Battle of drones plays out above Mosul

ISIL has begun fitting grenades on to its drones, which both sides use to track their enemy's movements.

Soldiers from the Iraqi Special Forces 2nd division launch a drone to look for ISIL positions during fighting in Mosul on November 13, 2016. Odd Andersen / AFP
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Arbid, Iraq // The ISIL drone hovered above a building where Iraqi police forces were sheltering before dropping a grenade that exploded on the roof.

No one was injured in the attack 10 kilometres south of Mosul, but it marked another escalation in a drone war between government forces and ISIL as the extremist group fights desperately to defend its last urban stronghold in Iraq.

“We have recorded three [such] incidents,” said police Lt Col Hussein Moayyad.

Masters of invention, ISIL fighters have booby-trapped household appliances and turned cars into armoured suicide bombs as they try to stall the Iraqi advance.

Now the militants have developed new weapon by arming the US$1,000 (Dh3,670) off-the-shelf drones that they normally use to spy on troop movements.

Lt Col Moayyad said they appear to have used an add-on, similar to those designed to help fisherman drop their hooks farther out at sea, to release the grenade.

They rig the grenade so the pin is pulled free when it drops, arming it.

While the latest attack was ineffective, ISIL drones have proved deadly in other incidents.

Last month a toy plane rigged with explosives killed two Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters and injured two French soldiers.

According to a US defence official, the small plane with a styrofoam body was either shot down or crashed in Erbil in northern Iraq on October 2. Two peshmerga grabbed it and took it back to their camp to inspect and photograph it, when it blew up.

ISIL is flying drones to spy on Iraqi forces, so Iraqi forces are sending up their own devices to spot the enemy as well.

Lt Col Moayyad watches a screen inside an armoured bank van he has turned into a drone control centre.

“Now I am entering the dangerous zone, this is where Daesh is,” he said as he manoeuvred the drone to focus on militant positions about five kilometres away.

Like ISIL, the Iraq police have cobbled their drone programme together with shop-bought equipment and ingenuity.

Lt Col Moayyad, who has a master’s degree in computing, has modified drones bought in Dubai and Turkey to give them greater range, longer battery life and the ability to film at night.

When he spots enemy movement, he coordinates with the Iraqi artillery, air force and sometimes the US-led coalition bombarding ISIL.

In eastern Mosul, Iraqi special forces have been using drones for the same purpose. Staff Lt Col Muntadhar Salem described a recent attack in the Al Bakr neighbourhood.

“There were three car bombs coming out from Al Bakr toward our positions that we spotted with our drone and hit with our tanks,” he said.

In total, Lt Col Moayyad said, the Iraqi police force drones – superior to the ones ISIL uses – end up costing about $26,000.

But despite this superiority, what Iraqi forces really need is equipment that can take control of enemy drones, he said, especially now that ISIL is arming them.

“Maybe they could get bigger drones. And if they manage to use chemical weapons on them, then this is more scary, of course.”

* Agence France-Presse