Several non-state actors have incorporated drones into their operations. While rebel groups from South America to the Middle East have used commercially available rotary-winged drones to surveil enemy positions, more tech-savvy groups such as ISIS have armed these over-the-counter drones and used them in combat.
ISIS, the militant group headquartered in Syria and Iraq, announced in January 2017 the establishment of a formal drone unit—"Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen"—that organizes unmanned aircraft campaigns on the battlefield.
Like other groups, ISIS traffics in commercial drone technology, attaching munitions to over-the-counter quadcopters and small fixed-wing drones. Unlike groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, ISIS does not yet have access to military-grade unmanned aircraft.
However, their drone campaigns are highly organized and have resulted in casualties. In October 2016, Kurdish forces shot down and confiscated an ISIS quadcopter, artificially armed with explosives. It later detonated, killing two Kurdish fighters, in the first known incident of the militant group killing troops on the battlefield with their unmanned systems.
The deadly attack followed two years of ISIS using drones only for surveillance. U.S. officials confirmed to the Washington Post that the group crossed a threshold in terms of drone capability with the strike.
Houthi Rebels, the Iran-backed rebel group in Yemen, unveiled a new drone capability on January 30, 2017, when it struck a Saudi warship in the Red Sea with an armed unmanned maritime craft. This maritime drone strike killed two Saudi Navy sailors and injured three others. Like the armed commercial drones popular among militant groups, this drone requires remote operation.
Evidence shows that the rebel group is acquiring drones from Iran. On January 28, 2017, the UAE Air Force assisted Arab Coalition Forces in destroying an Iranian military drone prior to launch from Houthi-controlled territory. Also, two military-grade UAVs were on display at an event attended by senior rebel officials on February 26, 2017: the Qasif 1 which resembles Iran’s Ababil 2 and the Raqeep, which according to IHS Jane’s, “may have been an AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven that crashed in Yemen and was reassembled for the event.”
Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group, was the first non-state actor known to deploy military drones, launching a Mirsad 1 military-grade surveillance drone into Israeli airspace in November 2004. According to an American Federation of Science (FAS) report Hezbollah flew the drone “south from Lebanon into Israel, hovered over the Western Galilee town of Nahariya for about 20 minutes and then returned to Lebanon before the Israeli air force could intercept it.”
Despite the evidence that Hezbollah has long had functioning military drones, the group has used them sparingly. In 2006, the militant group launched armed Ababil drones into Israeli airspace that were subsequently shot down. The group has recently demonstrated a preference for commercial drones. In August 2016, the group used small quadcopters armed with munitions to launch an attack on rebel positions in Aleppo, Syria.
Hamas, the Palestinian group which rules the Gaza strip, has military-grade, Iranian-made Ababil drones. Hamas claims to have manufactured three types of drones themselves: surveillance, armed, and one to serve as a guided missile.
In September 2016, the Israeli Defense Forces shot down a Hamas drone that had breached Israeli airspace. And in December of the same year, Hamas’ Qassam Brigades, the militant wing of the organization, acknowledged the death of Mohammed Zawari, the apparent supervisor of their drone program, shedding light on the group’s little-known drone operations.
Hamas has posted video and images of a drone in its possession that has four small rockets or missiles under its wings.