The uncontrolled market in toy or hobbyist drones makes their future use in a domestic terrorist attack “likely,” says a researcher and lecturer on drone warfare.
But it will still require sophisticated technical skills to deploy them effectively, according to Michael J. Boyle, Associate Professor of Political Science at La Salle University in Philadelphia, and a Senior Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“It’s not quite as easy to launch a terrorist drone attack as the breathless media suggests,” Boyle told a recent terrorism seminar at John Jay College.
But “given the increasing availability of drones, it is likely that there will be a terrorist drone attack in the developed world,” he said.
Boyle estimated that 200,000 drones are sold globally each month on a “toy drone market that is completely uncontrolled.” Even the cheapest drones can be rendered harmful with DIY adaptations.
Meanwhile, concerns about the use of weaponized drones in domestic terrorism have fueled a boom in anti-drone technology development, with estimates that this has already become a $1.6 billion industry, said Boyle.
“As it is now, you can buy a drone on Amazon and it goes out there,” Boyle said.
Interdiction strategies range from using radio frequencies and acoustic signatures to the Dutch government’s training hawks to go after drones in the sky. Geo-fencing is effective in stopping drones, particularly at airports, but “you can hack it,” he said.
In the U.S. so far, the dark side of drones has been confined to “routine criminal activity,” such as dropping drugs and other contraband into prisons. Boyle suggested there have most probably been “disrupted attacks” already in the U.S., the United Kingdom, or other Western countries.
But he noted that “aborted attacks are not on the public record.”
Drone manufacturing has been dominated by the U.S., Israel, and China, but other countries are jumping in, and now more than a dozen nations produce them.
So far, such attacks have occurred in the Middle East, primarily Iraq and Syria. This January, a swarm of armed miniature drones was launched at a Russian military base in Syria, with ISIS believed to be behind sending 13 drones packed with explosives into action, possibly backed by Turkey.
The concerns were recently underlined by Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, at a Senate panel last September.
“I think we do know that terrorist organizations have an interest in using drones,” Wray said. “We have seen that overseas already with some frequency. I think that the expectation is that it is coming here, imminently.”
Boyle said that while some terrorism experts could be guilty of “threat inflation,” there is no denying that when it comes to dealing with drones that could be used in attacks, “we are in the Wild West.”
One of the biggest challenges to turning a drone into a weapon is the fact that current models on the market are able to fly only 20 or 30 minutes. Drones are also unstable, can’t carry substantial payloads, are resistant to chemicals being added, and are vulnerable to weather conditions, especially wind.
And, Boyle noted, it is very hard to conduct a dry-run drone attack.
Boyle, who has studied the use of terrorist drones in the Middle East, said the groups that have shown the most success are those who are highly organized and most closely resemble a military command structure.
That would include Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, Russian separatists in the Ukraine, and Mexican cartels.
“Iran is big on drones,” Boyle said, adding that when it comes to ISIS, the drones tend to be retro-fitted commercial models, based on analysis of wreckage.
One concern is that with ISIS in retreat in parts of the Middle East, foreign fighters with battlefield expertise will return to their native countries, ready to purchase, weaponize, and launch drones.
Nonetheless, “It’s much harder to carry out an attack in a well policed city in the Western world than in a battlefield in Syria or Iraq,” Boyle said.
“It’s unlikely that terrorist drone attacks will be a regular event due to technical limits.”
When it comes to homegrown terrorists, Boyle said his research shows that far-right violent groups steer clear of drones because they are paranoid of the machines’ ability to conduct surveillance and gather information for the government.
As for someone acting on his own, it’s “not that easy for a lone wolf to do,” he said.
Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor (Digital) of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.