Conflict groups arm consumer drones for terror attacks
Image credit: E&T, Nick Waters, Dreamstime
A Chinese commercial drone manufacturer allows its products to keep reaching rebel groups in the world’s trouble spots. Those groups use them to attack, stir fear and spread propaganda. An E&T open data analysis shows why the practice continues.
Hobbyists are having a lot fun modifying drones and they post their tutorials online. Hundreds of them show how to retrofit consumer drones with remote-controlled drop mechanisms to release devices in mid-air.
But the hobbyists aren’t alone. Inspired by the same logic, rebel groups in battle zones such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and now Afghanistan, retrofit drones to drop explosives on human targets, spreading fear and feeding a growing propaganda machine
Terrorist groups have tinkered with commercial drones since the day they could support the weight of hand grenades. Daijing Innovations (DJI) is the world leader in civilian drones and supplies nearly two-thirds of the global consumer and enterprise drone market. Its Matrice series comes with enough power to support more than 1.2 kg additional payload capacity (the Matrice200 supports 2kg), which is enough to carry multiple 40mm grenades. DJI’s Smarter Farming Kit, is sold to developers to plug in accessories like release servos, popular in retrofitting. The same model found in use by rebels is now used also by Iraqi Federal Police, E&T finds.
DJI seems powerless to prevent its products ending up in the wrong hands. Last December, the US placed the company on its Department of Commerce’s Entity List, a blacklist of firms the government sees as posing a threat to national interests, though not for its conflict drones but for human rights abuses.
Clever engineering of release mechanisms on DJI drones allowed rebels to mount and drop explosives on targets.
Nick Waters, open-source intelligence expert and ex-infantry officer in the British Army, explains that IS rebels used two main versions for explosives: bomblets with a point detonation fuse of their own manufacture and a modified 40mm bomb.
With the point detonating version, the pin is pulled on the ground, when arming the grenade and before the drone goes up. They then detonate on impact after being dropped by the drone. The engineering with the 40mm grenade bomblets is slightly different, he says. 40mm grenades are usually armed by the spin imparted by the barrel of a grenade launcher or by inertia of launch, or by both. When repurposed for the drone use, IS modified these grenades to remove those arming mechanisms and instead they are armed by the removal of a pin. The grenade would then detonate on impact.
Unmanned air vehicles such as DJI’s drones do have important limitations. First, their range is low. The best models spotted so far can fly for little more than half an hour – and range is reduced by heavier payloads. Another issue is precision. In videos publicised by ISIL (Islamic State), drones never miss targets – but these are often staged, say researchers. In such propaganda, they always hit the bullseye because failed attempts are edited out. Holes and other impacts of previous explosions right next to the targets reveal in these videos where the drone dropped grenades that missed.
Videos also provide evidence on how factors like wind interfere with the flightpaths of dropped grenades. That’s why the 40mm warheads encountered in IS videos are often embellished with feathers from badminton shuttlecocks or white plastic tails made by CNC milling machines to stabilise them and improve precision. However, this can make grenades more susceptible to wind.
“It’s possible to score a direct hit with such a drone bomb drop,” says Faine Greenwood, who leads research into the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in humanitarian aid work at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Signal Program and is a member of the Stanford University UAV (drone) Club. The problem, she says, is “it's just a giant pain compared to all the other options at their disposal, including snipers, car bombs and lots of other ways to do harm”.
Luckily, it’s hard to get it right. An attack on Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro in 2018, when violent non-state actors loaded DJI M-600 drones with C-4 explosives, failed on the grounds that the drones never got close enough to harm their target or crashed on their way there.
However, consumer drone warfare offers great propaganda value for the rebels. “Drones are still in the public imagination something that is quite advanced,” says Emil Archambault, a researcher in the evolution of conceptions of contemporary warfare at the University of Durham. “Just talk to anyone about drones, their mind will immediately shift to the [larger] kind of Americans Reaper drones. For a smaller military power to be able to boast with ‘drones’, it sounds impressive.”
Successful attacks can be devastating. When ISIS dropped two IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on a sizeable Syrian army ammunition depot at Deir ez-Zor stadium, the blast destroyed it (see satellite image). Pilot training and trial and error contribute to how effective rebels’ bomb-drop campaigns are. At the height of Islamic State’s drone campaign, notably at the Battle for west Mosul in 2017, the frequency and accuracy of the consumer drones were effective enough to slow down government forces’ advance, intelligence reports found.
For IS, weaponising drones became powerful propaganda: a way to reinforce their sovereignty claims over territory. “If you fly over something, it means that you control it to a certain extent,” Archambault says. This motivated ISIS to throw more and more money at drones – at least $1.1m for the period between mid-2017 and December 2018, two months before the final ISIS battle in Baghouz.
A leaked shopping list included mostly DJI products. Often parts were ordered via websites from the US, Germany or Turkey, with the names of hobbyking.com, dronemaker.de, aliexpress.com and droneparts.de, according to Jenan Moussa, who analysed some of the leaked data for Al Aan TV. E&T contacted two of these websites for comment but only HobbyKing replied, saying it had no knowledge of it.
Rebels don’t usually obtain off-the-shelf drones from Europe, says Yannick Veilleux-Lepage, assistant professor at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. It’s mainly from China. When forces occupied one IS building, they found a larger number of drone components. One reporter took images. E&T reviewed them and found rotor blades matching those by DJI. Experts at the scene say the drone warfare factory gave the impression of a “low level of professionalism”, as an eyewitness put it.
The success of IS and its consumer drone warfare has inspired imitation in other conflict zones.
The risk is that it could add fuel to the fire in a new chapter in the Afghanistan conflict. The Taliban, a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political group, may see "rapid territorial gains" if the US proceeds with a cold-turkey withdrawal plan that sees it pulling all forces out of the country by May, one US official has pointed out.
E&T analysed video material posted in January on social media. It shows a DJI Phantom drone surrounded by Taliban soldiers, preparing it with 40mm grenades. The drone is an off-the-shelf model from DJI. E&T’s analysis of the video’s background of snow-covered hilltops and the local language spoken, suggested clues to where the men are (see graphic and video below).
The DJI drone, in all likelihood, was smuggled into the country via Pakistan, one local expert source tells us.
In 2016, DJI said it complies with strict sale and import laws on UAV technology in the Middle East and does not sell drones directly in Iraq or Syria. In 2017, the Financial Times wrote that Chinese drone makers says they are powerless to prevent their wares from being hijacked. DJI said in a statement that it laments the use of its drones in conflict zones as deplorable and an abuse of the technology. E&T contacted Shenzhen-based DJI for comment but did not receive a reply.
The Taliban’s consumer drone warfare threat is expected to grow. The groups used the same drones in the northern city of Kunduz to kill guards of the Governor. It’s widely remembered as the first known instance of a successful drone attack by the Afghan militant group and the most deadly one to date.
In the northwest province of Badghis, two senior officers from the Afghan National Army were killed, and in another instance, five children and their pregnant mother became victim of explosives dropped by a drone. “These drones are becoming a potent [threat] on the battlefield field for ANDSF commanders”, one local source confirms.
Similarities between Taliban and IS drone attacks are stark. One is that mortar shells are used that explode on impact by default. In early 2020, the Afghan National Security Forces officers in Khost said a drone operated by the Taliban showered security with small ‘bombs-like missiles’. Captured cartridges matched the type CTG 40mm HEDP M433 and were ‘locally prepared’.
In January photo footage surfaced on social media together with a video of a weaponised DJI Matrice 210 drone. Sources claimed it was seized by the Taliban.
In the case of Houthi rebels, an Islamist armed group in Yemen that is also responsible for naval mine attacks, which E&T has reported on in the past, the majority of drone and parts intercepted at the border between Israel and Egypt are from China. “That’s where the main conduit lies. [Drones] will be purchased through Chinese companies because it’s cheap, shipped to Egypt and then smuggled across to Israel”, Veilleux-Lepage says.
Like other commercial drone-makers, DJI approaches misuse by building software that tries to limit use in ‘sensitive national-security locations’. In 2017, DJI quietly added much of Iraq and Syria to a list of geofenced no-fly zones (NFZs), code in the drones to prevent DJI pilots from navigating to sensitive areas. It may have caused issues among conflict groups but use continued. Critics say it’s simple to circumvent software barriers set by DJI. E&T has found a plethora of DJI geofencing hacking guides online, tutorials (in video and writing) that prescribe how to override limits.
DJI implemented an ‘opt-out feature’ for its geo-fencing restrictions in 2016. Despite its geofencing campaign later, online commentators say it’s common knowledge that DJI drones are easily hackable. Today, DJI insists that the GEO limit unlock function is not available for sensitive national-security locations. But drone videos bring indisputable proof that DJI’s efforts are still failing to curb misuse.
DJI’s customer base has voiced strong opposition to increased geo controls. One drone pilot wrote on DJI’s own forum in 2017 that he is “getting fed up with all these restrictions” the company imposes on customers. Another complaint in 2020 demanded “manual override [of geofencing] should be simple for professional use”. Critics also said that the new no-fly zones implemented after news stories circulated widely on ISIS drone bomb drops using DJI models in 2017 were random and inaccurate. so they covered cities far away from war zones and ISIS, but left gaps elsewhere.
There were other problems. In a Facebook post on DJI Australia, staff uploaded images taken by a drone overlooking Sydney Harbour, which is a no-fly zone, according to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (see airmap). DJI forum users questioned it and asked whether it “encourages drone operators to do the wrong thing”.
Along with 77 other firms the company was last year placed on the US Entity List on the grounds of suspicion of aiding human rights violations in China.
Using guns to shoot down armed DJI drones won’t work, says Quentin Sommerville, who shared his witness account of the counter-measures on Twitter after visiting Iraq. “Drones are fast, small, and hard to hit,” he comments. “The drone kept flying, and even landed safely. This was the only damage done to it [see image], despite all the hot lead flying up in the air, and coming down again.”
In Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army (ANA) could deploy signal jamming devices to interfere with Taliban drone signals above their bases. Commercial drones like DJI’s run on 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz frequency. RF jammers could interfere with drones while avoiding interference with other manned aircraft, mobile phones, public broadcasts, or other dedicated radio bands – these frequencies are non-assigned public frequencies, the source tells E&T.
Like DJI drones, Chinese jammers are also sent across the world, with rebel defence forces able to access them. E&T found Chinese drone-jamming firms willing to export devices all over the world by disassembling them, even to locations where they are banned for individual use.
Drone makers could improve oversight for non-pilots on where drones fly. In 2019, DJI shared plans for tracking technology that makes it possible to spot DJI drone registrations in-flight using an app.
Open sharing of analysis on DIY drones may also help to advance the fight against armed drones. DIY drones captured in Syria in 2018 allowed decoding of data that allegedly led investigators to their launch site, a Facebook post by the Russian Defence Ministry claims. Other forces could use such insight for their own technical solutions to combat drones.
But the development of countermeasures for the battlefield remains slow. It’s because they are pricey and aren’t that easy to deploy for the end-customer, one expert tells E&T. It’s because such drones are difficult to detect. “The projectile that is supposed to be fired at the drone is much pricier than the drone itself,” he says.
For a credible point defence system, developments in lasers (not necessarily high-powered ones) and high-power microwave (HPM), seem promising, the source says. For lasers specifically, the hope is that via tracking of a target drone the laser can then emit hot light to melt inexpensive plastic parts and bring it down.
The Drone Dome C-UAS system developed by Rafael, an Israeli defence technology company, transmits a laser beam to destroy the drone. For such a technology to make it to market may require another few years, the source says. For HPM solutions, it may take another 3 to 4 years. At the moment, radar-linked guns mounted on vehicles like the KORKUT, developed by Aselsan, a Turkish defence firm based in Ankara, seem to be the only credible alternative, the source says.
It may not be possible to ensure a 100 per cent hostile-drone-free airspace because it just isn’t feasible to have countermeasures everywhere, a warfare expert tells E&T. “Airpower has been democratised and I think it is irreversible and it is impractical to expect a counter-system that always works.”
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