The Dark Side of Drones: Implications for Terrorism

By: CPT Benjamin Seibert, US Army


In recent years, rapid advancements in drone technology have raised questions, not only at the tactical level but also at the academic level, about the potentially revolutionary ways drones will affect how terrorists operate and what such technology will be capable of. As historian Walter Laqueur warned, "Society has … become vulnerable to a new kind of terrorism, in which the destructive power of both the individual terrorist and terrorism as a tactic are infinitely greater." 1 This article discusses some of the likely effects that drones will have in this world of postmodern terrorism by analyzing the capabilities of drones, their appeal to terrorists and terrorist organizations, and the way drones can achieve the psychological impact that terrorists desire.

Drone Capabilities

Before discussing what drones are capable of, it is first necessary to define what is meant by the term drone. The word is not an accurate representation of the machines, but it has been adopted in mainstream communications to broadly denote a constantly changing form of mobile technology. For example, the word drone has been used by the media to refer to airplanes, rotary-wing aircraft, boats, and wheeled vehicles when these machines are unmanned and remotely operated. More commonly, however, the word drone refers to unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. These are any aircraft, fixed- or rotary-wing, capable of operating without a pilot on board. Fixed-wing UAVs range from the recreational model airplane to larger military reconnaissance and attack aircraft. The Predator and Reaper UAVs used by the United States are two examples of this latter military craft. Rotary-wing UAVs range from the small, lightweight quadcopter to a full-sized helicopter operated by remote control. Quadcopters are commercially available and are most commonly used to take aerial photographs, while larger unmanned helicopters have a wide variety of industrial, commercial, and military applications. For the purpose of this article, the word drone is used specifically to refer to these fixed- and rotary-wing UAVs.

What are these drones capable of? A foiled 2011 terrorist plot to attack the US Capitol building and the Pentagon provides an example of a model airplane's capabilities. Analyst Marc Goodman writes that the planner of the attack, Rezwan Ferdaus, "wanted to use 1/10 scale models of the F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft in the attack, noting that they can be purchased fully assembled with Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation equipment, were capable of traveling up to 160 mph, and could carry a payload of 10 to 12 pounds." 2 Goodman goes on to note that some model airplanes are capable of carrying up to 33 pounds and that bombing capabilities are also commercially available.3 "For only $16.95 anyone can buy the Chinese-made Quanum ‘bomb' drop system for remote control aircraft—either fixed- or rotary-wing. This 23.5 centimeter long case splits open to release a 103 gram payload of the user's choice." 4 The system is available for purchase on Amazon today, and although the weight capacity is small, the technology is simple and can be upgraded to accommodate larger aircraft with heavier payloads. This recalls the infamous quote from the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, when the captured terrorist leader Ben M'Hidi is questioned about the morality of using baskets to deliver explosives. He responds, "Of course, if we had your airplanes, it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets." 5

Thus, the presumed technological limitations of terrorist organizations are becoming increasingly irrelevant, and weapons that were the monopoly of advanced militaries are becoming accessible to anyone. Although significant limitations remain, the technology is catching up at an alarming rate. Ferdaus is not the only recent example. In 2013, German officials conducted a raid on a group of individuals thought to have been radicalized by Islamic extremism and discovered model airplanes that were reportedly capable of carrying enough explosives to destroy a commercial building.6

The Payload

The problem of acquiring and preparing explosives for use remains a gap between the desire and the deed, however, and the astute observer will note that in these previous two examples, the would-be terrorists possessed drones capable of delivering explosives, but not the explosives themselves. Marc Sageman of the Foreign Policy Institute remarks that although instructions for creating explosives are available online, the actual production of them is extremely dangerous.7 Sageman warns, "Law enforcement authorities should not become complacent; the number of wannabe terrorists remains large, and by the law of averages some are bound to be smart and bold enough to pull off an attack." 8 The 2013 Boston Marathon attack and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing are two examples from the United States in which terrorists did beat the law of averages and carried out lethal attacks using commercially available resources. Regulating the sale of commercial components after they have been successfully used, as was done with chemical fertilizers after the Oklahoma City bombing, however, will not prevent future attacks that use different means. As psychologist John Horgan notes, "Easily accessible components are the primary ingredients of today's terrorist bombs." 9 Terrorists will continue to adapt and create explosives with what is available to them, and the internet will continue to provide innovative techniques to assist in the process. Sageman goes on to warn that "these new [terrorist] groups … become dangerous when they hook up with a trained bomb maker." 10 Joining forces with an experienced bomb maker no longer has to happen in a distant terrorist training camp but can now be as simple as downloading an instructional video from the internet, and anyone dedicated enough to risk it can use this knowledge to create his own explosives. It becomes clear that terrorists, especially those working in countries where explosive components are not tightly regulated, are able to acquire all the necessary ingredients to carry out a bomb attack, with drones as the delivery vehicles.

Rotary-Wing Aircraft

Among modern drones, helicopter-style drones deserve special attention due to their extreme maneuverability. A video posted on YouTube by a group of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania demonstrates the impressive aerial maneuvers of quadcopter drones (called quadrotors in the video). These quadcopters do midair flips, fly through rectangular openings with a clearance of less than 3 inches on each side, and attach to fixed surfaces (by means of Velcro pads).11 Combined with GPS technology to guide the aircraft to within one meter of a target and laser range-finder devices that instantly identify precise grid coordinates from over 3,000 feet away, one could potentially land a quadcopter almost anywhere. This technology could be used for high-profile attacks such as assassinations of leading government officials. In 2013, for example, an activist group was able to land a quadcopter drone directly in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she spoke before a large crowd in Dresden. The entire video of this event can be seen on YouTube.12 The most alarming aspect of the event is that the ground-based security forces were completely helpless to prevent the drone from landing in front of the podium where Merkel was speaking. The chancellor herself seemed uncertain as to what actions should be taken. Despite a small lift capacity, commercially available quadcopters can carry enough explosives to seriously harm or kill a person. The incident in Dresden clearly demonstrates both the ability of drones to bypass traditional security measures and the unpreparedness of security forces to counter such a threat.

Another video posted by the University of Pennsylvania research group demonstrates the ability of 20 quadcopters to fly in formation to create a swarming effect.13 While one explosive-laden quadcopter might not reach its target or might cause only minimal damage, a swarm of the aircraft could cause serious harm. Even without explosives, a swarm of quadcopters could be aimed at the engines of a commercial airliner and cause it to crash. Flocks of birds are already known to cause serious harm if they are sucked into a jet engine, but the metal of a quadcopter drone would be much more devastating. The quadcopters in the University of Pennsylvania videos are state-of-the-art UAVs with proprietary software operating in a controlled laboratory setting, and could not currently be used outdoors with the same precision. But the technology to move these quadcopters out of the lab is being developed, and we should expect commercial drones to have these capabilities in the near future. What is more, as with all technology, costs and prices will fall dramatically as the devices are commercialized.

GPS technology allows for attacks against stationary targets, but technology is available to accurately strike moving targets as well. The Google Lily is an autonomous quadcopter drone—currently being marketed to skiers, surfers, and extreme sports enthusiasts—that uses GPS technology to record video of someone who is wearing a synchronized tag in an armband.14 Its current range from camera to tag is only 100 feet, but a commercially available antenna could greatly increase this distance. In addition, the Google Lily drone does not require line-of-sight with the tag to operate. Someone with violent intent could surreptitiously place one of these tags, which are small, inconspicuous, and undetectable by current security measures, on the intended target, and the drone, carrying a timed or remote-controlled explosive, could then be programmed to fly to the location of the tag. This would effectively turn a drone with Google Lily technology into a guided missile. If the tag is carried onto an aircraft, the drone could have the same effect as a surface-to-air missile, most potentially during takeoff or landing (to mitigate the greater speed of the airliner). This is one example of how commercially available products are further bridging the gap between the previously inaccessible technologies of modern militaries and the assets available to terrorist organizations.

Appeal to Terrorists and Terrorist Organizations

Up to this point, the discussion has focused on the tactical capabilities of drones and how they could be used to conduct terrorist attacks—information that is relevant to those with the day-to-day responsibility of defending against and preventing terrorist attacks. This section looks at why the use of drones is appealing to terrorists and terrorist organizations.

The Benefits of Precision

Precision targeting, made possible through the use of GPS, is appealing to terrorist organizations for the same reason it is appealing to any military: it not only allows the attacker to precisely hit the intended target, but assuming accurate targeting intelligence in the first place, also equally prevents an accidental strike on an unintended target. Just because a terrorist organization uses violent means against civilian targets does not mean that it is immune from the backlash that results when the wrong

people are killed. Horgan comments that "a myth about terrorist violence in the popular media is that it is often uncontrolled, frenzied, and vicious. While terrorism is often vicious, it is rarely frenzied and uncontrolled; when it is, it runs the risk of losing significant support." 15 The history of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) provides two examples, both from 1993. In the first incident, as the IRA escalated its attacks against increasingly aggressive British Loyalists, an IRA cell targeted some local paramilitary leaders who were believed to be meeting on the upper floor of a commercial fish shop on Shankill Road in Belfast.16 The attackers intended to plant a bomb with a timed fuse at the location of the meeting, but it detonated prematurely and killed nine civilians. In the second incident, a bomb that detonated in a Cheshire shopping area killed "two young boys and prompted significant protest in England and Ireland." 17 These botched attacks brought widespread condemnation down on the IRA during a time when gaining public support was vital to the organization. The attacks failed for two reasons: the unpredictability of the explosives and the inadequate means the group used for delivering the explosives to the intended targets. The exact reason why the explosive on Shankill Road detonated prematurely is unknown, but it was probably due to the use of a timed fuse—a common tactic of the IRA. Programming a bomb to detonate based on exact GPS location coordinates instead of relying on a timer creates a more reliable precision weapon and avoids the backlash that results from killing unintended targets.

Another reason why drones appeal to terrorists and terrorist organizations is that they are much easier to acquire and transport than conventional weapons. If a dedicated individual can overcome the obstacle of creating a reliable explosive component, then a terrorist attack can be conducted almost anywhere. A major strength of the US intelligence network has been its ability to intercept terrorists as they attempt to acquire conventional weapons. This was demonstrated by a 1982 FBI sting operation that uncovered an IRA weapons smuggling ring (whose shipment, incidentally, included a remote-controlled model airplane),18 as well as multiple operations since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in which FBI agents posed as arms dealers to bring down terror cells in their infancy.19 As a result, conventional military-grade weapons have been difficult for terrorists in the United States and Western Europe to acquire. Drones, on the other hand, are already available online, with more advanced models appearing every year.

Finally, drones allow attacks to be conducted anonymously and therefore increase the probability that an attacker will not only survive the attack but also avoid capture. This lessens the recruitment burden for terrorist networks, allows attackers to perfect their tactics by participating in multiple attacks, and appeals to those who prefer to pursue violence as a lifestyle choice rather than as a sacrificial duty. A drone provides this anonymity because it takes the burden of delivering the explosives away from the attacker, who otherwise risks being filmed by security cameras or identified by witnesses, or is expected to die, and places it on a machine. In addition, a drone could be launched from a concealed location by means of a timer and then fly to its intended target using GPS, long after the perpetrators have left the area. It is possible that an attacker would have enough time to fly to a foreign country and watch the results of the attack from abroad. The explosive could even be configured to detonate once the drone reaches a pre-configured grid coordinate. This process would require slightly more technical expertise but is well within the capabilities of many amateur hobbyists.

Regulation Lags behind Technology

The lack of effective government regulation is another appealing aspect of using drones to conduct terrorist attacks. Currently, fixed-wing drones can be modified by amateur hobbyists to carry heavier payloads like explosives, but they are not as effective as rotary-wing drones at precision targeting. The rotary-wing drones available to the public are still relatively small and would require significant upgrades to increase their lift capacity. While hobbyists have gained a lot of experience working with fixed-wing drones, rotary-wing technology is still beyond the skills of most amateur enthusiasts. Larger rotary-wing models, however, are being widely developed in the commercial sector and include drones with a lift capacity of up to 70 pounds.20 The use of such drones is still heavily regulated, but corporations are actively lobbying to expand their use. This lobbying has already resulted in a presidential memorandum, issued in February 2015, that called for "a plan to safely integrate civil UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] into the National Airspace System by September 30, 2015." 21

In reality, this regulation is already behind the times. Many US companies have been experimenting with the technology without waiting for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval. "The FAA's ban on commercial drone use means that much of the rush toward drone adoption is happening in the shadows." 22 Furthermore, "because the FAA lacks the manpower to police the entire national airspace at all times, many companies get away with flying their commercial drones until someone brings it to the agency's attention, at which point a cease-and-desist letter goes out." 23 This cumbersome progression toward FAA regulation brings up two alarming aspects of the spread of commercial drone use. The first is that, in the absence of regulation, the use of these aircraft has already fostered a secretive distribution network that could allow a large rotary-wing drone to be sold to terrorist organizations either directly or through intermediaries. The second point is that the slow pace of FAA approval for commercial drone use has brought to light the agency's inability to effectively monitor the country's vast domestic airspace. Even if full coverage were possible, many of these aircraft are still small enough that radar technology might mistake them for large birds or miss them entirely.24

The United States is not alone in this struggle to regulate its airspace. The Birmingham Policy Commission of the United Kingdom published a report in 2014 noting that, "in the wrong hands, RPA [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] could become a dangerous and destabilizing delivery system. We doubt how far the proliferation of the various enabling technologies … can be controlled." 25 Findings from this report stress the urgent necessity to regulate RPA use, publicize and enforce existing laws, and alert the Ministry of Defence and law enforcement agencies of the potential use of RPAs for criminal or terrorist activity. The report also emphasizes that the United Kingdom is not in a position to influence the international regulation of RPAs, due to their widespread proliferation on the global market.26

India is another country that has had considerable difficulty regulating the use of drones. Similar to the slow progress made by the FAA in the United States, India's Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DCGA) has not effectively regulated the use of small recreational or commercial drones. Analyst Nidhi Singal writes that "the long wait for the DCGA to issue guidelines has not helped … as drones have become a common sight despite the ban." 27 If countries with established institutions for the regulation of airspace are incapable of regulating drone use, then it is easy to imagine that areas of the world racked by terrorist violence, such as Nigeria, Syria, or the Levant, are highly susceptible to the threat of drone terrorism. Even without the technical expertise required to turn a drone into an explosive-carrying aerial platform, the devices could still be used non-lethally to conduct aerial reconnaissance. Terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, for instance, would greatly benefit from deploying drones to learn for certain whether security forces were present before the group conducted an attack, or to give an early warning of attacks against its own sites.

Online Expertise

The internet provides an excellent, anonymous forum for instructing would-be terrorists on the technical requirements for drone attacks. Sageman elaborates on the growing trend of instructing terrorists online: "The growth of the Internet has dramatically transformed the structure and dynamic of the evolving threat of global Islamist terrorism by changing the nature of terrorists' interactions. ... The average age of terrorists arrested in Europe and Canada from 2005 onward has dramatically decreased." 28 According to terrorism specialist Alan Krueger, "88% of the time, terrorist attacks occur in the perpetrator's country of origin," and "the perpetrators tend to be middle class or upper middle class." 29 These characteristics are ideal for recruiting someone who would be inclined to use a drone for a terrorist attack. A teenager or 20-something who is already comfortable learning from the internet could learn to configure a drone, and many youth are already interested in and excited about recreational drone use. Most importantly, the recruit could live and work in proximity to the target, and all of the necessary equipment is available for purchase and affordable to anyone in the middle or upper classes. Sageman also notes that, as demonstrated by al Qaeda, the trend of recruitment also favors the use of the internet: "The prospective mujahed took the initiative rather than waiting for someone to ask him to join the jihad. Instead of a top-down process of the terrorist organization trying to recruit new members, it was a bottom-up process of young people volunteering to join the organization." 30

The desired end of this process is to have such groups or individuals act independently, using their own resources to conduct terrorist attacks in line with the overall goals of the organization. Jason Burke, an investigative journalist, describes the dangers of this recruitment strategy in his analysis of the 2004 Madrid terrorist attacks. "The attackers were not experienced Al-Qaeda operatives parachuted in from overseas as initially suspected, but were first-generation Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants who had been living in Spain for some time. ... Spanish intelligence and police investigators concluded that the bombers were acting largely on their own." 31 Two of the most disturbing aspects of the Madrid attacks are that the targets were chosen without the approval of the central al Qaeda leadership and that the attacks were not controlled to meet the goals of the organization. This statement may seem ludicrous considering the violent nature of al Qaeda and the nature of its historical targets, but as Burke writes, "Killing crowds of ordinary commuters on their way to work was far harder to sell to potential sympathizers and thus risked delegitimizing the cause as a whole." 32 He also notes that the bombers did not embrace the traditional martyrdom favored by al Qaeda.33 These attackers would likely have conducted follow-on attacks if they had not been quickly detained. The implication is that while al Qaeda is bad, individuals who become self-radicalized and choose targets at random have the potential to be much worse and even more difficult to stop. Armed with drones, these self-radicalized groups or individuals would have the capacity to conduct extremely lethal attacks, evade capture, and carry out additional attacks essentially at will.

The Psychological Impact of Drones

This article has discussed the potential effectiveness of using drones to conduct terrorist attacks, but their effectiveness alone does not make them appealing. Drone strikes must also achieve the desired psychological goals of the terrorist organization or individual. Horgan writes, "When we consider Al-Qaeda's additional expectations of political destabilization and galvanization of extreme Islamic sentiment against Western interests, the allure of terrorism as a psychological strategy and psycho-political tool to otherwise disenfranchised extremists becomes apparent." 34 Although al Qaeda is only one terrorist organization among many, the group's psychological goals are generally similar to other terrorist groups throughout history; only the ideology and opponent change. Therefore, Horgan's comments are relevant to the question of whether drones achieve the goals of terrorist organizations in general.

Achieving Political Destabilization

The most effective tactics used by terrorists—aside from the unprecedented use of hijacked airplanes as guided missiles on 9/11—have largely been ground-based. They have involved attacks with small arms, infiltration to emplace concealed explosives, and suicide missions in which explosives were carried either on an individual or in a vehicle. The targets for many of these attacks have been public places where, seemingly, the victims were randomly selected and had no connection to the police, military, or government. Horgan explains why such attacks are highly effective at achieving the psychological goals of terrorists.

The fact that the apparently random victim of this kind of violence is arbitrarily selected to die shocks and sickens people, and this unexpectedness leads to personalization of events even at an individual level. It is seen as terrible and unjust, the way in which anyone, particularly non-combatant bystanders, can be at the wrong place at the wrong time and be killed in the name of some cause that the victim has possibly never even heard of.35

"Terrorist violence," Horgan points out, "is predicated on the assumptions that apparently random violence can push the agenda of the terrorist group onto an ‘otherwise indifferent public's awareness,' and that, faced with the prospect of a prolonged campaign of terrorist violence, the public will eventually opt for an acceptance of the terrorists' demands." 36

To date, al Qaeda and other radicalized Islamist organizations seem to have achieved many of their psychological aims. They have conducted horrific attacks and awakened public awareness of their existence, but they have not yet achieved their overall goal to, as former US deputy national security advisor (and current CIA director) John O. Brennan described it, "terrorize us into retreating from the world stage." 37 Horgan suggests why this goal has not been met: "That a constant state of dread cannot be maintained forever is illustrated through a slow habituation of the terrorist audience to the situation. For the terrorist, audience acclimatization poses problems: if the audience adapts to tactics, the terrorist's influence diminishes." 38 This readiness to adapt is where the Western public currently stands with regard to terrorism. Due to the persistent ground-based threat, security measures have been upgraded in response. For example, a 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report lists several physical security measures that US embassies have implemented in recent years, as seen in figure 1.39

Figure 1: Key security measures at a notional embassy compound

These include placing buildings at a specified "standoff" distance from main roads, anti-climb walls, anti-ram barriers, and blast-resistant building construction that includes shatter-proof glass. The GAO has also recommended that US embassies be relocated from dense urban areas to areas on the outskirts of capitals that can accommodate the recommended security measures. In this regard, the psychological aim of al Qaeda to reduce US influence abroad has been effective. Instead of occupying a prominent place in the center of foreign political power, many US embassies have adopted a bunker-like mentality that serves as a symbolic limitation to their international prestige and a physical limitation to American personnel's interactions with the public. This overly cautious approach paints the United States as being fearful and out of touch with both foreign politics and daily life.

Nevertheless, al Qaeda and similar Islamist terrorist groups have not achieved all of their psychological goals because the "audience acclimatization" that Horgan described is ongoing. Prominent domestic sites in the United States and other Western countries have adopted similar precautions to those found protecting embassies in domestic defense of terrorist attacks. As a result, people in major Western countries are regaining the sense of security that they lost on 11 September 2001, 11 March 2004, and 7 July 2005, because their perception of security is reinforced every day as they navigate through metal detectors, bag searches, anti-ram barriers disguised as decorative flower pots, and a myriad of other defensive measures. Whistleblower revelations concerning the US National Security Agency's highly intrusive surveillance of private citizens should be alarming to a liberal democracy, but instead the revelations have further reinforced many Americans' sense of security and thereby reduced the psychological influence of terrorism.40 To regain the initiative, terrorists must conduct a successful attack that bypasses these security measures in such a way that the public will no longer feel they are protected from seemingly random acts of violence.

Drones may provide the means for terrorists to regain the initiative and reach their psychological goals of destabilizing Western societies. The glaring gap in all of the above-mentioned ground-based security measures is that they do not provide protection from aerial attacks by anything smaller than a manned conventional aircraft, a weakness easily exploited by drones. This problem was publicly demonstrated in two separate events in early 2015, when a piloted gyrocopter and a rotary-wing drone embarrassed the US Secret Service by landing on the White House lawn.41 As technology improves, it is likely that the semblance of security that has been recreated through expenditures of vast resources and time will be destroyed the moment a successful drone attack forces the public to realize, once again, that they are not as safe as they thought they were.

Galvanizing Extreme Islamist Sentiment

Perhaps nothing has been more controversial in the United States' current fight against radical Islamist terrorism than the use of drone strikes. Political scientist Avery Plaw writes that "between June 2004 and the end of 2011, the CIA is widely reported to have carried out 300 covert drone strikes in Northwest Pakistan that have killed more than 2000 people, some of whom were civilians." 42 In recent years, this program has been extended and drones have now been used in Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and most recently, in the fight against ISIS. Plaw describes the parallel narratives that characterize the US drone program. On the one hand, John Brennan said regarding the US drone program in Pakistan, "For the past year there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency and precision of the capabilities that we've been able to develop." 43 The narrative adopted by the Pakistani press, on the other hand, is much different, as Plaw makes clear.

The Pakistani daily, Dawn, reported in January 2010 that "of the 44 predator strikes carried out by US drones … over the past 12 months, only five were able to hit their actual targets … but at the cost of over 700 innocent lives. … For each al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorist killed by US drones, 140 innocent Pakistanis also had to die." 44

Whether the Pakistani press's numbers are correct is irrelevant. The Pakistani public and wider regional audience will undoubtedly believe local sources over statements made by Western officials. Claims of civilian casualties have also been made outside of South Asia and the Middle East. Social anthropologist Jeffrey Sluka commented that "the drone strikes have already caused well over a thousand civilian casualties, have had a particular affinity for hitting weddings and funerals, and appear to be seriously fueling the insurgency." 45

The use of drones by the United States and the United Kingdom has also been cited as a motivation for terrorism by the attackers themselves, including the foiled 2010 Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, a US citizen of Pakistani heritage.46 US drone strikes have been a source of humiliating defeat for members of al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists, but they have also been a source of great anger within the international Muslim community—an anger that terrorists can exploit. "Given the controversial use of drones by the US and UK in many parts of the Muslim world, the ability to strike at the homeland with such a device must be very attractive to many terrorist groups as the ultimate expression of a paradoxically symmetrical asymmetric warfare." 47 If terrorists could use drones against targets in the West, it would provide a psychological victory for their members and serve as a recruitment tool aimed at the citizens of countries targeted by drones. In addition, by citing US drone strikes as the reason for retaliation, such attacks might force apathetic Western populations to pay attention to the problems in their own governments' drone programs—and potentially motivate homegrown terrorists to take action.

To many people, the idea of drones as weapons may seem futuristic and within the grasp of only the most technologically advanced militaries of the world. Therefore, if a terrorist organization could effectively use drones, it would achieve instant legitimacy. Hezbollah has already realized this and began to incorporate drones into its arsenal as early as 2004. In 2012, Hezbollah operatives launched a drone from Lebanon that flew 35 miles into Israel and was shot down near the town of Dimona—the site of an Israeli nuclear complex.48 This incursion into Israeli airspace was clearly a psychological victory for Hezbollah because it exposed the vulnerability of Israel's primary source of military power over its neighbors—its nuclear weapons. Although the Hezbollah drones lag behind those of Israel and the United States in sophistication, they do provide a powerful psychological tool for Israel's enemies. The rapid technological evolution of drones in the commercial market may greatly reduce this gap in capability between the drones of Hezbollah and the drones of the West in the very near future.

Final Thoughts

This article describes the capabilities of drones, how they could be used to conduct terrorist attacks, and how they may become the ideal platform for terrorists to achieve their psychological goals. The question remains, however, whether it will take a successful drone attack before Western security agencies implement the changes necessary to counter this threat.

While the challenge presented by drones as potential terrorist weapons is real and growing, this does not mean that nothing can be done to counter it. Various measures have been suggested as defenses against drone attacks, such as electromagnetic jamming, deeper perimeter defense of airports, physical barriers on buildings, and even high-powered fiber optic laser guns, but such measures will only be implemented if the threat from drones is acknowledged, debated, and acted upon.49

The article does not cover appropriate defenses against drone terrorism. Its purpose is to make clear that the use of drones is rapidly growing, their technological capacity is increasing, and the threat that they will become a tool for terrorism is real. Burke writes that prior to 11 September 2001, "no one had imagined terrorists ever using tactics like those that the hijackers were to adopt." 50 The intelligence community, he notes, admitted that "the nature of the threat was not ‘understood' at the time … ‘due to a failure of imagination.' " 51 This failure of imagination continues to be a lethal weakness that will be exploited by terrorist organizations, which will constantly seek out new and more effective methods of attack. The rapid proliferation and technological improvement of drones may profoundly change the way terrorists conduct attacks and what they will be capable of accomplishing.

About the Author(s):

CPT Benjamin Seibert currently serves as a foreign area officer in the United States Army.

  1. Walter Laqueur, "Postmodern Terrorism: New Rules for an Old Game," Foreign Affairs 75, no. 5 (1996): 35.go back up
  2. Marc Goodman, "Attack of the Drones: Terrorist Use of Remote Controlled Aircraft," Jane's Intelligence Review 23, no. 4 (2011) (available by subscription): 1.go back up
  3. Ibid.go back up
  4. Ibid.go back up
  5. The Battle of Algiers, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo (Italy: Rizzoli, 1966).go back up
  6. "Islamist Raids: German Police Shoot Down Model Plane Terror Plot," Spiegel Online International, 25 June 2013: go back up
  7. Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 140–41. go back up
  8. Ibid., 141.go back up
  9. John Horgan, The Psychology of Terrorism, rev. 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 18.go back up
  10. Sageman, Leaderless Jihad, 140–41.go back up
  11. "Aggressive Maneuvers for Autonomous Quadrotor Flight," YouTube video, 1:26, posted by "TheDmel," 21 May 2010: back up
  12. "Merkel's Dresden Drone Close Encounter: Drone Crashes in Front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel," YouTube video, 1:00, posted by JewishNewsOne, 15 September 2013: back up
  13. Alex Kushlayev, Daniel Mellinger, and Vijay Kumar, "A Swarm of Nano Quadrotors," YouTube video, 1:42, posted by "TheDmel," 31 January 2012: back up
  14. David Pierce, "Throw This Camera Drone in the Air and It Flies Itself," Wired, 12 May 2015: back up
  15. Horgan, Psychology of Terrorism, 24.go back up
  16. Jonathan Tonge, Northern Ireland (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2006), 57.go back up
  17. Ibid.go back up
  18. For the story of the IRA weapons ring, see Warren Richey, "Roller Skates and Rifles: How IRA Group Tried to Sneak Arms out of US," Christian Science Monitor, 18 January 1985: go back up
  19. Jessica Zuckerman, Steven P. Bucci, and James Jay Carafano, 60 Terrorist Plots since 9/11: Continued Lessons in Domestic Counterterrorism, Special Report (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 22 July 2013): back up
  20. "Our Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Platforms," Homeland Surveillance & Electronics LLC UAV, n.d.: back up
  21. "Presidential Memorandum: Promoting Economic Competitiveness while Safeguarding Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems," The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 15 February 2015: . On 19 October 2015, the FAA announced plans to require all recreational drone operators to register their machines and said an online registry would be in place before Christmas. Craig Whitlock, "Federal Regulators to Require Registration of Recreational Drones," Washington Post, 19 October 2015: back up
  22. Clay Dillow, "Get Ready for ‘Drone Nation,'" Fortune, 27 October 2014: back up
  23. Ibid.go back up
  24. Editor's note: For more on the practical limitations of radar in airspace defense systems, see Jamal Hussain, "The Phantom Raid," in this issue of CTX.go back up
  25. Birmingham Policy Commission, The Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK (Birmingham: Institute for Conflict, Cooperation, and Security, University of Birmingham, 2014), 13: back up
  26. Ibid., 77–78.go back up
  27. Nidhi Singal, "Game of Drones," Yahoo Finance India, 7 May 2015: back up
  28. Sageman, Leaderless Jihad, 109, 111.go back up
  29. Alan B. Krueger, What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 71, 77.go back up
  30. Sageman, Leaderless Jihad, 110.go back up
  31. Jason Burke, The 9/11 Wars (London: Penguin, 2011), 160. go back up
  32. Ibid.go back up
  33. Ibid.go back up
  34. Horgan, Psychology of Terrorism, 12.go back up
  35. Ibid., 14.go back up
  36. Ibid., 12–13.go back up
  37. "Remarks of John O. Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, on Ensuring al-Qa'ida's Demise—As Prepared for Delivery," The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 29 June 2011: back up
  38. Horgan, Psychology of Terrorism, 22.go back up
  39. Government Accountability Office, Embassy Security: Upgrades Have Enhanced Security, but Site Conditions Prevent Full Adherence to Standards, GAO-08-162 (Washington, D.C.: GAO, 2008), 7: back up
  40. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center, "a majority of Americans—56%—say the National Security Agency's program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism." "Majority Views NSA Phone Tracking as Acceptable Anti-Terror Tactic," Pew Research Center, 10 June 2013: back up
  41. Faine Greenwood, "Man Who Crashed Drone on White House Lawn Won't Be Charged," Slate, 18 March 2015: ; Julie Zauzmer and Mike DeBonis, "Gyrocopter Lands on Capitol Lawn; Pilot Is Arrested," Washington Post, 15 April 2015: back up
  42. Avery Plaw, "Counting the Dead: The Proportionality of Predation in Pakistan," in Killing by Remote Control: The Ethics of an Unmanned Military, ed. Bradley Jay Strawser (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 126.go back up
  43. Ibid., 132.go back up
  44. Ibid., 127–28.go back up
  45. Jeffrey A. Sluka, "Death from Above: UAVs and Losing Hearts and Minds," Military Review, May–June 2011: back up
  46. David Hastings Dunn, "Drones: Disembodied Aerial Warfare and the Unarticulated Threat," International Affairs 89, no. 5 (2013): 1243.go back up
  47. Ibid.go back up
  48. Milton Hoenig, "Hezbollah and the Use of Drones as a Weapon of Terrorism," Public Interest Report 67, no. 2 (2014) : 2–3: back up
  49. Dunn, "Drones," 1246.go back up
  50. Burke, 9/11 Wars, 31. go back up
  51. Ibid., 44. go back up
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