The face of homebrew, remote-controlled military robotics in Iraq is a man named Ali Hashem al-Daraji, better known by the nickname Abu Ali. In 2014 he was a policeman for Iraq’s interior ministry, but in June of that year, when the Iraqi Security Forces collapsed as ISIS took over Mosul, Abu Ali hooked up with the Hashd al Shaabi, or “Popular Mobilization Units,” an umbrella organization of anti-ISIS militias, some of which had also fought against US forces during the Iraq War.
Before eventually returning to the Iraqi Federal Police last November, Abu Ali fought with a couple of militia organizations across Iraq, was injured by an improvised explosive device in Fallujah, and took a selfie with Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s covert-action Qods Force, in charge of Tehran’s wars in Iraq and Syria and a sworn enemy of the US.
“My purpose was to help the Hashd with minimal casualties,” he says. Abu Ali produces little wheeled robots designed to allow troops to fire from behind cover. The bots, controlled with a joystick and adorned with pictures of revered Shia clerics, use cameras for direction and aiming. Some run on Android, and use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to operate hydraulic controls and a gearbox. Others are drive-by-wire.
War is hell, as the old cliché goes. But it’s also a catalyst for innovation in weapons and tactics. Nothing stimulates creativity quite like having someone trying to kill you. In Iraq and Syria, militant groups spanning the ideological (and theological) spectrum are responding to threats in part by adding remote controls to sniper rifles, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades—and attaching them to unmanned ground vehicles.
So far, the weapons seem like more a niche project than a prelude to mass production. They’re not autonomous, and they don’t add much in the way of new offensive capabilities to the sniper rifles and machine guns they’re based on. They do, however, allow snipers and gunners to fire on their enemies from relatively safer positions, potentially saving lives. And that’s been enough to justify some tinkering in the field, as militants look to available technologies to cobble together homemade robotic arsenals.
Abu Ali says PMU groups told him “to keep them secret and not explain their role,” but he and a few friends shared pictures of four of the homebrew weapons.
Each has a name. The Ashura and the Launch of the Greatest Prophet sport PK-variant machine guns, the latter elevated on a shoulder-high pole to allow firing over a parapet or from inside a trench. The Karar Sniping Base, a larger, tracked vehicle, has a hydraulically operated claw arm that Abu Ali says can pull injured troops off the battlefield. And the Armored Tiger, the most unusual of the bunch, carries three rocket-propelled grenade launchers. (To be clear, Abu Ali’s claims for how these things work may not match their actual battlefield performance.)
The parts for the various weapons are commercially available. Abu Ali combs through markets and scrapyards for some, and acquires others through friends working in industrial sectors. Altogether, the weapons cost $1,000 to $4,000 to build, but Abu Ali doesn’t sell them. He says they’re a gift to the PMU groups.
Across the border in Syria, Sunni rebel groups have also been developing robotic weapons as part of their fight against the Assad regime. One group, the Aleppo-based Shaba Media, has released edited, high production value propaganda videos of its Sham series of remote-controlled Dushka 14.5 mm machine guns.
The most recent incarnation of the weapon is the Sham R3, teased in a video with commentary from Mohammed Imran, described as director of the “Sham Foundation,” and Abu Atta, an R3 operator.
Operated by wire and a Playstation-style controller, the R3 is a gun mounted on a metal base, and can raise, lower, and rotate through a 180-degree field of fire. A camera mounted to the gun’s barrel lets users zoom in on targets more precisely. In the video, Omran and Abu Atta praise the accuracy of the weapon and its ability to expend less ammunition and require fewer spotters to find and hit targets, as well as letting operators stay safe. Well, safer than usual.
That the rebels who built the Sham were based in Aleppo is no accident. In August of 2016, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Foreign Military Studies Office released a study of 21 different remotely operated weapons from across the Middle East. Tradoc says that Aleppo has become an “incubator of experimentation” for remote weaponry.
But Aleppo isn’t the only place Syrian rebels are making their own warbots. In 2014, a group based in the eastern suburbs of Damascus mounted a PKC machine gun onto a rotating platform operated with a control panel and television monitor. Sliman al Sanded, a spokesperson for the militant Rahman Corps, which has merged with the makers of the remote-controlled PKC, says the device is fairly simple—reflecting rebels’ more limited resources.
“If we had enough money we could make a lot of new inventions,” al-Sanded says. It’s not clear whether Rahman Corps has developed any weapons since 2014, much less used them in combat.
Slow Roll Out
Don’t expect a fleet of artisanal deathbots to conquer the Middle East, Terminator-style. Videos of operators swiveling remotely operated guns with a gamepad or plinking targets in a sterile, non-combat setting are easy enough to come by but the official record of battlefield use is slim. Still, there’s some evidence that a few bots have gotten more realistic trials.
Iraq’s PMU militias brought an armed unmanned ground vehicle built by two brothers from Baghdad (strapped with a .50-caliber machine gun and 70 mm rockets) to the fight in Mosul. Iraqi militias also appear to have used robotic weapons in and around Tikrit. Abu Rashida al-Assadi, an Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service commando, says that he’s seen small armed unmanned ground vehicles used in the fight against ISIS there, and Abu Ali says one of his armed unmanned ground vehicles was used successfully in the nearby town of Ishaqi.
The capabilities they bring to that fight, however, are pretty basic. “On their current technological trajectory, I don’t think we’re going to see these systems act as a decisive differentiator in combat,” says Ben FitzGerald, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who studies emerging technologies. Right now, he says, they’re likely best at helping militant machine gunners do what they normally do—lay down suppressing fire against enemy troops in the open.
That might come as a relief to countries like the US, which frequently engage in ground combat in the Middle East and are wary of insurgents getting their hands on more advanced weaponry. American adversaries like ISIS and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, as well as frenemies like Iraqi militia groups with ties to Iran, have all made their own forays into the cottage warbot industry. But the impact of these weapons against an adversary like the US is likely marginal. “They could serve to raise the costs and risk associated with nation-states’ military operations, requiring greater resources for operations to be successful,” says FitzGerald.
In the meantime, the wars in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region grind on, as do the imaginations of militant bot-makers like Abu Ali. In a Facebook conversation, he says he’s working on an armed aerial drone, but won’t say what kind of weapon it will pack. “I just have the skeleton of the helicopter now,” Abu Ali writes. “I haven’t been able to work a lot because I’m only part-time, but I will be able to work on it soon, God willing.”