Being cheap and easily accessible commercial drones are spreading rapidly. Without adequate regulations and their efficient implementation they can become terrorists’ newest weapons.

By Mauro Lubrano

Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) have become one of the most controversial tools used in the post 9/11 counterterrorism strategy. However, terrorists have also incorporated the technology in their arsenal: the commercial counterparts of UAVs have already been deployed by terrorist organizations in warzones, including for complex and sophisticated operations involving drone swarms (groups of automated and coordinated UAVs). Without more regulations and their strict implementation, the possibility of these technologies being used beyond warzones is now considerably higher.

UAVs: the technology

Among the latest technologies that impacted terrorists’ modus operandi – and will continue to do so – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) stand out. This technology enables terrorists to circumvent countermeasures thus increasing their chances of success. UAVs’ widespread availability and the ease with which they can be operated greatly contribute to terrorists choosing these devices.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are generally defined as “powered, aerial vehicles that do not carry a human operator, use aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload.” Although gathered under a single acronym, UAVs, or drones, can display considerable variations among different models.

The first, obvious difference is between military and commercial UAVs. The former are high performance aerial vehicles that can operate at high altitude, can reach high speed, are capable of carrying ponderous payloads, and can reach considerable ranges. By contrast, commercial UAVs – also referred to as “Commercial off-the-shelf” (COTS) UAVs because of their widespread availability to the general public – are much smaller and inferior to their military counterparts in all of the above-mentioned capabilities.

The first defining characteristic of a COTS UAV is the wing. In this regard, UAVs’ wings can be fixed or rotary. Fixed-wing UAVs are remotely piloted airplanes. Depending on their takeoff weights, they can be either hand-launched (i.e. thrown in the air) or launched by means of catapults. The main advantages of fixed wing UAVs is their simpler structure, that results in more operational time at a lower cost. This enables a longer flight and the covering of larger survey areas. Some terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State (IS), and other non-state actors like Hezbollah have resorted to fixed-wing UAVs.

Rotary-wing UAVs generate lift through the rotation of an aerodynamic surface: the rotor. In the presence of multiple rotors, they are usually referred to as “multirotors” (e.g. tricopter, quadcopter, hexacopter, and octocopter). The main advantages of rotary-wing UAVs lie in their hovering capabilities as well as in their ability to take off and land vertically without the need for any extra equipment. However, the complex mechanics involved in the rotary wings negatively impact their speed as well as their flight range. Nonetheless, multirotor UAVs have become by far the most popular. As a matter of fact, the ten best-selling drones on Amazon for the year 2017 were all quadcopters.

Violent non-state actors and UAVs: a brief history

Violent non-state actors – predominantly terrorist and criminal organizations – have already demonstrated a great interest in UAVs. Indeed, criminal organizations have been using UAVs in order to avoid security controls and smuggle drugs into South and Central America, at least since 2010. However, recent events are pointing to a more sophisticated use of this technology, as the Mexican police retrieved a drone packed with improvised explosive devices (IED) last October. In Western countries, gangs and other criminal organizations have also resorted to UAVs to smuggle prohibited items (ranging from smartphones to drugs) into prisons.

Terrorist interest in UAVs dates back to 1993/4, when the apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo considered dispersing Sarin gas by means of two remotely controlled helicopters. The plan was eventually abandoned and the following decade saw more terrorist plans involving UAVs being thwarted by authorities or called off due to technical hurdles. It was not until 2004 that the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah resorted to UAVs in a 20-minute reconnaissance mission. Again, Hezbollah attempted – the first non-state actor to do so – to carry out a lethal operation against Israeli forces during the 2006 July war with three Iranian-made Ababil drones. They were however successfully intercepted and neutralized by Israel’s F-16s.

From ISTAR mission to drone swarm attack

In general, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions have largely characterized terrorists’ use of UAVs. However, the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the subsequent chaos have provided an excellent opportunity for several terrorist organizations to test this technology for targeted attacks. Indeed, during the Syrian conflict, several terrorist organizations (the Islamic State, Jabhat al Nusra and Saraya al-Khorasani) and groups such as Hezbollah have deployed weaponized UAVs on a regular basis.

Beyond Syria and Iraq, Eastern Ukraine has presented another opportunity for non-state actors – both pro-Russian separatist and pro-government forces – to test UAVs on the battlefield. Since terrorists have started to repeatedly test these weapon systems on the ground, some recent events have marked upgrades and improvements that have led to at least two significant episodes. Last July, a small drone carrying a thermite grenade blew up an entire ammunition depot in Eastern Ukraine. More recently, a swarm consisting of 13 drones attacked two Russian bases in Syria. Despite the fact that the UAVs used were quite simple, the GPS system that guided them from their launch site – approximately 50 kilometers from the attacked targets – appeared to be quite sophisticated. Commenting on the episode, a Russian official hinted at potential links between the perpetrators of the attack – who have not been clearly identified despite some claims of responsibility – and an external state-actor, stimulating debate on UAVs’ role in proxy wars.

Beyond warzones: UAVs and terrorist attacks

Cheap and relatively easy to deploy, UAVs represent an ideal tool for terrorist organizations engaged in asymmetric conflicts. They could prove a great asset for both lone attackers and groups that intend to carry out terrorist operations beyond warzones in Western countries. After all, groups like the Islamic State have repeatedly encouraged their supporters and affiliates to use drones. There would be many advantages to using UAVs. First, drones are widely available at reasonable prices, while the lack of regulations allows potential criminal misuse. Besides, UAVs would enable terrorists to circumvent traditional security measures, potentially increasing their chances of success.

Soft targets vs. hard targets

As to the potential targets, the classic distinction is between soft and hard ones. Soft targets refer to objectives with operational characteristics that make them vulnerable and exploitable. Such targets usually feature unrestricted access and little to no security measures, such as sports events or festivals. Conversely, hard targets, like airports or power plants, are less vulnerable thanks to the security measures that prevent unauthorized access and minimize the chances of successful attacks.

As James Forest asserted in his 2006 book ‘Homeland Security: Protecting America’s Targets’, 72% of the terrorist attacks between 1968 and 2005 were directed against soft targets. Consistent with this target selection, UAV terrorist attacks in Western countries are likely to be carried out against soft targets. The difficulties in striking hard targets – which might have  specific anti-UAVs countermeasures in place – could indeed persuade terrorists to aim for soft ones where their chances of success would be higher.

Incidents involving UAVs during sporting events have already occurred. However, relevant countermeasures are also being installed at these venues in response. A prime example, perhaps, is France declaring no-fly zones over stadiums and deploying counter-drone technologies during the UEFA Euro 2016 games. Additionally, UAVs are also used to record these events, thus the likelihood of a “rogue” drone blending in without raising suspicion cannot be ruled out.

Beyond these soft targets, terrorists could resort to UAVs to carry out targeted killing operations. Concerns about such scenarios have increased after a UAV flew within few meters from the German Chancellor and other officials during a campaign event in 2013. Similarly, in 2015, a miniaturized drone carrying a package of radioactive sand landed on the roof of the Japanese Prime Minister’s office. With respect to the latter episode, concerns have been expressed about the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) security implications of UAVs.

Though more difficult to strike, hard targets – airports, in particular – could also become potential objectives of a UAV terrorist attack. Generally, there is a set of rules to be observed when operating UAVs in proximity to airports. Nonetheless, incidents involving drones occur at an alarming rate. In 2016, for example, there have been more than 1,600 episodes where unidentified UAVs have gotten too close to airplanes. On one occasion, a UAV even collided with a commercial aircraft at the Jean-Lesage International Airport in Quebec City, Canada. As these incidents show, implementing the rules regulating UAVs’ activities near airports has so far been challenging. Terrorist organizations could plan to exploit these vulnerabilities to strike airplanes. Even a small IED-carrying drone could result in significant casualties if, for example, it explodes close to a plane’s wings where the fuel is stored.

Sensitive targets, such as nuclear facilities, could similarly be struck by drones. Studies have demonstrated that, due to their size, small UAVs are able to circumvent security barriers and a UAV attack could trigger dangerous instabilities, even if the structure of a nuclear plant is difficult to compromise. Other sensitive targets, like chemical plants, could also be at risk. UAVs’ operations against these targets and other critical infrastructure, such as railways, dams or electrical grids, could also be carried out for ISTAR purposes.

Advancing countermeasures…

Several countermeasures have been deployed as an answer to the UAV threat with more being currently developed. In developing countermeasures, proportional response is a key-factor. For example, anti-missile defense systems like the Israeli Iron Dome could theoretically bring down COTS UAVs. It would however do so at huge expenses. Hence, the need for cost-effective systems is evident. The spectrum of viable solutions ranges from sophisticated technological systems to more rudimentary ones.

One of these solutions lies in the means of cyber warfare. Some systems are, indeed, specifically designed to detect and jam or hack COTS UAVs. For example, during the January 5, 2018 swarm attack in Syria, Russian forces were able to hack some of the UAVs and force them to land. However, due to their small size, these drones are more difficult to detect than larger aircrafts. Counter-UAV systems thus require specialized radars. Other sophisticated countermeasures include laser weapon systems. By heating the targeted aircrafts, laser systems bring them down causing structural failures and loss of control. A further defense mechanism is provided by geofencing. Geofencing consists of setting up an invisible protective perimeter with GPS location-sensing. A UAV would need to have a reliable navigation system (i.e. GPS) and autopilot software to create and interact with this virtual fence. However, not all commercial UAVs are equipped with these features, and those that are can be hacked easily.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are countermeasures that are intended to physically stop UAVs without interfering with its internal functioning system. Among them, portable net-shooting bazookas are designed to catch UAVs mid-air and bring them down. Moreover, a possible countermeasure was found with birds: some European countries, such as the Netherlands, Belgium and France have trained eagles and hawks to hunt and take down rogue UAVs. However, the desired outcome must have been below expectations, as the Dutch police disbanded its eagle squad in December 2017.

… stagnant regulations

If the advancement of countermeasures has been moving fast with the development of systems to neutralize the UAV threat, the same cannot be said about regulations. First, as COTS UAVs are not subjected to any sort of export regime, there is no restriction on their purchase. After all, most of the UAVs that the Islamic State has used are modified models that can be bought online. Similarly, countries that sponsor and supply terrorist organizations can easily trade drone technologies just like they do with conventional weapons.

At an international level, regulations vary across countries. The bulk of those provisions regulate general aspects, such as the registration of the aircraft or the issuance of licenses. Other characteristics that are generally regulated with respect to COTS UAVs are the size, the payload capacity, the weight and the range. No-fly zones, such as the minimum distance that UAVs have to keep from airports, nuclear power plants, military installation, government facilities and crowded areas, also fall under certain control. However, as the case of the previously mentioned airports demonstrates, there is an alarming gap between regulations and their implementation.

According to an article published by The Economist, commercial drones are the fastest-growing section of the UAV-market. Predictions show that the number of COTS UAVs in 2035 will be higher than that of manned aircrafts. Similarly, the technology of commercial drones is developing so fast that “regulatory and legal frameworks are having a hard time keeping up.” However, it is not too late. More regulations – and their effective implementation – should be the cornerstone for thwarting the UAV threat before it materializes in a severe fashion. If we do not act in this regard, UAV attacks in Western countries could soon become the latest addition to terrorists’ track record.

Cover Photo: a still from an IS propaganda video available on Mirror Online