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Surveillance Drones being Turned into Weapons by Extremists | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Fighters inspect what they say is a Russian made military surveillance drone they claimed to have shot down in Sheikh Meskeen near Daraa, Syria, Dec. 15, 2015. (Alaa Al-Faqir/Reuters)

London-Militant groups like Hezbollah and ISIS have learned how to weaponize surveillance drones and use them against each other, adding a new twist to Syria’s civil war, a U.S. military official and others say.

A video belonging to an al-Qaeda offshoot, Jund al-Aqsa, purportedly shows a drone landing on Syrian military barracks. In another video, small explosives purportedly dropped by the Iran-backed so-called Hezbollah target the militant group Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra Front, the Associated Press reported.

A U.S. military official, who spoke anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said the U.S. military is aware of the development. Commanders have warned troops to take cover if they see what they might have once dismissed as a surveillance drone, he said.

The head of the Airwars project, which tracks the international air war in Iraq, Syria and Libya, said the weaponized drones are clumsy but will scare people.

“There are a million ways you can weaponize drones — fire rockets, strap things in and crash them,” Chris Woods said. He added: “This is the stuff everyone has been terrified about for years, and now it’s a reality.”

The U.S. military official couldn’t immediately authenticate the videos in question, adding that most of the incidents they are aware of involved weaponized drones that simply crash into their targets. But another former senior U.S. military official who viewed the videos said there was nothing to suggest they were fake.

A number of militant groups in the Middle East, including ISIS, Jund al-Aqsa and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, as well as Hezbollah and Hamas, have all released videos indicating that they have surveillance and reconnaissance drones. Syrian anti-regime rebels and militias loyal to Bashar al-Assad were also flying cheap quad- and hexacopters as early as 2014 to spy on each other.

The surveillance drones allowed those groups to collect data on enemy bases, battlefield positioning and weaponry and improve targeting.

ISIS launched a sophisticated propaganda video in 2014, “The Clanging of the Swords, Part 4,” boasting about its capture of the Iraqi city of Fallujah. The video opens with drone footage over the western Iraqi city before cutting to violent ground footage depicting its advance across Iraq.

Lebanon-based Hezbollah has claimed to have armed-drone capabilities for nearly two years, but a recent video of bomblets hitting a militant camp near the Syrian town of Hama is the first known documentation.

The majority of these groups have access only to store-bought drones, similar to those available in the U.S., ranging in price from $1,000 to $3,000 and weighing between 5 to 10 pounds — certainly not enough to support a large bomb or rocket. Hezbollah is an exception, receiving most of its munitions — including its drones — from Iran.