Hezbollah’s Drone Program Sets Precedents for Non-State Actors

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 21

Iranian-made Shahed-129 UAV (Source:Times of Israel)

On the afternoon of September 19, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launched from an airstrip near the Syrian capital of Damascus flew into the demilitarized zone that separates the Syrian-controlled area of the Golan Heights from that which is controlled by Israel. The Israeli military scrambled jets and launched a patriot missile to intercept what it identified as a Hezbollah drone approaching Israeli airspace. The Patriot missile, its flight accompanied by two Israeli fighter jets, successfully intercepted the drone in the air (Haaretz, September 19). The debris fell inside the demilitarized zone, near the ruins of the Syrian city of Quneitra.

Despite the drone’s prompt destruction, the incident further escalated rising tensions between Israel, Hezbollah and Iran, which reportedly supplied the drone to Hezbollah (al-Jazeera, September 9).

Only a few weeks prior to the drone’s deployment, Israel had staged its largest military drill in 20 years, in which it simulated a potential conflict with Hezbollah. The incident also came just hours prior to a scheduled speech to the United Nations by Binyamin Netanyahu, in which the Israeli prime minister was expected to discuss the increasing threat posed to Israel’s northern border by Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah (Times of Israel, September 17; Haaretz, September 24).

This year Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies declared Hezbollah to be the greatest threat to the country in its annual report (The Middle East Eye, March 20). Although Hezbollah has been an enemy of Israel for decades, last year’s report had ranked Iran as the number one threat. The change is due in no small part to Hezbollah’s robust aerial drone program. Moreover, while this most recent drone deployment raises concerns about the possibility of bolder and more violent drone usage by the group, the incident is far from Hezbollah’s first drone attack against Israel.

In fact, Hezbollah’s growing fleet of UAVs has posed a relentlessly escalating threat to Israeli security over the last 13 years, and the Syrian War has allowed the group to further develop and test its drones.

Developing Drone Technology

Hezbollah’s first successful drone deployment took place in November of 2004, when the group deployed an Iranian made Mirsad-1 military-grade surveillance drone into Israeli airspace and surveilled Nabariva, a city in northern Israel, for about 20 minutes. This marked the first time a non-state actor had utilized aerial drones against a state, opening a new world of potential terrorist capabilities. Hezbollah has since remained the single most prolific and successful non-state user of aerial drones, continually establishing new precedents for non-state actors.

On October 6, 2012, for instance, Hezbollah deployed an Iranian Ayoub drone from Lebanon deep into Israel, to the city of Dimona, to surveil the country’s nuclear weapons manufacturing facilities. The drone surveilled the plant for several hours before it was eventually shot down by an Israeli fighter plane. Several weeks after the attack, Iran released photographs of Israel’s nuclear weapons plant that had been relayed by the drone. The incident served as a significant propaganda victory for both Hezbollah and Iran, indicating that Hezbollah could potentially attack even Israel’s best-protected and most important facilities (Jafria News, October 2012).

On September 21, 2014, Hezbollah launched an even more impressive drone operation, utilizing a UAV to attack the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front in Syria. The drone attack killed more than 20 of the group’s fighters, which was more than the ensuing ground assault. By the conclusion of the attack, at least 23 al-Nusra operatives had been killed and several others were held captive by Hezbollah (Times of Israel, September 21, 2014). This attack represents two momentous developments: the first time a non-state actor had carried out a deadly drone attack, and the first time a non-state actor had utilized drones to attack another non-state group. [1] After this, Hezbollah and Iran began to seriously invest in the expansion of Hezbollah’s drone program.

Syria as Training Ground

One of the most notable facets of the Hezbollah drone program is the airbase Hezbollah currently operates. Located in northern Lebanon, the base was identified by IHS Jane’s using satellite imagery in 2015. It is comprised of a 2,200-foot unpaved runway, numerous sheds and an antenna that may be intended to enhance the range of a UAV ground control post. Experts speculate that the runway was designed specifically for Iranian UAVs, such as the Ababil-3 and the larger Shahed-129. The runway is relatively short, unpaved and surrounded by unforgiving mountainous terrain, making it nearly impossible for any manned aircraft to land on the airstrip.

The airstrip’s existence illustrates Hezbollah’s increasingly sophisticated air capabilities and its commitment to rapidly develop them. Furthermore, the fact that the airbase is located a mere 10 miles from the Syrian border implies that Hezbollah has long held intentions to utilize UAVs to try to influence the outcome of the Syrian War. UAVs are indeed becoming a more central weapon within Hezbollah’s combat tactics and strategies (Business Insider, April 24, 2015).

The Syrian War has functioned as a training and experimentation ground for Hezbollah. According to one Hezbollah fighter: “We are definitely learning a lot by working with Russians and Iranians in the Syria war and more specifically when it comes to UAV” (The Middle East Eye, March 20).

Interestingly, however, Hezbollah has demonstrated a preference for cheaper commercially available drones over the military-grade drones they receive and assemble with Iranian assistance. Hezbollah is in fact infamous for using what journalist Nicholas Blanford terms “off-the-shelf drones for over-the-hill reconnaissance in Syria’s battlefields” (CSM, August 16, 2016).

Additionally, on August 9, 2016, a video was released on social media depicting a small commercially available quadcopter armed with two small Chinese-made MZD-2 sub-munition bombs attacking rebel positions in northern Syria. The video represents the first digital evidence that Hezbollah has the capability to bomb targets remotely (Times of Israel, August 11, 2016). Earlier drone attacks were kamikaze-style missions.

Future Drone Operations

Hezbollah has led the way in the deployment and use of drones for non-state groups for more than a decade. Over that time, it has made frightening progress in the acquisition of increasingly sophisticated UAVs, broadening the scope of its operations from simply menacing Israel to targeting non-state combatants.

In a matter of ten years, Hezbollah transitioned from having no drones at all to having their own airstrip and a fleet of military and upgraded commercial drone models. Hezbollah is now experienced in using drones for a variety of purposes — surveillance, propaganda manufacturing, kamikaze attacks and bombings — and has gained competency in operating drones in different terrains and countries (Israel and Syria).

How all will be realized in combat is difficult to say, but as Hezbollah has greatly expanded its UAV arsenal — including, but not limited to, the Mirsad, Ababil, Ayoub, and commercially available drones — in recent years, it is likely it will continue to utilize drones with increasing frequency and sophistication.

Elizabeth Santoro is a Researcher at the Center for the Study of Targeted Killing. Her earlier works on drone technology covered Saudi Arabian and Houthi use of drones in Yemen, and were published through the Center for the Study of Targeted Killing. She was also co-author of Reaping the Whirlwind: Drones Flown by Non-state Actors Now Pose a Lethal Threat



[1] See: Robert J Bunker, Terrorist and Insurgent Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Use, Potentials and Military Implications, (U.S. Army War College, August 2015)