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Tuesday, 30 May 2023
Iraq’s Deadly Drones
James Denselow
Events in Iraq quite literally blew up over the weekend with the failed assassination attempt against the Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. It was the most modern of attacks on a political leader in a country which still has deep political cleavages and actors willing to use violence to achieve political aims. Whilst the full picture of events is still emerging it appears that at least two drone carrying explosives were directed towards the Iraqi leader’s residence in the supposedly secure ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad.

Seven of Kadhimi’s guards were injured by the remote weapons that acted as remote-controlled kamikaze missiles directed against a well-protected target. The Prime Minister, wearing a bandage on his hand, addressed the nation on television shortly after the attack, to prove that he wasn't seriously hurt. He then went on to meet with top security commanders to discuss the events. The attack followed threats against al-Kadhimi from an Iran-backed militia leader, though the armed groups denied responsibility, and no one immediately claimed the attack.

Both the method of this attack and the lack of responsibility claimed for it are worrying omens for Iraq coming in the wake of October’s parliamentary elections and subsequent protests as to their results. Iran, the US and the UN all condemned the attack, with America condemning it as an “apparent act of terrorism”. The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who accused unnamed “foreign think tanks” of “creating and supporting terrorist and occupying forces” in Iraq that had “brought nothing but insecurity, discord and instability.”

Assassinations are one of the most dangerous forms of political violence and history is replete with examples of how they’ve escalated events far beyond any originally conceived purpose, perhaps the most famous chain of events being the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo considered the most immediate cause of World War I. Other assassinations have had more insidious and neblus impacts; consider another drone strike in Iraq that in this instance successfully killed the Iranian Military Leader Qasem Soleimani back at the start of 2020. Those who watch the changing dynamics of Iraq’s domestic security situation claim that with Soleimani out of the picture the command and control of the loosely defined ‘Iranian backed militias’ has become more complex and confused with less predictable political outcomes.

There is also the potential for the attack not being a work of high politics but rather being a homemade effort from individuals or groups operating very much off their own distinct agenda. The site of the Iraqi Prime Minister’s residence was well known and navigable even via a basic Google Earth search. Basic drones that are able to carry grenades or rudimentary forms of explosives are easily acquired and don’t require high level training or expertise in the same way that military equipment may do. In short whilst I am of course speculating, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a small, low-cost operation not sanctioned by any State could use modern equipment to kill the democratically elected leader of a country and potentially change the course of its history in a significant manner.

Whilst physical attempts at assassination often result in individuals being detained, interrogated and identified in being linked to a political or terrorist group, a drone that explodes upon impact may leave little in the way of evidence that can link it to anyone at all. Therefore, the prospect of unclaimed attacks that leave no connection or clues as to their perpetrators is a terrifying prospect indeed as what they will succeed in doing is ratcheting up traditional tensions of any particular moment. Hence this attack being immediately linked to Iranian supported groups who are unhappy with October’s election result.

It is worth remembering that the 9/11 attacks that changed the course of history for much of the planet, were conducted by a handful of individuals with box cutters and rudimentary training in flying commercial aircraft. Weaponizing and utilising cheap, easily accessible modern technology is a frightening but very predictable tactic of political violence that will require complicated and likely expensive countermeasures. The ability to destroy small, fast-moving drones in the air will need to be front and centre of protecting hard sites such as residences and will also factor into how people can be targeted when on the move. Iraq’s era of deadly drones needs to give lessons to the wider world.

by: James Denselow

James Denselow,