ISIS' Drone Sovereignty
Islamic State's use of images taken by drones draws on vertical imagery to present and reinforce a claim to sovereign power, demonstrating its ability to control territory through the air.
Terrorist groups routinely seek to innovate and exploit any means, or techniques, that can be used to successfully conduct violent attacks. It is little surprising, in this context, that terrorist groups should attempt to use weaponized drones. Indeed, multiple groups, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and Yemeni Houthi forces, have done so with varying degrees of success. It is equally unsurprising that ISIS should use drones as a sort of rudimentary air force to attack their foes.
Traditionally, drone use by non-state actors has been cloaked in secrecy. However, ISIS’ heavy diffusion of drone images in propaganda has offered a unique opportunity to peel back this veil of secrecy and conduct a systematic study of how non-state actors use drones to achieve both military and strategic objectives. In our article, titled Drone Imagery in Islamic State Propaganda: Flying like a State, published in International Affairs, we analyzed 524 images of drone activities collected from ‘ISIS Daily’ reports on Telegram, taken from a wider database of ISIS propaganda produced by the Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative at Georgia State University.
Our analysis showed that, while ISIS routinely used drones to drop munitions and explosives on their adversaries using modified commercial drones, this has had a rather limited military success. Instead, we argue that the true innovation by the Islamic State lies in the seamless integration of drones in its propaganda machine, in order to stake a claim to virtual sovereignty.
Drones, we advance, allow ISIS to fly over territory they claim to control, and thereby allows them to present a claim to sovereignty through the use of drones. Sovereign states control not only their territory, but also stretch their sovereignty to encompass both the airspace above and the ground below. Indeed, in some cases, control of the air can modify, extend or enforce domination of the ground. ISIS, by showing that they can fly drones over contested territory, effectively demonstrate that they control the airspace, and by extension the ground territory. Drones serve as tools of power projection, stretching power and expanding ISIS’s sovereign claim.
This is consistent with a fundamental theme of ISIS propaganda, which seeks to both reject the existence of the states whose creation was imposed by colonial powers (such as Iraq, Syria) and demonstrate that ISIS performs the duties of a de facto state. ISIS videos have routinely made reference to the breaking of boundaries: a 2014 video called “The end of Sykes-Picot”, for instance, shows a foreign fighter walking over the Iraqi border abandoned by the Iraqi army and referring to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as “the breaker of barriers”. ISIS propaganda routinely includes state-building imagery, such as showing the enforcement of sharia law through the establishment of a religious police force; the establishment of religious schools; the distribution of food; and the introduction of road ordinances, currency, and, apparently, passports.
The fact that ISIS uses drones is not in itself new; what is new, rather, is that ISIS uses these drones as propaganda tools, both as signal boosters to film suicide attacks and to demonstrate their ability to fly over contested territory. ISIS drones, therefore, both reinforce and subvert traditional geographical conceptions associated with the use of drones, drawing on vertical symbolism to stake a claim to state-like power. Drone imagery, as used by ISIS, opens up new possibilities - that of acting, seeing, and flying like a state.
The authors' article is available open access in the July issue of International Affairs.