When an Iraqi soldier heard a buzzing sound overhead last month in Iraq’s Anbar province, he took aim and shot down what looked like a bird-sized model plane.
After studying the device, Iraq’s Ministry of Defense said it was a surveillance drone available for purchase on the Internet for less than $1,000 that was being flown by the Islamic State (IS) group.
“The brave warrior ... was able to hit a spying plane belonging to the gangs of IS,” the ministry said in a Facebook post.
Such incidents are becoming increasingly common in both Iraq and Syria. Drones from at least seven nations – and several militias and military forces including IS – are crowding the skies above Iraq, Syria and Turkey, according to interviews with analysts and officials in the region
“Drones [have] opened new aspects to the wars and changed the shape of the battlefields, making the confrontations more complicated and more sophisticated,” said retired U.S. Army Col. Robert Cassidy, who is studying their proliferation.
The drones being used in Iraq and Syria range from state-of-the-art military hardware used by the U.S.-led coalition to rudimentary consumer products used by IS and various militias.
Countries flying drones
Turkey, Syria, Iran, Russia, the U.S., Britain and Iraq all have used drones in the region. Kurdish militias, Syrian rebel forces, and the Hezbollah and IS have also used some form of drones.
Their missions range from simple surveillance to precisely targeted assassinations of key terrorists by the U.S.-led coalition.
While the Pentagon tries to keep its drone program covert, it has admitted several times in recent months to striking specific IS targets with drones, according to news reports.
Among the targets was Islamic State's Jihadi John, who was shown in gruesome videos beheading U.S. and Western hostages.
The drone program, which is run by the CIA and the Joint Special Operation Command, largely operates out of a Turkish military base.
Britain has joined in the drone operation, according to published reports, and Turkey announced that its forces used four U.S.-made drones in a May 1 attack against IS.
The Pentagon refused a request from reporters to discuss specifics of its drone program, which has grown in scope since its initial mission targeting terror suspects in Pakistan and Yemen.
The widening U.S. use of drones has drawn criticism from human rights groups, some in Congress and foreign powers.