Could Drones Become the New Weapon of Choice for Terrorists?
1 November 2022
The USA-led NATO forces widely employed drones to carry out counter-terror operations during the War on Terror. A few short years later, however, drones are now fast becoming a technology to be feared in the hands of the very groups they were designed to hunt.
The advent of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) have been representative of the changing character of warfare in the 21st Century. Colloquially referred to as ‘drones’ for their resemblance to flying insects or bees, UAVs can simply be understood as multipurpose flying robots. The past decade has witnessed the raid and widespread diffusion of the technology leading to it being profusely adapted in the civilian and military spheres alike. Drones vary based on size to type and design and purpose. On the basis of the number of engines they entail, drones can be classified as: bicopters (two engines), tricopters (three engines), quadrocopters (four engines), hexacopters (six engines), octocopters (eight engines). On the basis of application, four types of drones can be identified:
Micro/Mini UAVs: mostly being found in fields like surveillance, film making, pollution measurement.
Tactical UAVs: is found in various fields such as communication relay, search, and rescue, etc
Strategic UAVs: this are mainly found in airport security systems, etc.
Special Tasks UAVs: these are most important UAVs used for several armed forces tasks such as anti-ship, anti-radar, aerial, and naval deception etc.
On the commercial front, drones are being used in areas ranging from entertainment to agriculture and scientific research. Drones are employed in Geodesy to gather aerial pictures or for archaeological imagery, oceanography, geophysics, flight research etc. Moreover, states have been consistently using them in supporting roles to address various challenges to security including crowd control, disaster management and emergency response in cases such as fire. Such applications include thermal imaging and detection and vision support. Consequently, a number of state and non-state actors are involved in both producing and utilising the technology.
Characteristics of drones such as their small size, endurance, manoeuvrability and efficiency have been particularly attractive for militaries. Drones in this respect act as force multipliers that help the military increase the efficacy of their firepower, mobility, protection, communication and intelligence. Their induction into the military sphere was largely to boost Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities through their employment in areas ranging from border management to patrolling of critical military infrastructure. The USA pioneered the way in utilising drones in an attack function in the ongoing War on Terror during President Barack Obama’s administration. The MQ-1 Predator, originally conceptualised for surveillance purposes was fitted with the Hellfire missiles to identify and target terrorist organisations’ leadership in Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), situated in north-western Pakistan. The Predator has been identified as the iconic weapon of that period for the waging of counter-counter-insurgency warfare and served to bolster the USA’s unipolar moment while establishing its image as a dominant superpower. However, the diffusion of technology has since then arguably proven to be a vulnerability.
Drones allow their users to project airpower at a cheap cost. This factor along with relatively easy accessibility make the platform particularly attractive for violent non-state actors who seek to employ the same to challenge state actors’ conventional superiority. Their ability to attack various targets rapidly, often simultaneously, while offering the potential to cause huge losses further magnify their utility for terrorists as evidenced by multiple instances over the past two decades. Such tactics have been employed both by lonewolf terrorists as well as terrorist organisations. Terrorists outfits including Hezbollah, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been have been using drones in multiple terror attacks. In March 2004 a Palestinian extremist group, used explosives loaded drones to attack Jewish settlement in Gaza Strip.
In November 2004, Hezbollah used the Misrad-1 drone to enter Israeli airspace. Ahead of being intercepted by Israel, the drone is said to have lingered over Nahariya, a town in Western Galilee before travelling back to Lebanon. Hezbollah used the same drone in April 2005 while avoiding Israel’s radars. In doing so, it awoke the world to the threat of drone’s ability to evade sophisticated aerial warning systems and presented the potential for the technology to carry deliver explosives to upto 40-50 kilograms to carry out an attack. In another striking instance in October 2012, it flew the Iranian-made Ayub drone over the Dimona nuclear weapons complex, presumably attempting to capture and transmit images of the same before getting shot down by Israeli aircraft.
The very first publicly known instance of ISIS using drones was in 2014 when a video showing military bases in Raqqa city surfaced on YouTube this instance was showcasing the possibility that drones could be employed by terrorist organisations to improve circumstantial awareness and use superior propaganda material. Another act of image capturing, and monitoring was conducted by ISIS in 2015 early April. Another video released by ISIS had images of an archaeological site, having pagan gods and their desire to simply ruin the place. Video release of ISIS in the same year communicating their ability of drones’ usage in reconnaissance missions to coordinate Baiji attacks. As recently as 2019, Yemen’s Houthi rebels targeted two installations belonging to the Saudi Aramco in what has been termed “their most audacious strike on the kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. The attack had the effect of escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf and posed a serious threat in terms of risking the disruption of global oil supplies.
Threat from use of drones by terrorists is often considered hypothetical. Whether such a use has resulted in a grave threat to security is largely subjective. However, such an instance resulting in grave losses of life, property or territory is very much in the realm of reality. While the capacity to produce highly advanced military drones rests with a handful of countries including the USA and Israel, drone technology is otherwise widely diffused around the world. China in particular has found a number of eager customers in the Middle East. Drones used by Iranian-backed militias were noted to be of Chinese origin during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing held on 4 August, 2022. While these may not match the technical sophistication of those used by militaries, the drones employed by terrorists in several instances have demonstrated an ability to evade advanced aerial-warning systems and poses severe threat to critical infrastructure and could compromise militaries’ ability to defend as well as respond to a threat. Deployment of drone swarms in a kamikaze mode or drones equipped with radioactive ‘dirty’ bombs in this context constitutes a grave threat and one that cannot be discounted as hypothetical. Global focus in this context needs to be laid on building and strengthening arrangements that seek to regulate, monitor and verify the flow of critical technologies that are employed in building drones.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
Radhika is a postgraduate scholar at Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. Her research interest areas are broadly related to intelligence studies, terrorism and counter-terrorism and on India's national security.