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Drones Becoming Frightening Weapon of Choice for Terrorists

Drones Becoming Frightening Weapon of Choice for Terrorists

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By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University

Over 25 years ago, I was in a platoon of infantrymen at Fort Drum, New York, who received a simple mission: to shoot down a drone as target practice for shooting at real enemy aircraft. After three passes over the 30-plus soldiers using automatic weapons, the drone landed unscathed. The men were surprised by that, but the drone’s operator was not.

At that time, drones were something out of science fiction, pilotless aircraft intent on showering bullets and bombs on helpless troops below. Today, drones are everywhere in the air, including places where they shouldn’t be.

Moreover, drones are no longer for military use only. They are now easily available for purchase at just about every sporting goods store and, of course, online.

Drone Usage

While many Americans own drones for perfectly legal activities or just for the fun of flying them, others use drones for illegal purposes. Drones are being used to smuggle drugs, tobacco and cell phones are into American prisons, for example.

As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration has banned drone flights near prisons. Several states, including California, have passed similar laws. But that will not stop those who are intent on violating these laws.

Drones can also carry relatively heavy objects with precision. They have been used to fire semi-automatic weapons and to roast a turkey via a flying flamethrower, neither of which was illegal at the time.

FAA Regulates Drones’ Banned Flight Areas

While many states lack laws covering the use of drones, FAA rules require that drones cannot be flown over 400 feet, or 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset, or in twilight unless the drone has anti-collision lighting. Also, drones cannot be flown directly over people.

In addition to the ban on drone flights near federal prisons, they may not be flown over military bases, within a 15-mile area in the District of Columbia and over many other areas, especially where people gather during major sporting events. In early April, a drone flew over Boston’s Fenway Park during the Red Sox home opening game.

The stadium has a geofencing system, which uses a combination of the global positioning system (GPS) network and local radio frequency identifier (LRFID) connections to limit drone entry by disrupting its radio control elements.

Last year, FBI Deputy Assistant Director of the Critical Incident Response Group Scott Brunner told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the FBI was “concerned that criminals and terrorists will exploit UAS [Unmanned Aerial Systems] in ways that pose a serious threat to the safety of the American people. The UAS threat could take a number of forms, including illicit surveillance, chemical/biological/radiological attacks, traditional kinetic attacks on large open-air venues (concerts, ceremonies, and sporting events), or attacks against government facilities, installations and personnel.”

Brunner added that “at present, the FBI and our federal partners have very limited authority to counter this new threat. Potential conflicts in federal criminal law limit the use of technologies that would enable the FBI to detect or, if necessary, to mitigate UAS that threaten critical facilities and assets. Absent legislative action, the FBI is unable to effectively protect the U.S. from this growing threat.” Brunner urged Congress to pass the Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018.

Under this newly passed law, the departments of Justice and Homeland Security are authorized to disrupt control of the unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft by intercepting or interfering with their electronic or radio communications and, if necessary, to use reasonable force to disable, damage or destroy them.

Terrorism via Drones outside the United States

Terrorists are already using drones around the world:

  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was the target of a failed assassination attempt last August using two drones carrying plastic explosives.
  • In Syria and Iraq, terrorists are using inexpensive four-armed or “quadcopter” drones that cost less than $650.
  • In the battle for Mosul, Iraq, ISIS launched over 300 quadcopter drones against U.S. forces.
  • In Mexico, two drones, one equipped with a camera and the other armed with two fragmentation grenades, flew over the home of Gerardo Sosa Olachea, the Secretary of Public Safety of Baja California, in July and landed in his yard. The grenades failed to detonate.

Besides easily purchased commercial quadcopter drones, terrorists can make their own devices. That’s what they did in Syria when 10 homemade aircraft built of wood and plastic and powered by lawnmower engines attacked the Russian airbase at Khmeimim and the nearby naval base at Tartus. Each plane carried 10 homemade shrapnel grenades.

Will Terrorists Carry Out Drone Attacks in the United States?

While drones can cause commercial flight disruptions, such as they did at Newark Liberty International Airport earlier this year, terrorists could also flood flight paths with dozens of drones that could be sucked into the jet’s engines, potentially crashing the plane.

Drones can conduct reconnaissance and surveillance of an area, but their most dangerous threat comes from terrorists using drones to carry weapons or other dangerous payloads or to crash into vulnerable targets. Typical payloads could include explosives or chemicals, while more unlikely payloads could be radiological or biological in nature.

While most drones can carry only relatively small payloads, this will not deter terrorists. Several terrorists working together can launch an attack using several small drones, each carrying approximately a pound of explosives with shrapnel and triggered to explode by radio signal or by cell phone. Alternatively, a single terrorist could use a heavy-lift drone to transport explosives and explode them over the target, or to drop an explosive device near a specific target or into a crowd.

Drones used for agricultural purposes can easily be turned into flying chemical dispersal systems. These drones can carry over two and a half gallons of liquid and spray it over 7,000 square yards, or nearly one and half acres, in just 10 minutes. While designed to carry pesticides and fertilizers, these drones could just as easily carry common toxic chemicals available for online purchase, such as:

  • Acetonitrile, which once inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin, becomes cyanide.
  • Chloroform, which converts to the highly toxic phosgene once inside the body and depresses the central nervous system.
  • Chlorine, which can cause nose, eye, and throat irritation; greater exposure can cause chest pain and changes in breathing rate.
  • Hydrochloric acid, which upon exposure can irreversibly harm respiratory organs, eyes, skin and intestines.
  • Mercaptoethanol is a combustible corrosive which, if inhaled, can harm skin and mucous membranes and cause larynx spasms, pneumonitis, and pulmonary edema.
  • Methanol, which once inside the body, transforms into formic acid and causes metabolic acidosis and blinding retinal toxicity.
  • Sulfuric acid can burn the corneas and lead to permanent blindness.
Can the US Stop Terrorists from Using Drones?

As drone technology increases, so too will their ability to conduct various types of attacks. Currently, there is nothing to stop the sale of drones to anyone. Even forcing strict regulations on current drone owners that would require them to register their drones would not accomplish much. Individuals could still legally purchase drones and easily convert them into malicious aerial weapons.

While the Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018 can fight drone terrorism, it cannot prevent attacks from happening. Lawmakers, scientists and manufacturers must find ways to limit the production and sale of these flying weapons – and soon.

About the Author

Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master’s of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master’s of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.

Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.

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