A year ago I wrote a short chapter for a book about emerging technologies and their impact on security, published by Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology & Security and curated by Deb Housen-Couriel. The chapter focused on drones and the various ways they’re being used in the hands of criminals to smuggle drugs across borders, to identify and raid urban marijuana farms operated by rival gangs, and to smuggle firearms and lifestyle luxury items over prison walls. At the end of the paper I provided a forecast: drones will soon be used by terrorists to kill people.
Well, it looks like the future is catching up with us, since a report from Syria (as covered in Popular Mechanic) has just confirmed that ISIS is using small drones as weapons, albeit not very sophisticated ones. In fact, the terrorists are simply loading the drones with explosives, and trying to smash them on the enemy forces.
That, of course, is hardly surprising to anyone who has studied the use of drones by ISIS. The organization is drawing young and resourceful Muslims from the West, some of whom have expertise with emerging technologies like 3D-printers and aerial drones. These kinds of technologies can be developed today in the garage for a few hundred dollars, so it should not surprise anyone that ISIS is using aerial drones wherever it can.
The Islamic State started using drones in 2014, but they were utilized mainly for media and surveillance purposes. Drones were used to capture some great images from battles, as well as for battlefield reconnaissance. Earlier in 2015, the U.S. has decided that ISIS drones are important enough to be targeted for destruction, and launched an airstrike to destroy a drone and its operators. In other words, the U.S. has spent tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in ammunition and fuel for the most expansive and sophisticated aircraft and missiles in the world, in order to destroy a drone likely costing less than one thousand dollars.
All of this evidence is coming in from just this year and the one before it. How can we expect drones to be used by terrorist organizations in 2016?
Scenarios for Aerial Drones Terrorist Attacks
In a research presented in 2013, two Dutch researchers from TNO Defence Research summed up four scenarios for malicious use of drones. Two of these scenarios are targeting civilians and would therefore count as terrorist attacks against unarmed civilians.
In the first scenario, a drone with a small machine gun is directed into a stadium, where it opens fire on the crowd. While the drone would most probably crash within a few seconds because of the backlash, the panic caused by the attack would cause many people to trample each other in their flight to safety.
In the second scenario, a drone would be used by terrorists to drop an explosive straight on the head of a politician, in the middle of a public speech. Security forces in the present are essentially helpless in the face of such a threat, and at most can order the politician into hiding as soon as they see a drone in the sky – which is obviously an impractical solution.
Both of the above scenarios have been validated in recent years, albeit in different ways. A drone was illegally flown into a stadium in the middle of a soccer game between Serbia and Albania. Instead of carrying a machine gun, the drone carried the national flag of Greater Albania – which one of the Serbian players promptly ripped down. He was assaulted immediately by the Albanian players, and soon enough the fans stormed the field, trampling over fences and policemen in the process.
The second scenario occurred in September 2013, in the midst of an election campaign event in Germany. A drone operated by a 23 years old man was identified taking pictures in the sky. The police ordered the operator to land the drone immediately, and he did just that and crashed the drone – intentionally or not – at the feet of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. If that drone was armed with even a small amount of explosives, the event would’ve ended in a very different fashion.
As you can understand from these examples, aerial drones can easily be used as tools for terrorist attacks. Their potential has not nearly been fulfilled, probably because terrorists are still trying to equip those lightweight drones with enough explosives and shrapnel to make an actual impact. But drones function just as well with other types of ammunition – which can be even scarier than explosives.
Here’s a particularly nasty example: sometime in 2016, in a bustling European city, you are sitting and eating peacefully in a restaurant. You see a drone flashing by, and smile and point at it, when suddenly it makes a sharp turn, dives into the restaurant and floats in the center for a few seconds. Then it sprays all the guests with a red-brown liquid: blood which the terrorists have drawn from a HIV-carrying individual. Just half a liter of blood is more than enough to decorate a room and to cover everyone’s faces. And now imagine that the same happens in ten other restaurants in that city, at the same time.
Would you, as tourists, ever come back to these restaurants? Or to that city? The damages to tourism and to morale would be disastrous – and the terrorists can make all that happen without resorting to the use of any illegal substances or equipment. No explosives at all.
Conclusion and Forecast
Here’s today forecast: by the year 2016, if terrorists have their wits about them (and it seems the ISIS ones certainly do, most unfortunately), they will carry out a terrorist attack utilizing drones. They may use the drones for charting out the grounds, or they may actually use the drones to carry explosives or other types of offensive materials. Regardless, drones are such an incredibly useful tool in the hands of individual terrorists that it’s impossible to believe they will not be used somehow.
How can we defend ourselves from drone terrorist attacks? In the next post I will analyze the problem using a foresight methodology called Causal Layered Analysis, in order to get to the bottom of the issue and consider possible solutions.
Till that time, if you find yourself eating in a restaurant when a drone comes in – duck quickly.