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Iran-backed militias using explosive drones to attack US targets in Iraq, officials say

Impact crater at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, following a rocket attack on March 3, 2021. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Christie R. Smith)
June 07, 2021

Iran-backed militias in Iraq have used explosive-carrying drones at least three times in the last two months to crash into sensitive U.S. targets in the country, according to U.S. officials who spoke with the New York Times on Friday.

The drone-bomb attacks have managed to evade U.S. defense systems to carry out attacks late at night and have targeted Iraqi military bases, including those used by the CIA and U.S. special operations units. Iran-backed militias have been suspected of numerous drone and rocket attacks that have targeted U.S. personnel in the country in recent months.

One drone attack took place shortly before midnight on April 14, when a drone targeted a CIA-operated hangar inside an airport complex in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. That attack caused no injuries.

In the early morning hours of May 8, another drone targeted the Ayn al-Asad airbase, from which the U.S. operates MQ-9 Reaper drones. That attack caused no injuries but did damage an aircraft hangar.

Three days later, a third attack came just after midnight against an airfield in Harir, north of Erbil, used by the Joint Special Operations Command. Like the other attacks, that drone crashed without causing injuries or damage.

Three U.S. officials told the New York Times that after each attack, remnants of the drones used have been recovered and preliminary analysis shows the drones were manufactured in Iran or used Iranian technology.

The drones are believed to be larger than the typical commercially available quadcopter style drones, but smaller than drones like the U.S. MQ-9 Reapers, which have a 66-foot wingspan. The drones are estimated to be able to carry between 10 and 60 pounds of explosives.

All three attacks have raised concerns about a change in the tactics Iran’s proxies are using to target U.S. personnel.

While claims of responsibility have typically followed past attacks, the more sophisticated recent drone strikes have not come with a claim of responsibility.

“There is increasing evidence that Iran is trying to have or has created some special groups, new ones that are able to conduct very sophisticated attacks against the U.S. interests,” Hamdi Malik, an expert on Shiite militias with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the New York Times.

Iraqi officials and U.S. analysts also told the New York Times that militia groups are attacking under new names, rather than the well-known Iran-linked militias like the Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq networks. Those Iraqi officials said Iran has used these new group affiliations to help camouflage their involvement in strikes targeting U.S. personnel, which have resulted in deaths and injuries to Iraqi personnel.

The attacks also appear to be coming primarily from Iraq’s militia-dominated south. Under the current U.S. mission in Iraq, U.S. forces are focused on striking remaining pockets of ISIS terrorists in the northern parts of the country, and the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq must obtain permission before launching any surveillance drones. While the U.S. is permitted by Iraq to help target ISIS in the north, they are generally barred from operating in the southern parts of the country, where the Iranian-backed militias are common.

Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and a former U.S. intelligence officer who deployed in Iraq also said the new tactics represent a “very successful way to attack.” He told the New York Times, “It allows these attacks to be launched from areas outside of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.”

In addition to the three attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq, an armed drone is believed to have been launched from southern Iraq to hit the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh in January. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been longtime rivals in the Middle East.

While visiting northeastern Syria in May, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie said military officials are developing ways to disrupt or disable communications between the drones and their operators, improve radar sensor capabilities to more quickly track drones in flight and other ways to down the miniature aircraft.