How Hamas innovated with drones to operate like an army

By Kerry Chávez, Ori Swed | November 1, 2023

Hamas' unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV or drone) flying above Gaza City on December 14, 2022. (Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Hamas’ recent attacks on Israel have shocked many with their brutality and disregard for the norms and laws of armed conflict. They have also surprised experts with their complexity and coordination, involving simultaneous linked and layered operations on land, air, and sea. While Hamas is a terrorist organization—and behaving like one—it is fighting more like a state military force.

Small, tactical drones are a central factor in its proficiency, which the group deployed in sophisticated and multifaceted ways during the invasion. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) constituted the first wave of attacks to eliminate Israeli observation towers, cameras, and communications. This initial challenge was meant to blind, deafen, and confuse the Israeli defense.

The group also dropped munitions from UAS on tanks, apparently well aware of how to target them for disabling, as well as soldiers and emergency responders. Swarms of drones were also deployed to attack naval vessels and energy infrastructure.

Alongside thousands of rockets, the group launched volleys of a new loitering munition—also known as a suicide drone—called the Zouari, named after the late Hamas engineer and drone pilot, Mohammed Zouari. Tactical armed drones were captured from felled raiding units that stormed across the border. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, one of Hamas’ key partners in the region, even seems to be running a devoted drone operations room. Since the attacks began, from near and far, drones have been crucial for achieving strategic and tactical objectives.

None of these individual tactics with small drones are new. While many are citing lessons learned from combat in the Russia-Ukraine War—and they should—there are ample, earlier precedents from violent non-state actors. The list includes the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ansar Allah (the official name for the Houthi movement in Yemen), al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani network, many Syrian rebel factions, several Iran-sponsored terrorist organizations in Iraq, and more. In other words, Hamas didn’t learn how to use drones from the Russians and Ukrainians; the Russians and Ukrainians learned how to use small drones from violent non-state actors.

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Imitators and innovators. Terrorists imitate—they watch what works, study demonstration points in other conflicts, and diffuse knowledge through their dark networks. For those who study terrorists, none of the tactics in this fresh war are surprising.

But terrorists also innovate. Hamas has done just that with drones in two ways: with quantity and with quality. First, the group is simulating mass with small, off-the-shelf drones that can be deployed in multiple ways, including being equipped with bombs and repurposed into weapons of war. Like the thousands of rockets that were able to overcome Iron Dome by their sheer quantity, commercial UAS provide a cheap, crude air force at scale to monitor, harass, and attack enemies.

Second and more substantively, Hamas is pioneering a new combined arms model with commercial drones that is unusual for terrorist organizations. In combined arms approaches, multiple units with different capabilities work in concert, amplifying the impact of their attack. Drones are a key component of this approach and are, thus, a force multiplier. By using UAS in tandem with, and in support of, conventional forces and platforms, Hamas is demonstrating a capacity to field a multidomain force against a stronger adversary.

Some of this capacity stems from Iran’s sponsorship, which provides resources, doctrine, and training. This support is further bolstered by lateral ties with Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon, and other Iranian-affiliated or anti-Israeli groups. Nonetheless, drones are a critical part of the picture of how Hamas has leveled up in capacity—and it will not go unnoticed.

A thousand knives. Many are speculating on the global implications of the war, including the possibility of additional battlefronts, an influx of foreign fighters, backlash against Western support, and even a more widespread war in the Middle East if Israel and Iran face off directly. One immediate implication, however, is the powerful demonstration of the prowess terrorists can attain with simple drones.

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The last time a terrorist organization pioneered a new model of warfare with commercial drones, it was the Islamic State. Its notoriety and brutality attracted massive media coverage, which also made it a role model in terrorist circles. The group attained prominence for its ability to leverage cheap, effective solutions, culminating in pseudo-state power. Commercial drones were a key component of this savvy strategy. The Islamic State used them for propaganda to assert sovereignty, intimidate, and recruit; for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; during real-time battles to coordinate combat; to improve targeting with other platforms; and for weaponized attacks, including flying in large clusters that can overwhelm adversaries. It took an international coalition to degrade the organization, but its legacy as a drone innovator lives on.

Now, in a highly publicized moment, Hamas is exhibiting another innovative iteration that will likely proliferate across the terrorist underworld. Hamas enjoys legitimacy among some state and non-state actors. Consequently, it will be more difficult to disrupt signals to other violent non-state actors conveying the effectiveness of its approach. Rather, its massed and combined arms approach with small UAS will be seen as a winning one that many terrorists will aim to imitate. Contending against avid violent non-state actors in irregular warfare is already a challenge and will be all the more so as terrorist groups innovate affordable ways to fight like states.


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Mike
Mike
8 months ago

It’s interesting that you distinguish between terrorist groups and state actors, as if there is a difference in the case of the US or Israel. The US has had the targeting of civilians as a major part of its military planning since nearly its inception. It was widely used against Native Americans and then carried over in its foreign wars, especially in WWII with its fire bombing (or as the US called it, terror bombing) campaigns. Israel has long targeted civilians and had already killed about 250 of them this year prior to October 7. Its bombing campaign of Gaza… Read more »

Ben Solomon
Ben Solomon
8 months ago
Reply to  Mike

Your post is a lie pure and simple. Israel does not target civilians and non-combatants. They target combatants who operate right next to (read: are hiding behind) civilians and the inevitable consequence is that civilians are killed. Israel is not “targeting civilians” and is not attempting to kill civilians. Israel takes steps to minimize civilian deaths (however limited the effectiveness of these steps are). Hamas on the other hand purposely and deliberately targets civilians. Israel’s offensive military actions are for the purposes of dismantling Hamas’ war-fighting ability now and in the future and to rescue the 240 plus hostages Hamas… Read more »

John Wefel
John Wefel
8 months ago

Just like Putin is learning/doing in Ukraine. If this does not scare the h___ out of you, nothing will! Just wait until they figure out how to weaponize AI and terrorize the whole world.

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