Private Surveillance Drones Take Flight Over Iraq
The Kurds have help from an American entrepreneur
It was a clear day in mid-March when a drone flew over the disputed city of Sinjar in northern Iraq, photographing Islamic State’s fighting positions.
When the drone landed after its 13-minute flight, a small crowd of Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers cheered and smiled. They were puzzled by this odd airplane with white polystyrene wings so small it could fit inside the trunk of a car. They had never seen anything like it before.
The flight plan had seven different points of interest to capture over nearly five miles of flight. The GoPro camera attached to the LA-300 UAV was also able to photograph the details of buildings used as weapons caches.
The Daesh — what Kurds call Islamic State — heard it flying over their heads and broadcasted an alarm by radio. The jihadis thought the United States was about to launch an air strike.
They were wrong.
This was not an armed drone operated by the U.S. government, but rather an unarmed surveillance drone owned by a private company. The owners were working with Kurdish forces to help them collect intelligence — one of their weakest points in their war against Islamic State.
Jason Rexilius, an American entrepreneur, ran toward the landing zone to collect the drone lying just outside the Peshmerga headquarters — yards away from the front line. He then took the memory card from its camera and started downloading the pictures to his Android tablet.
Capt. Kawa Spindari, a tall black-haired 30 year-old officer, was in charge of intelligence for the Kurdish 8th Brigade stationed in Sinjar. Every few minutes he impatiently asked Rexilius if he had finished the download.
When the images popped up on the screen, a big smile crossed Spindari’s face.
The Peshmerga could finally see over the city and compare the images with information gathered by reconnaissance teams on the ground. Before the drone arrived, the team faced immense difficulties accessing Islamic-State controlled parts of the city.
“This will give us a tactical advantage for the next couple of days,” Spindari said.
The U.S. does provide intelligence to Kurdish forces. But for months, the Peshmerga officer asked the Americans provide it faster. “When we receive it, which is not often, it is at least three days old and therefore useless,” he continued.
Intelligence sharing is a perennial problem between American forces and their host-nation counterparts in conflict areas around the world, according to experts.
Rexilius, a former Air Force Intelligence officer, is well aware of this difficulty. “The reality is that the U.S. is very restricted about sharing information,” he said.
He added that the restrictions are in place because the U.S. classifies almost all of its intelligence as top secret, restricting access. He decided to travel to Iraq and help fill this intelligence gap as a private contractor.
The American entrepreneur arrived a few days earlier in Kurdistan, with his partner Bill Greer, to show the Peshmerga what he could do with his drones and see how he could help.
Like many Westerners who traveled to the Kurdish region to fight Islamic State, Rexilius wanted to use his unique skills to help the war effort.
“My primary concern is not about profit and growth,” he said while sipping an instant coffee. “I want to help the refugees, kill ISIS, and enable the Kurds with reliable open source intelligence.”
Rexilius, who no longer serves in the military, founded the Third Block Group last year. He named the company after a 1990s-era military doctrine that divided a theater of operations into three different blocks — conventional war, peacekeeping operations and nation building.
“I missed making a difference in the world,” he explained. “I missed having meaning in what I was doing.”
So with three colleagues, he started a company that collects open source intelligence and makes security assessments in conflict areas. He then sells the information to governments and NGOs.
“We also have interviews on the ground, monitor open source, and then we fly drones,” he continued.
Rexilius and his team had already operated in Somalia, Colombia, and the Philippines but the Iraqi-Syrian conflict has a different meaning to him.
The scenes broadcasted by media all over the world of Yazidi refugees fleeing the area moved him. Islamic State killed and enslaved those who couldn’t escape. “When I watched that I asked myself how I could help,” he said.
Intelligence gathering seemed the most obvious choice, and he arrived in Sinjar with two commercial drones built by French company Lehmann Aviation.
While the U.S. restricts technology exported for military uses, Rexilius was able to keep his operation legal by buying the UAV components in Europe. Not a single piece of the drone was American.
For more than two months, the Kurdish Peshmerga along with militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party battled for control of the strategic city.
Sinjar is a transit point to all lines of communications between Raqqa — the de facto Islamic State capital in Syria — and Mosul, a jihadist stronghold in Iraq. U.S. and allied airstrikes have targeted the area, hitting more than 130 enemy positions during the past eight months, according to the Pentagon.
However, Kurdish fighters on the ground complain that air strikes are not enough, and that they’ve asked for better collaboration with American forces.
“We don’t need manpower or uniforms,” Helgurd Mela Ali, a spokesman for the Peshmerga ministry said. “We need weapons and intelligence sources.”
Months ago, Helgurd sent a specific list of requirements to the European Union and to the U.S. government. He received no reply, he said.
One of the Peshmerga’s major weaknesses is in communications and intelligence. They have little access to intelligence gathered by U.S. advisers on the ground. They have few portable communications equipment aside from personal mobile phones.
“Each battalion has no more than 10 radios. Most of the time we don’t know what’s going on during battles” Lt. Col. Dolgash Taib of the Peshmerga 12th Brigade said.
Taib’s unit is based near Rabia, on the border with Syria. He stressed their need to have reliable intelligence. “Sometimes we do get pictures of ISIS convoys passing close, but it is so old that becomes useless,” he said.
He described an antagonistic relationship between the Iraqi central government and the Peshmerga. Baghdad, he said, filters anything the U.S. provides to them because it wants to weaken the Kurds.
“Baghdad has a very strong interest that the Kurds don’t declare independence, and [that they] negotiate from a position of weakness rather then a position of strength,” Rexilius said.
The reality is that the U.S. government has strict policies about intelligence sharing. For one, Washington has to go through the host nation government. In this case, it’s the Iraqi government.
“We probably have sharing on levels below the national levels,” said Austin Long, a former adviser to the U.S. military in Iraq who currently teaches security policy at Columbia University. “U.S. advisers are not at the front of battles, they are not just in Baghdad but in other places such as Al Asad airbase and western Iraq.”
However, sharing intelligence directly with the Kurds seems — at least officially — impossible.
“The Kurdish Peshmerga have kind of an odd status in Iraq,” Long said. “They are recognized as the Kurdish regional guards, so they have official standings, but Kurdistan is recognized as a regional government but not a national government.”
After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Kurds developed close ties with both the U.S. military and the Central Intelligence Agency. “From the Kurds’ perspective they probably feel doubly burned because they used to have this very tight relationship, from which I am sure they got information quite quickly, but now we just don’t have that presence anymore,” Long said.
To be sure, the U.S. isn’t solely to blame. “Some of the problems are in the U.S. side certainly, but some others are in the host nation side,” he said.
Political fragmentation, a lack of trust and intelligence stovepipes often prevent competing Iraqi and Kurdish forces from sharing information with each other. They should institute reforms to have a better exchange of information, Long added.
The lack of intelligence sharing is also hardly surprising.
“I read about this problem in Vietnam, then I saw it in Iraq, then I got to see it again in Afghanistan,” Long said. “I keep seeing the same movie and I would like to see a different movie.”
This is what Rexilius had in mind.
After two flights in the afternoon, Rexilius and Greer tried to explain the whole process to the Peshmerga. They talked for nearly an hour. At sunset, Daesh carried out a major attack on the outpost. Both sides fired light and heavy artillery.
After three hours of increasingly heavy fighting, Spindari — the Peshmerga captain — asked Rexilius if he could fly the drone again. “Maybe it will scare them off,” the officer said.
At 9:47 p.m., Rexilius raised his arm toward the sky while holding the drone, counted down to three and launched it. Again, he planned for a 13-minute flight, during which Islamic State had stopped firing at the Peshmerga.
During the following hour and a half, he launched the UAV another two times. The drone always made it back, and the jihadis kept confusing it with a military drone.
The attack finished at sunrise. In the morning, the Peshmerga checked on casualties. “Three people from our side have been injured, none were killed,” Spindari said.
A dozen jihadis were dead — mainly suicide bombers.
“I like to think we helped saving lives,” Rexilius said.