Written by Amir Taghati on 18 July 2019.
The United States believes that Iran-linked militia in Iraq have recently increased their surveillance of American troops and bases in the country by using off-the-shelf, commercially available drones, U.S. officials told Reuters.
The disclosure comes at a time of heightened tensions with Iran’s regime and underscores the many ways in which Tehran and the forces it backs are increasingly relying on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in places like Yemen, Syria, the Strait of Hormuz and Iraq.
Beyond surveillance, Iranian regime drones can drop munitions and even carry out “a kamikaze flight where they load it up with explosives and fly it into something”, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis have significantly increased their UAV attacks in recent months, bombing airports and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.
Last month, Iran’s regime shot down a U.S. drone with a surface-to-air missile over international waters, a move that nearly triggered retaliatory strikes by U.S. President Donald Trump.
President Trump withdrew from a major 2015 nuclear deal last year and reimposed sanctions to cut off the Iranian regime’s oil exports and pressure the regime to negotiate over its ballistic missile program and regional policy.
The increased use of drones by Iran’s regime or its regional allies is a strategy aimed at pushing back and defending against pressure from the United States and foes like Saudi Arabia and Israel, current and former security officials and analysts say.
The Iranian regime now flies two or three drones over Gulf waters every day, the first U.S. official estimated, making it a core part of Tehran’s effort to monitor the Strait of Hormuz, through which one fifth of the world’s oil consumption flows.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have accused the Iranian regime of carrying out attacks against six oil tankers near the Strait in the past two months.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to quantify the extent to which surveillance near U.S. forces has increased in Iraq or to specify which militia were carrying it out.
“We have seen an uptick in drone activity in Iraq near our bases and facilities,” the first official said. “Certainly the drones that we have seen are more of the commercial off-the-shelf variant. So they’re obviously a deniable type UAV-activity in Iraq.”
A second official said the recent increase in surveillance was worrying but acknowledged Iran-linked militia in Iraq had a history of keeping tabs on Americans.
Reuters has previously reported that the United States has indirectly sent warnings to Iran’s regime, saying any attack against U.S. forces by proxy organizations in Iraq will be viewed by Washington as an attack by Tehran itself.
In recent weeks, mortars and rockets have been fired at bases in Iraq where U.S. forces are located but no American troops have been injured. U.S. officials did not link those attacks to the increased surveillance.
Iraqi militia groups linked to the Iranian regime began using drones in 2014 and 2015, according to militia members and Iraqi security officials.
These groups received training on the use of drones from members of the Iranian regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah, two Iraqi security officials with knowledge of militia activities said.
“Key militia groups have the ability to launch aerial attacks using drones. Will they target American interests? That hasn’t happened yet,” said one Iraqi security official. “They used Katyusha [rockets] and mortars in very restricted attacks against American interests in Iraq to send a message rather than trying to inflict damage. Using explosive-laden drones is very possible once we have a worsening situation between Tehran and Washington.”
In March, the mullahs’ regime boasted about a complex military exercise involving 50 drones. In a slickly edited video aired on Iranian state TV, waves of drones streak across a clear blue sky, bombing buildings on an island in the Gulf.
The show of force was intended to highlight Iran’s locally developed UAV program, which it has been building up for several years.
Iran’s regime has passed on its drones and technical expertise to regional allies, current and former security officials and analysts say.
The IRGC and Hezbollah advise the Houthis on the use of drones and operate video uplinks from Tehran and Beirut to beam in technical expertise when needed, an official from the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen told Reuters.
U.N. experts say the Houthis now have drones that can drop bigger bombs further away and more accurately than before. In May, drones hit two oil pumping stations hundreds of kilometers inside Saudi territory.
“Either the drones that attacked the pipelines were launched from inside Saudi territory or the Houthis just significantly upped their capability with satellite technology and were provided with the capability to extend the distance,” said Brett Velicovich, a drone expert and U.S. Army veteran, about the May attack.
A commander of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia closely linked to Iran, using the nickname Abu Abdullah, told Reuters in 2014 that Iran’s regime had provided training for operating drones.
He said at the time that they had also used the drones to carry out surveillance on American military positions in Iraq and in the conflict in Syria, where Kataib Hezbollah fought in support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Iraqi militia groups have now acquired enough expertise to modify drones for attacks, two Iraqi security officials with knowledge of the militia activities said.