Drones: The Next Evolution of Low-Tech Terror

The wave of jihadist terrorist attacks on soft targets throughout Western Europe and the United States in recent months have a common tactical thread running through them. 

All of them — whether the shooting attack at the Orlando nightclub, the use of a truck to viciously mow down bystanders at a Bastille Day celebration in Nice or the use of an ax to attack passengers on a train in Germany — are examples of what analysts previously have referred to as “low-tech terrorism.” They involve simpler, less-elaborate and lower-budget weapons and planning.

Adding to this is the fact that the targets are not confined to a short list of high-profile, iconic structures like the World Trade Center, but rather expanded to any publicly accessible location where a group may gather, simplifying the planning even further.  

From a tactical perspective, these attacks are also notable because the terrorists had to be physically present at the target in order to attack it, and in some cases were present prior to the attack, to conduct reconnaissance in advance. In other words, what the terrorists have lacked thus far is the advantage of evasiveness — the ability to carry out or provide critical support for an attack without actually being on site.    

There is reason to be concerned that drones may soon fill that gap, and add an additional layer of complexity as law enforcement and other domestic security services try to tackle the low-tech terrorism threat.

Small drones, flown for commercial or recreational purposes, are now available throughout the world, and are relatively inexpensive to obtain or build from component parts. The U.S. military has noted that groups like the Islamic State have already configured them to carry small explosives and act as aerial improvised explosive devices against ground forces in the Middle East. That threat can migrate easily into the homeland security space, where a drone could be flown with precision to detonate in a specific place, without someone having to walk or drive toward a crowd and risk possibly being thwarted by security personnel.  

There have been other ominous warnings of the possibilities in this regard far from the battlefields of Iraq. Back in 2013, a member of the German Pirate Party, in an apparent attempt to make a political statement about drone surveillance, managed to remotely pilot a small aircraft through a crowd at an outdoor rally in Germany, landing it near the podium in front of Chancellor Angela Merkel and other high-level German government officials. In that particular instance, the perpetrator was arrested in a structure nearby after the drone had already landed. Similarly, a drone operator protesting Japan’s nuclear energy policy landed a drone containing radioactive material on the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s office.

A drone that is not weaponized can still add significant value to those looking to gather intelligence from afar before carrying out an attack or receive real-time targeting information during one.

While the military has not yet seen groups like the Islamic State engage in the large-scale use of drones as flying bombs, it has been using unmanned aerial vehicles for image-gathering operations to guide and augment other kinds of attacks, like showing the optimal routes for car bombs, or studying Iraqi troop positioning and responses. Its use of drones, both as an IED delivery system and as an intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance tool, has become enough of an issue for the U.S. military that the Defense Department last month asked Congress to provide an additional $20 million to the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency to continue tackling this challenge.      

It’s a reasonable bet that non-state actors like ISIL and others, cognizant of the advantages that drones provide and already making use of them on foreign battlefields, are looking at how to use them here.  

While there is growing recognition of this risk, more needs to be done.  Recently, the Department of Homeland Security announced it has identified counter-drone technology solutions as one of several first responder “capabilities gaps,” and will host an event this October that will enable personnel in New York City to experiment with various solutions being offered by the private sector.

Given the availability of drones and the demonstrated terrorist intent and capability to use them, efforts to develop and field counter-drone technologies suitable for populated environments need to be encouraged and expedited.   

Additionally, law enforcement should give serious thought as to how to enlist the general public’s help in preventing such an attack. It’s one thing to apply “see something, say something” to people acting suspiciously or unclaimed packages, but it may be harder for the average person to articulate whether something seems off about the presence or flight path of a drone, especially in settings where their legitimate use is permitted.      

It has often been the case that bad guys can innovate much faster than good guys can respond. In the case of terrorist use of drones, we may have an opportunity to put measures in place before something happens in the United States. But officials need to move fast. 

Ben Lerner is vice president for government relations at the Center for Security Policy.

Topics: Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Robotics, Viewpoint

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