More and More Killer Drones Take Aim at Islamic State‘s Bosses

War Is Boring
War Is Boring
Published in
6 min readMar 17, 2015


But robot raids probably can’t stop the terror group


There are killer drones in Kuwait, in a perfect position to strike Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But it’s not clear the drone attacks will actually help very much.

January satellite imagery of Kuwait’s Ali Al Salem air base shows the distinctive shapes of American-made MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles. New clamshell shelters, Ku-band communications arrays and ground control stations are also visible in the imagery from satellite firm DigitalGlobe.

It’s a sign the multinational coalition fighting Islamic State is bolstering its drone force.

Way back in October 2011, the Pentagon relocated around around 20 Predator armed drones — organized into seven combat air patrols — to the same Kuwaiti base. The Reaper is the Predator’s bigger, deadlier brother.

Washington and its allies are sending in the missile- and bomb-armed robots to find and kill key Islamic State leaders.

The Reapers at Ali Al Salem probably belong to the British Royal Air Force. In October, the United Kingdom announced that it intended to redeploy its Reapers from Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan for operations in Iraq.

British media reported that the drones’ operators would remain at the Waddington RAF base in Lincolnshire, England. But the presence of Ku-band arrays and ground control stations in Kuwait could suggest that, in fact, the robot operators are in Kuwait.

Last year, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters that American planes and drones were conducting up to 60 surveillance flights per day. Activists on the ground even managed to capture what appeared to be U.S. drones orbiting over Islamic State territory.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C. think tank, estimates the U.S. military is spending up to $7.5 million per day spying on the extremists in Iraq and Syria.

At top and above — Reaper drones at Kuwait’s Ali Al Salem air base in January 2015. DigitalGlobe photos

While drones can be useful surveillance tools, it’s debatable whether air operations — robotic or otherwise — are the most effective way to defeat a terror group. Military analysts often focus too little on ideological factors, leading to operations that deal with the symptoms, as opposed to the root causes.

To be sure, hitting Islamic State from the air helps to keep up pressure on the group, but bombing raids show diminishing returns when the targets move into crowded cities. Ultimately, ground troops must fight the insurgents from house to house, as the Iraqi army and Shia militia troops are presently doing in Tikrit, in north-central Iraq.

Another tactic is to strike the terror group’s leaders. The U.S. has already been monitoring Islamic State’s “patterns of life” in order to paint a better picture of the group’s operations.

In January, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that around 50 percent of Islamic State’s top leadership had been killed.

But the militants still control more territory than the U.S. military and CIA patrolled during its drone campaigns in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. That’s a challenge for the Predator and Reaper crews.

Since the expansion of Islamic State in Iraq, government forces have had a tough time holding on to territory — to say nothing of retaking it. In Tikrit, Iraqi troops struggle to clear areas in the south and west of the city. Improvised explosive devices and snipers impede their progress.

Taking back Saddam Hussein’s former hometown requires substantial coordination. The Iraqi government has deployed as many as 30,000 troops to Tikrit, including regular soldiers and militia fighters. Of course, they’re not the only force on the battlefield.

By all accounts, Iran continues to play an important role in the fighting. Human Rights Watch has accused Iranian-backed Shia militias in Diyala province of torching and looting homes in a targeted campaign against Sunni residents.

“The activities of the Iranians — the support for the Iraqi security forces — is a positive thing in military terms against ISIL, but we are all concerned about what happens after the drums stop beating,” U.S. Army general Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last week.

An MQ-9 Reaper drone at Hurlburt Field, Fla. on April 24, 2014. Air Force photo

Washington has sent around 2,700 troops and 250 civilian contractors into Iraq to support Iraqi troops. It’s not clear how effective such a small force can be. The United States has already spent more than $20 billion training the Iraqi military, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Training aside, the current U.S.-led operation follows a familiar methodology. Military and intelligence assets engage in targeting and killing senior and mid-level Islamic State leadership, disrupting the group’s ability to command subordinates and control territory.

Naturally, this approach is not without its critics.

We know how Islamic State operates. Its quasi-corporate state maintains a significant bureaucracy to extract rents through oil and antiquities trafficking, ransom and extortion. Wealthy donors from the Gulf states also provide financial support.

Last month, the U.S. and the international community escalated its efforts to strangle the militants’ finances. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that requires governments to ensure they aren’t engaged directly or indirectly in trade with Islamic State or its affiliates.

And last week, the United States bombed the militant-run Tel Abyad oil refinery in Syria near the Turkish border.

The refinery attack was merely the latest in a series of strikes targeting Islamic State’s revenue. U.S. counterterrorism officials estimated the group collected nearly $100 million from oil trafficking in 2014.

An October report from the International Energy Agency claimed that Islamic State’s oil sales dropped from 70,000 barrels per day to around 20,000 since air strikes expanded in August — just as the price of crude plunged.

But the hits to the terror group’s finances haven’t stopped it.

“ISIS in many ways resembles a legitimate business,” terrorism finance expert Louise Shelley wrote in Foreign Affairs. “It has diverse revenue sources, seeks and develops new profit lines, and focuses on its most successful products and competitive advantages.”

Which means Islamic State has a built-in resilience that might withstand the loss of some senior leaders to drone strikes. If the money is still flowing, there are other militants who’d be more than happy to take the place of their dead predecessors.