The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In militants’ hands, drones emerge as a deadly new wild card in the Middle East

A destroyed vehicle remains in front of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi's residence following an assassination attempt by an armed drone in Baghdad, in a screenshot taken from obtained video.
A destroyed vehicle remains in front of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi's residence following an assassination attempt by an armed drone in Baghdad, in a screenshot taken from obtained video. (Prime Minister Media Office/Reuters)

The assassins’ weapon was a souped-up hobby drone, the kind that can be bought online for a few thousand dollars. It featured four helicopter-like rotors, an oversize battery and a small bomb, compact but powerful enough to blow up a car or, potentially, to kill a head of state.

Investigators who studied fragments of the device — one of two drones that targeted the official residence of the Iraqi prime minister on Nov. 7 — quickly pinned the attack on powerful Iraqi militia groups backed by Iran. The bomb itself, experts concluded, was of a design previously linked to Iran.

A third finding came as a surprise to some analysts: Tehran did not authorize the attack, Iraqi officials concluded, and in fact strongly opposed it. Instead, the attempt on the life of Iraqi leader Mustafa al-Kadhimi appears to have been the work of private militias that are now armed with drones and feeling emboldened to carry out strikes with potentially catastrophic consequences — sometimes without waiting for approval from their ostensible sponsors.

Last month’s attack has underscored what intelligence officials and analysts describe as a growing threat to stability in the Middle East and beyond: the proliferation of attack drones, particularly among paramilitary groups with close ties to Iran. Over the past two years — and most strikingly since early summer — Shiite militants have acquired new fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, capable of small-scale, but highly accurate, strikes on a wide array of military and civilian targets.

Western intelligence officials estimate that militants in Iraq and Syria alone have acquired “scores” of new drones, ranging from sophisticated Iranian-built models, capable of long-distance flights, to cheaper off-the-shelf UAVs operated by remote control and modified to carry small but powerful explosives. Current and former intelligence officials said Iran began directly supplying at least two types of UAVs to its militia allies in Iraq shortly after the Trump administration’s targeted killing of Major Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who died in a U.S. drone strike outside Baghdad’s airport in early 2020.

Before the assassination attempt: Militia violence, threats

The arming of Iraqi militias followed earlier decisions by Tehran to provide lethal drones to Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. The Quds Force, which supports and arms Iran’s network of foreign militias, also has supplied computerized operating systems for the aircraft, as well as training for militants on how to modify commercial UAVs for military use, according to the Western intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.

Yet, after equipping its militia allies with drones and know-how, Tehran appears to be losing its grip over how the aircraft are used, some officials and analysts say. Current and former U.S. and Iraqi officials said military discipline within Iran’s network of Shiite militias in Iraq has deteriorated since the death of Soleimani, who was revered by the groups and tightly controlled militant operations. The spread of drone technology has coincided with the militias’ plummeting popularity within Iraq, a change in fortune that spurred open feuding with Iraq’s government as well as a quiet chafing against restraints imposed by their Iranian backers, officials and experts say.

“Once these things are in the wild, it’s harder to control how they’re used,” said Michael Knights, a military analyst and editor of the Militia Spotlight blog, which tracks militant activity and propaganda in Iraq and Syria.

There are about 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and American service members and diplomats have been among the targets of militia drone strikes in recent months, raising fears about the possibility of a deadly attack that could trigger a military crisis with Iran — regardless of whether there is clear evidence linking the strike to Tehran.

The consequences of a deadly attack on Iraqi government officials could be equally grave. The attempt against Kadhimi, had it succeeded, could have plunged Iraq into chaos, igniting new clashes between the country’s ethnic and religious factions.

In either scenario, Iran could find itself facing blame for a crisis that it did not actively precipitate. By supplying UAVs to militants, Iran appears to have calculated that it could strengthen its leverage with groups that have traditionally served as proxy forces, able to carry out operations with Iran’s blessing while allowing Tehran to deny involvement. But as militia groups take on new weapons and greater risks, the stakes have risen considerably, current and former officials say.

“Some of the groups frankly don’t see themselves anymore as primarily Iranian proxies, but as independent actors who don’t need permission from anybody to do what they want,” said Matthew Levitt, a former counterterrorism analyst for the FBI and Treasury Department and now a researcher with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan think tank.

With armed drones added to the mix, Levitt said, there’s a “widespread concern that there will be an overreaction that will spill out of control.”

A near miss

According to Iraqi investigators, the Nov. 7 attack involved two drones that swooped down on Kadhimi’s official residence just after 2 a.m. One of the UAVs either crashed harmlessly or was shot down. The other successfully delivered a small explosive device that destroyed a car and inflicted extensive damage to the exterior of the building, located in Baghdad’s ultra-secure Green Zone.

At least six security guards sustained non-life-threatening injuries. Police quickly recovered the downed drone, with its distinctive four rotors. Still attached to the aircraft was a small black bomb that, according to one munitions expert, bore “strong indications” of Iranian design.

Kadhimi was unharmed, and it is unclear whether he was in the building at the time. Hours after the attempt, he appeared on Iraqi television to appeal for calm and denounce unnamed “criminal armed groups” responsible for the attempted assassination.

Within days, other Iraqi officials identified the likely culprits as operatives linked to three powerful and well-known Shiite militias: Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. All three have Iranian backing, although Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s relations with Tehran have come under strain. Among the groups’ leaders are several outspoken Kadhimi critics who have issued veiled threats against the prime minister through social media.

The three groups publicly denied any involvement in the attacks, and social media accounts linked to the militants sought to deflect blame by promoting alternative theories, without credible evidence. “No one in Iraq has the desire to waste a drone” on the house of a prime minister, a Kataib Hezbollah official wrote in a posting after the attack.

Iran quietly dispatched a key Revolutionary Guard envoy to Baghdad to reassure Iraqi officials while publicly condemning all who participated in the strike. Ali Shamkhani, the country’s top security official, denounced the attack as an act of “sedition” while also suggesting a possible culprit: The hit could be ultimately “traced back to foreign think tanks,” he said.

Iranian-backed militants furious over election losses

Iraqi officials, apparently fearing a backlash from the groups’ powerful supporters, have refrained from publicly naming suspects. At a news conference Nov. 28, Iraq’s national security adviser, Qassem al-Araji, described the drones as “locally made,” and appealed to the Iraqi public to supply information that could help solve the crime.

The attack was the most serious incident to date in a widening rift between Kadhimi’s government and Iraq’s network of Iran-backed militias. Established in 2014 as part of Iraq’s fight against the Islamic State, the groups quickly gained popularity in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq, where tens of thousands of young men enlisted for service. More recently, support for the groups dwindled amid accusations of corruption and self-dealing, and further collapsed after Iran-backed militants participated in the killings of hundreds of protesters during a series of demonstrations that swept Iraq.

The Nov. 7 attack occurred in the wake of Oct. 10 parliamentary elections that dealt a surprising setback to the militants and their political allies. Although the bloc supported by the militias won the most votes, its share of the country’s 329 parliamentary seats dropped by almost two-thirds.

The biggest beneficiary of the electoral shift, Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, denounced the assassination attempt as an act of terrorism. Sensing an opportunity, he launched a rhetorical offensive against the militia groups, vowing to fight all who sought to “return Iraq to a state of chaos to be controlled by non-state forces.”

Since January, militants have launched at least six drone attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. In April, a drone armed with explosives attacked a coalition headquarters building in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. On July 5, a “quadcopter” drone nearly identical to the ones used on Nov. 7 was shot down by U.S. forces near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Three weeks later, yet another quadcopter drone of the same kind was discovered on the rooftop of a building just across the Tigris River from the embassy.

U.S. troops under fire in Syria as militants lash out

In several cases, the bombs attached to the drones were identical to the one used in the attack on Kadhimi, according to Militia Spotlight, which said that the drones themselves featured upgraded power and communication systems that “suggest a talented engineering team.”

While the explosives are generally too small to inflict major damage, even a small commercial or “hobby” drone, if upgraded and armed, is capable of killing or wounding, said Douglas Barrie, an analyst with the Britain-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. The one used Nov. 7 was typical of UAVs used in crude but effective one-way “kamikaze” strikes, he said.

“The blast effect is modest, given the size of these things and the payload they can carry,” said Barrie, author of a primer on Iranian UAVs. “But if you’re looking to use them as a terror weapon or as an assassination tool, they’re still potentially effective.”

Loveluck reported from Baghdad.