ISIS is particularly proud of the video. Recently, the group released versions in five languages: English, French, Russian, Indonesian, and Bengali.
This comes as Jabhat Al Nusra struck back yesterday, showcasing their own surveillance drones in a video entitled "Breaking the Siege." The video details the role of Al Nusra in releasing 500 rebels that were besieged in the town of Maliha.
Below are four screenshots from the video.
It is certainly a powerful turn of events, wherein jihadist cells in Syria are using readily available and relatively cheap technology that once was strictly the purview of states to level the playing field, conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations, and ultimately seize ground and achieve battlefield objectives. However, the desire to spend precious propaganda time displaying this capability may also suggest something about the place of drone technology in the jihadist mindset and betray a desire to claim for themselves a weapon of war that has stalked them for a decade.
It seems clear that militant groups are eager to celebrate their technological prowess both as a weapon of actual war and as a way to establish legitimacy in a propaganda war that has taken on increased importance. The appearance of drones in multiple jihadist propaganda videos would seem to suggest that drones have taken on their own cultural meaning, both here in the United States and abroad, in the wars against terrorism, and that meaning is something that terrorists now intend to trade in too.
Doth the drone wars commeth?
You can find the videos at the links below. Both are extremely violent and graphic forms of propaganda, so I have not included them in the body of the text.