Recreational Drones – A New toy for Terrorists and Anarchists?!

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Author: Gabriel Badea (MBA, MSc Security, FSyI)

Although the drone technology looks like a recent scientific break-through, the military development of drone’s history dates back in the years of the First World War when US Army attempted to develop a new class of technologized weapons called the “air torpedoes”. Later on, in 1935 Britain produced a full-size radio controlled aircraft meant to be used for training purposes.

Not much progress was achieved during the World War Two, but during the Cold War era, a new phase of development of aerial drones was launched.

For instance, in the 60’s US Army introduced in the active service the AQM 34 Ryan Firebee drones. In spite of their quite unreliable technology, they flew some 34,000 missions, throughout the Vietnam War, mostly reconnaissance or dropping propaganda leaflets flights.

Nonetheless, the American Firebees played an important role for the Israeli army in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. At that time, they were quite effective in helping Israeli Air Force to lure the fire of their enemies’ SAM rockets away from the Israeli warplanes which resulted in a significant decrease of its battle loses. Impressed by the effectiveness of this new technology after the war ended, Israel invested in developing its own military drones program.

And moreover, there were some Israeli drones engineers too who in the 80’s developed the first versions of the Predator, now the very famous American UAV.

These days, many armies around the world are regarding drones as an indispensable piece of military technology. Called by the name of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or as RPVs (remote piloted vehicles) the military drones are completing reconnaissance flights or combat missions in conflict areas such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Yemen, on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, drones are now not only a military device, but also they started to serve civilian purposes, too. Drones are doing surveillance flights for meteorological and environmental projects or are flown in search and rescue operations. Retailers such as Amazon are investing in a drone delivery service, too.

As they are growing in popularity amongst military, public services and business circles, recently, quite inconspicuously, drones entered our day-to-day life, sometimes in the benign appearance of a most wanted Christmas gift.  Indeed drone technology augmented with GPS and other software advancements lately become more affordable and easier to be operated even by school children, thus no wonder they conquered the toys and the recreational market as well.

Although many regards such recreational drones as “just toys” for kids and hobbyists, even our much popular Dji  Phantoms and Parrot Bepop or other of the likes, ending in the wrong hands could easily transform either in some quite dangerous machines or even more, in some treacherous weapons. Quite often we heard about drone accidents and pranks, but there still is an even darker side of toy drones: The makeshift weaponised drones of the terrorists.

Drones are a familiar presence to terrorists and insurgents, especially in the Middle East. Most of the armies they are fighting against are heavily relying on drones. Therefore, when off-the-shelf, low-cost recreational drones become widely accessible to the public, quite naturally terrorists didn’t miss the opportunity to make weapons out of them.

Consequently, in the last few years reports of terrorists using drones are on the rise.

Even more, at the beginning of this year, The Islamic state launched its new unit of the “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahedin”. Allegedly ISIS made use extensively of modified commercial drones for bombing the Iraqi and Syrian troops and moreover even for guiding and coordinating suicide attacks. Nevertheless, ISIS commanders quite commonly flew drones in the sky to gather intel over the enemy units.

However, the possibility of perpetrating chemical, biological or radiological drone-borne attacks are most disturbing threats of all. And there are many credible pieces of evidence suggesting that terrorists of ISIS were at least thinking to such new and terrifying escalation.

These days the Islamic State is on demise, but the fight is not over. Now, when there is left not too much land to fight for in Syria or Iraq, the ISIS insurgents will probably look increasingly for new targets inside the countries they regard as enemies.

Many of the foreign ISIS recruits are now returning to their countries of origin, and many are believed entered European countries under the guise of refugees. It is sensible to assume that at least some of them are likely to be skilled in weaponising an inexpensive off the shelf available toy drone and however it looks that some “how to” IS propaganda is already circulating video tutorials on the Internet

Unfortunately, in the western countries, are plenty of soft targets prone to be attacked. Public gatherings and crowds attending cultural or sports events, shopping malls, public transportation were and probably will still be on the on terrorist hit lists. Nonetheless, high visibility targets such as urban landmarks, churches and even headquarters of public authorities are also in their cross-hair because hitting such visible targets, besides generating the much desired by terrorists public emotion and fear, additionally,  it could generate prestige and morale boost to their sympathists.

Moreover, using weaponised drones in attacks against enemy’s high visibility targets is particularly attractive for them, as the video footages recorded during the attack with HD filming capabilities of such devices make a highly valued propaganda material, too.

Recently, both Homeland Department in US and Europol warned of an increased risk of terrorist attacks perpetrated by terror groups and individuals originating from the Middle East. The use of weaponised toy drones was explicitly mentioned by both organizations as a potential new sophisticated alternative to the traditional modus operandi of urban jihadists, who lately relied mostly on knives and car ramming attacks. At the same time, the Islamic State propaganda materials are urging adherents to avenge their defeat by killing “infidels” by all means including civil weaponised drones.

Not only terrorists are transforming recreational drones into weapons and tools for supporting illegal activities. Anti-government protesters started to rely on drones to augment their activism, too. The case of the Japanese environmentalist, who landed a drone carrying radioactive sand collected from the site of the Fukushima nuclear plant was extensively commented by the international media.

Similarly, animal rights activists flew surveillance drones over the research centres in the United States and Great Britain, and a human rights activist group dropped some protest leaflets over a US military facility in Darmstadt Germany. But the most rising eyebrows incident involving drones in Germany happened in 2013 when a small device piloted by an activist of the German Pirates Party landed few meters away of the Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking at an electoral gathering.

Drones enthusiasts could cause trouble, too. Drones visited the White House in Washington DC not only once, and in the UK a drone hobbyist sent his drones over the Buckingham Palace and the House of Parliament in London triggering some high-level security alerts.

In spite of tough legislation lately enacted by governments against flying drones inside populated areas, recreational drones are still hovering and landing in sensitive areas.

Unfortunately, the tough legislation doesn’t help too much as long as enforcing the regulations on people who could easily build or even weaponise drones in their garages is realistically thinking quite a difficult mission with presumably, a low rate of success.

Therefore besides tougher regulatory framework, some active physical measure of protection against drones should be considered, as well.

Sensitive areas such as military facilities, governmental buildings and public gathering premises must be provided with anti-drone technology able to detect and prevent drone intrusions within the safe zones of such premises.

A scenario with a determined criminal or terrorist using a drone strapped with explosive against a crowded public area or even against a governmental building is not to be taken lightly by antiterrorist bodies especially in the United States and EU countries.



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