U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has positively identified the drones that hit the tanker Mercer Street killing two crew members on 30th July as a type produced by Iran. This is based on explosive residue and fragments recovered by crew members. However, this does not mean that the perpetrator has been identified, and the situation is complicated by the very nature of drones.
The drone was said to be a of a type first exhibited by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards in 2014, supplied to Houthi rebels and used in attacks on Saudi Arabia in 2019.
“Explosives experts were able to recover several pieces …and internal components which were nearly identical to previously-collected examples from Iranian one-way attack UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles,” according to the official statement.
However, deniability has always been one of the hallmarks of unmanned aircraft operations. When there is a pilot to be captured, here is the possibility they will talk and cause major embarrassment, like U-2 pilot Gary Powers who was captured after spy mission over the Soviet Union in 1960. The CIA were quick to learn their lesson and used Firebee drones for flights over China. When the Chinese put shot-down Firebee spy drones on display in Beijing in 1964, the U.S. could simply deny all knowledge.
Forensic such as those used to identify the Mercer Street drone can help, but only to a degree. Many different nations can operate the same drone. For example, Boeing’s
So when the Iranians claim to have brought down a U.S. Scan Eagle and the U.S. denied losing one in 2012 it was hard to know who to believe. The mirror image situation occurred in 2019 when the U.S.S. Boxer brought down what was claimed to be an Iranian drone. Iran denied losing any drones and suggested the Americans had shot down one of their own.
In the case of the Mercer Street attack, the forensics may identify the type of drone – a model known as Ababil, or Qasef when used by Houthi rebels – they do not tell us who was operating it. And the type has already proliferated.
Such drones are clearly used by Iran, although this is not a monolithic entity and elements of the Revolutionary Guard may not be under central control. They have also been supplied to the Houthi rebels in Yemen – although the Houthis themselves insist that they make the low-tech drones themselves.
Iran also supplies drones to a number of groups in Iraq. A detailed study of the drone arsenals of Shia paramilitaries by Middle East Eye last week showed that several factions have the capability to carry out large-scale drone operations. U.S. intelligence sources suggest that the attacks which disabled the Saudi oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia did not come from Yemen as claimed, but were in fact launched from Iraq.
According to Middle East Eye, since 2015 Shia paramilitaries have employed drone experts who were formerly in Saddam Hussein’s Military Industrialisation Authority to either reverse engineer or develop new drones. This includes the Al-Abbas Combat Division, said to be the only paramilitary not linked to Iran that has successfully developed armed drones.
“We worked on developing some military industries with the approval and knowledge of the prime minister. Our work is not secret,” an al-Abbas Combat Division commander told MEE.
The situation is further complicated by a series on drone strikes on ammunition dumps belonging to Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq which some analysts blame on Israel. The latest such attack occurred just two weeks ago. In 2019 two explosive-laden drones crashed in Beirut in Lebanon; the Lebanese Prime Minister blamed Israel for the attack seemingly targeting Hezbollah militants. Israeli sources claimed the drones involved were Iranian. You can point the finger, but getting conclusive evidence is much harder.
The kamikaze drone, able to hit an oil tanker, a refinery, or attempt to assassinate the president of Venezuela, may look like a smoking gun. In truth though is it more like a the throw-away weapon that mob assassins drop at the scene of a shooting, at least in the movies: cheap, disposable hardware that anyone can acquire and which gives no real clue about the killer.
The narrative that Iran, or an Iranian faction, was behind the attack on the Mercer Street certainly makes sense. But that does not mean that it is necessarily the correct narrative, and the CENTCOM statement does little to provide definite support.