U.S. forces used a combination of spy drones and bomb-handling robots to help beat back Iraq's insurgents. Now, those militants have a warning for those American troops still remaining in Iraq: We've got robots, too.
In a slick new online video just released by the Ansar al-Islam extremist group, kafiya-clad engineers brag about their skill in designing and making weapons of their own. They show off homemade silencers, fire custom-built rockets, and solder their own circuit boards.
But the climax to the nearly four-minute clip comes when the camera focuses on a car driving in the desert; there's no one inside the vehicle. Then a tripod-mounted machine gun fires off a few rounds; there are no fingers on the trigger. The car and the gun are remotely-operated—crudely robotic.
"This field of technology is a science developed and excelled in by the West," one of the militants says. "However, a new era is coming on the horizon, and the mujahideen are now real competitors in this field."
The upgrade in insurgent technology couldn't come at a worse time. The last of the American troops are supposed to be out of Iraq by December. Meanwhile, extremist attacks are growing more regular - and more bloody. A car bomb killed 17 and injured 70 more on Friday. On Monday, insurgent gunmen seized control of a police station in western Iraq, taking four lives and dozens of hostages.
The U.S. deployed thousands of robots in Iraq to combat the insurgents. Ground ‘bots disarmed bombs from a safe distance. Flying drones tracked militants without fear of losing a human spy. This video is meant to signal that those capabilities are no longer solely in the counterinsurgents' hands; the insurgents have a rudimentary version of them as well.
"There are advanced innovations like remotely controlled cars and heavy machine guns that are remotely operated using wireless devices," the Ansar al-Islam extremist adds. "We also manufacture alternatives to the weapons available now in the field by the brothers like thermal grenades, silencers and mortar shells."
The Ansar al-Islam video "is part and parcel of their propaganda for material and spiritual support," says Adam Raisman, who tracks militant propaganda for SITE Intelligence Group. "Other groups have released similar productions, though not showing the same degree of sophistication. The al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, for example, released a video in January 2011 showing its development of improvised explosive devices. Before that, a nationalist insurgent faction in Iraq, the Army of the Men of the Nakshabandia Way, had released a series of videos focusing on its weapons development, and in one, gave a tour of its rocket-manufacturing factory."
Iraq's militants have long been some of the world's most sophisticated. They've detonated explosives with infrared triggers, jury-rigged "flying" bombs, encrypted their communications, and weaponized the remainders of Saddam Hussein's chemical stockpile. For years, every time the U.S. found a way to stop the militants from remotely detonating bombs, the insurgents would respond with a countermeasure to the countermeasure.
In the end, American forces finally found a jammer that could trump nearly all of the remote triggers. But a new cat-and-mouse game involving robotics may not conclude the same way. By Dec. 31, U.S. troops will be gone. They're taking most of their robots with them.