The Islamic State hasn’t been completely defeated. Thought it has nothing approaching the burgeoning Caliphate it held in 2015, Islamic State fighters and affiliates are still a deadly presence in Iraq, Syria, Africa, and Afghanistan. As its lost ground, the Islamic State has turned to more non-traditional methods of attack—including using drones to drop bombs on its enemies.
The drones are typically off-the-shelf quadcopters purchased in other countries then shipped to the Islamic State frontlines and modified in factories before being deployed for use on the battlefield. It’s a tactic that those fighting Islamic State have struggled to fight against. “There was a day [in early 2017] when the Iraqi effort nearly came to a screeching halt, where literally over 24 hours there were 70 drones in the air,” Gen. Raymond Thomas—the head of US Special Operations Command—said during a conference in 2017. “At one point there were 12 ‘killer bees …overhead...and our only available response was small arms fire.”
A new report from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center explained how Islamic State build its drone fleet on the cheap and also the fascinating story of its complicated supply chain. “The program appears to have been shaped by two Bangladeshi brothers who leveraged companies in the United Kingdom, Bangladesh, and Spain,” the report said. The brothers created a number of shell companies to order the drones and ship them to Islamic State’s various affiliates across the world.
At the peak of the drone attacks in the spring of 2017, coalition forces were working to pry Mosul out of the hands of the Islamic State in northern Iraq. At the time, the Islamic State was conducting between 60 and 100 drone powered bombing runs a month. A member of the Syrian Defense Forces told a journalist for France 24 in Raqqa that his supply lines were being attacked 15 to 16 times daily.