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SPECIAL ANALYSIS – Increasing Use of Drones to Conduct Terrorism Might Spread From Middle East to the West

Single Post Template - Magazine PRO Homeland Security TodayDrone technology has been at the forefront of the international battle against terrorism. Its use has been controversial. In targeting terrorists, it has developed a cult status, becoming the weapon of choice when it comes to killing terrorists in places like Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. As a weapon of war, it has almost gained its own mythology with its flexibility being prized by military commanders; like a genie that emerges from the magic lantern to do the bidding of its master.

[Editor’s note: Read past reporting by Homeland Security Today on the terror threat posed by the use of drones here]

In Pakistan, attacks by drones operated by American intelligence agencies have been accused of being indiscriminate. Significant numbers of women and children have been rumoured to have been killed as drones have targeted meetings of those connected with terrorism.

Such assessments have been challenged by both the Americans and by local reports emerging from within Pakistan. This suggests local people, despite the tragedies, were happy to see key players in organizations like the Taliban and Al Qaeda targeted.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between the competing assessments. What is clear is that attacks using unmanned aircraft are here to stay. Use of unmanned drones in the global war on terror has unleased the genie. It will take a sea-change of political and military thought to put it back in the bottle.

While drones have gained an image of being involved in what are labelled by some in the media as extrajudicial killings, in other quarters they are now part of mainstream society. Who is surprised today when you see someone flying a drone? They literally turn up all over the place. Easy to buy, and even simpler to fly, a whole new band of drone enthusiasts has been created. This has created a host of new problems for those charged with the security of the homeland.

That ease of availability has also been recognized by terrorist groups. In Iraq and Syria, small drones, whose designs are based on those readily available for purchase in the West, are being turned out at ever increasing rates. In one recent report from Syria, in a factory building five drones a day were discovered and disabled.

The drones are also being armed, albeit not with the kind of missiles used by the Predator drones used by the United States and their allies to attack terrorist cells and leaders, such as the Hellfire Missile, but with simple hand grenades and other explosives.

One thwarted plot in the United States saw a terrorist arrested in September 2011 who planned to fly a model aircraft into the Pentagon. This was planned to be a small-scale repeat of what happened on 9/11. This was just over a decade from the date of the original attack. The scale-model of the F-86 aircraft cost $6,500. The man, Rezwan Ferdaus, a US citizen from Massachusetts, was going to load the aircraft with C4 plastic explosives and fly it into the Pentagon. A similar plot to attack a crowded place in Gibraltar was prevented during the London Olympics in 2012.

This ability to conduct attacks using unmanned platforms goes beyond the airborne drone. Terrorists have also recently conducted a number of attacks against Saudi warships using drones to deliver explosives. It would seem that the expertise to weaponize robots is increasingly being developed in terrorist groups over a wider geographic area.

Plans to release chemicals from drones are also often discussed in terrorist chat rooms. The drone, it seems, is making the transition from a weapon exclusively used by the West to being a platform used by terrorists. Where might this lead? What form could a terrorist attack take using drones?

Some patterns that might suggest how this would evolve are becoming clear. Simple drones can be used by terrorist groups to conduct surveillance. Groups wishing to do a reconnaissance of a potential target — such as a part of a country’s Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) — can now fly a drone over the area collecting imagery. The aim of such a flight could be to highlight weakness in security arrangements at the site.

Recent reports of drones briefly lingering in and around sites that are of critical national importance are of obvious concern. At airports and ports, drones have been reported being flown on a number of occasions. Reports of near missies with aircraft landing at airports appear in the media on an increasing basis.

If reconnaissance is one use for drones terrorists have identified, might they also be used in an attack in the West? In Iraq and Syria, reports suggest drones have been used to attack military targets. Several reports since the start of the year suggest terrorists have been able to kill soldiers on the ground. They arealso hard to shoot down. Technology capable of disabling drones is in its infancy. So, as far as terrorists are concerned, they have a window of opportunity to use them.

The obvious target for such an attack is a crowded place. Drones have become such a feature of the daily rhythms of life that people would barely pay attention to one flying in the vicinity. Only when an explosion occurred might people make a connection with the often barely audible noise of the drone propellers beforehand. A drone spraying a chemical might even pass by unnoticed until peopleon the ground started to collapse. These are only a small indication of the inherent flexibility that exists in using drones as a platform from which to conduct attacks.

Attack vectors therefore suggest drones might be used as weapons of terror against people and sites of critical national interest. Whereas fences have kept people out of sensitive areas connected to CNI, a drone can fly over such obstacles and release small amounts of explosives or be used in a kamikaze form of attack, diving directly onto the target. Railway stations, lines, overhead cables and highways are all equally valid targets.

It is not difficult to imagine the degree of carnage that would quickly arise if a drone armed with explosives were to be deliberately crashed into a truck on a freeway during a period when the traffic is moving quickly. The truck, already now popular as an attack vector as the attacks in Berlin, Nice and Stockholm have shown, would then go out of control, crashing into cars and causing a major road traffic accident.

Multiple deaths could easily be the result. The idea of attacking traffic on a freeway is not new. That was the original aim of the San Bernardino plotters before they chose to change their target to the local community center at which one worked. Had they carried out their original plan, we might have seen the definition of a crowded place include freeways during rush hour.

The interesting question for the terrorist group is not what kind of target to attack using a drone, but which of the many that are available would create the greatest havoc. They are replete with choices. An attack on a railway line in which saw rails were destroyed ahead of a high-speed train, forcing a derailment, could be devastating in terms of the head count of dead and injured. Some targets are far more obvious than others.

While much speculation has appeared in the media over the use of a drone to bring down an airliner, such an attack vector is unlikely to be successful. Aircraft engines and the cockpit windows are not easy to break. Besides actually getting a drone to collide with an aircraft, or to time an explosion as it is landing, is far from a trivial task. At present, this specific attack vector is somewhat overhyped.

The options for terrorists to use drones as a weapon to attack the West — exacting a retribution for their pivotal role in the global war on terror — are many fold. The initial outlay of a few hundred dollars for a drone is hardly a barrier to their use. It seems inevitable an attack will occur. It also allows the attacker to get away to repeat the attack on another day in a another location.

It seems that the technology has allowed the genie that once was the purview of the military has now become a potential weapon of terrorists. As this analysis suggests, terrorists have a large range of potential targets to attack. Protecting those targets now becomes a new consideration for those who build and supply solutions to the homeland security marketplace. Solutions to this problem are rapidly becoming an imperative. With the genie of drone technology firmly out of its bottle, the problems of how to protect society from its potential ravages becomes increasingly important.

Dr. Dave Sloggett is a Senior Contributing Editor and an authority on international terrorism with over 42 years of experience in the military and law enforcement sectors working in a variety of roles, specializing in intelligence analysis and human behaviour in the context of hybrid and asymmetric warfare. He is an authority on counterterrorism and his work has taken him to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, West Africa and Northern Ireland where he has studied the problems of insurgencies, terrorism and criminality on the ground, often working closely with NATO. His research work at Oxford University in the United Kingdom focuses on the prevention of acts of terror. He spent time in Afghanistan working with the Predator operators on missions, and is author of, Drone Warfare: The Development of Unmanned Aerial Conflict.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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