The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.
By Thomas Braun and edited by Alexander Fleiss
/ Published September 14, 2020
There was a day [in early 2017] when the Iraqi effort nearly came to a screeching halt, where literally over 24 hours there were 70 drones in the air. . . . At one point, there were 12 “killer bees” if you will, right overhead and underneath our air superiority[,] . . . and our only available response [at the time] was small arms fire.
—Gen Raymond A. Thomas III
Commander, US Special Operations Command, May 2017
hen most people think of military drones, they usually think of pieces of technology with wingspans greater than the overall length of fighter jets, taking surveillance images from over 40,000 feet and giving the pilot, thousands of miles away, the ability to take out targets with pinpoint accuracy utilizing a wide variety of weapons systems at the pilot’s disposal. While this does describe a large portion of drones used by militaries and fighters all over the world, their development requires billions of dollars of investments, access to cutting-edge technology and scientists, and, most importantly, time. Today, The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levante (ISIL) and other violent non-state actors (VNSA), do not have access to these resources.1 To overcome this asymmetry, they are using the technology available on the consumer market to build or purchase small drones. Although these drones are about the size of a watermelon and may have a range of only a few miles, they still pose a risk. In the hands of a VNSA, these small, inexpensive consumer drones are modified into “killer bees” capable of creating significant damage and terrorizing civilian and military populations. While VNSAs can use drone technology in various ways—such as surveillance, strategic communication, transportation (smuggling), disruption of events, or complementing other activities—the focus of this article is on when and why terrorist groups use drone technology as a weapon.
This question is relevant because drone technologies allow VNSAs to inflict a physical and emotional toll on civilians and military forces not only in conflict zones but also in urban city centers. Even though the leading terrorist group that has used drones, ISIL, has started to collapse and the use of drones by VNSAs has subsequently fallen, there is nothing to prevent a new group from arising and using them to their advantage. Additionally, the robotics revolution, which led to the further development of inexpensive drone technology readily available to the consumer market, is closely linked to the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and similar technology that could be deadly in the hands of a terror group. For example, combining AI and drones could make an unstoppable army of unmanned, self-thinking drones that choose their targets without any human input. By exploring when and why terror groups resort to using drones, we can minimize the ability of new groups to access these tools and wreak havoc on innocent civilians and military forces—hopefully preventing them from ever being used in a major terrorist attack on a crowded city center.
Research by groups focused on international security and combating insurgent groups, such as the UN and the West Point Combating Terrorism Center, has created a wealth of information on VNSA drone use. The information available includes scholarly articles on the actions of terror groups, information from captured and translated documents, and statistics on the use of drones by terror groups. Most of this research is available to the public.
When Drones Become the Weapon of Choice
The research suggests that VNSAs are making deliberate decisions to use drone technology if they have sufficient funding and a network to acquire the technology. They must also be willing to accept the higher risk of failure that comes along with new technology. This includes a willingness to face harsher consequences that will come as a result of a drone attack. We can see examples of this in existing actors like ISIL. Drone use peaked when ISIL was at its strongest. At its peak, ISIL had developed the necessary connections to have actors in various western countries capable of purchasing the parts needed to build drones and the ability to export them to ISIL in the Middle East. The group was strong enough that its image could quickly recover if the drones failed. It had enough manpower and weaponry to face the increased forces sent against it. After its downfall, however, ISIL lost its ability to successfully save face after failed attacks and to defend itself against allied forces. It lost its connections and ability to secure funding and acquire drone technology. This is also seen in the case of Boko Haram, a terror group in northeastern Nigeria that could benefit greatly from the use of drones in its operations. However, Boko Haram never gained the same international spread as ISIL and was never able to establish the network necessary to import the drone technology or overcome the other hurdles.
There are many other arguments that attempt to explain when and why violent non-state actors use drones. One view is that VNSAs will use drones when they want to carry out attacks with heavy casualties and a strong psychological impact. However, suicide bombings are usually a lot more effective in both categories and can be a lot cheaper and have a higher success rate. Another view is that they use drones to execute attacks in hard-to-reach places. The obvious downside is that the drones available to VNSAs do not have a long operating range, so the operator must be nearby—usually within line of sight of the drone—opening them up to attacks. Both these explanations, however, mostly target the “why” and not the “when” in VNSA drone use.
The History of Drone Use by Violent Non-State Actors
To understand the “why,” it is important to know the history of drone use by VNSAs. Over 25 years ago, the Japanese terror group Aum Shinrikyo considered using drones to distribute sarin gas against civilian populations.2 Early on, terrorist groups in the Middle East figured out how to use consumer drones to carry out reconnaissance missions. Because drone technology is relatively inexpensive and easy to operate, many different VNSAs were able to acquire and use drones for reconnaissance operations soon after the technology became available to consumers.3 The capability to weaponize the drones and use them to carry out attacks came later.
The first recorded successful attack using drones by a VNSA was in mid-2013 when the Shiite Muslim terror group Hezbollah reportedly dropped two small explosive devices on Syrian rebel strongholds using a drone supplied by Iran.4 While very few terror groups have state sponsors that give them the ability to get their hands on full-fledged military unmanned aerial systems (UAS), several groups were able to develop the technology using modified commercial parts. Turning these drones into weapons for use in combat was expensive and required knowledge and resources.
In 2015, Kurdish fighters in Syria shot down multiple small commercial drones laden with explosives, reportedly belonging to ISIL.5 Just over a year later, ISIL announced in its newsletter “al-Naba” the establishment of the “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen,” a unit whose purpose was to engineer UASs for the group to deploy in combat.6 ISIL continued with the development of its drone technology, increasing the capabilities of its drones and finding innovative ways to use them. In 2017, ISIL combined deception and creativity to find a new way to kill their enemies with drones other than just using them to drop munitions. It purposefully let Kurdish fighters shoot down a surveillance drone and take it back to a coalition base for examination. While being disassembled, the booby-trapped drone exploded, killing two Kurdish fighters and wounding two French soldiers.7 When coalition forces launched operations to regain Mosul in June 2017, ISIL flew more than 100 powered drone runs against frontline forces every month.8 While their continued development of UAS weaponization technology has made ISIL and other Islamic terror groups in the Middle East the primary VNSA users of drones, their usage is not limited to just that region.
Cartel groups across Central and South America have been caught with drones in their possession. While they mainly use drones to smuggle narcotics and other illegal goods and have not carried out any violent attacks with them, military and intelligence agencies have found drones believed to be used in weaponized attacks.9 However, they are not the only groups to have access to drone technology.
Political opposition groups have been accused of plotting and attempting to use drones to assassinate government leaders across the Americas. On 4 August 2018, a speech given by Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro at a military parade in front of thousands of civilians and military personnel was interrupted by the sound of two loud explosions above the crowd. The attackers used two DJI M-600 commercial drones laden with a small camera and C4 explosives in an attempt to assassinate the president.10 However, neither drone attack reached its target successfully.11 One of the drones crashed into an apartment complex and exploded on the ground two blocks away. The second drone came closer. It exploded less than a football field away from Maduro, above the crowd but within his line of sight.12 While the attack failed to kill Maduro and caused only light injuries to seven soldiers, it showed the threat that drones pose in the hands of capable VNSAs.
Drones can pose a threat from other sources as well. Today it is common for thousands of flights to be delayed or canceled as major airports across the globe are forced to ground aircraft because a drone is posing a threat to flight safety.13 Al-Qaida has even taken inspiration from these events. Intelligence agencies have intercepted the group’s plans to use drones to take down airliners using explosive-laden drones at airports in the US and the UK.14 The entire city of Paris was put under high alert after a series of unidentified drones were spotted being flown across the capital city shortly after the devastating Charlie Hebdo terror attacks.15 The White House was placed on lockdown after a hobbyist lost control of a drone he was illegally flying within city limits when it crashed onto the White House lawn.16
When and Why Violent Non-State Actors Use Drones
While weaponized drone technology can be a game-changer for an organization, not every group has access to the technology. Typically, the older, experienced VNSAs have the capability of operating a drone program.17 To better combat the rising threat of weaponized drone use by terror groups, we must understand the motivations behind when and why these actors use them to their advantage. There are multiple reasons VNSAs choose to weaponize and use drones in combat. The primary determiner is whether they even have the capability to do so. Without a state sponsor to provide drone technology and expertise, most VNSAs resort to purchasing and modifying off-the-shelf consumer parts. However, terrorist organizations cannot generally log on to Amazon and order a drone with same-day delivery or pick one up from the local Best Buy.
By using recovered documents from ISIL strongholds, we can analyze how it and other groups were able to get their hands on such technology.18 The first thing they show is that the drones used by ISIL were not very sophisticated. In most cases, ISIL used simple DIY techniques to combine high- and low-tech components purchased from various connections across Asia and Europe. To acquire these parts, the group used the centralized and bureaucratic framework that it already had in place from its acquisition of other weapons. This provided a robust network to procure drone parts from more than 16 companies across seven countries. The entire program appears to have been shaped by two Bangladeshi brothers who recruited other operatives to work alongside them.19 Together, they created a series of intricate shell companies to acquire consumer drones from manufacturers in Asia, the US, and Canada and, when possible, using sites such as PayPal and fake aliases. They would then use other shell companies to purchase stand-alone components such as cameras and GPS units before activating them in the US or Europe. They used another set of shell companies to ship the drones to ISIL affiliates worldwide. The intricate web of companies and bank accounts made the drones hard to trace and appear as if the purchasers were just hobbyists. A recent report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point notes that “these purchases, which were essentially delivered to a town right next to the Islamic State’s doorstep, illustrate just how easy it was for Islamic State operatives to obtain drone components from Western retailers at the time.”20 While the eventual capture of one brother and killing of another in a drone strike dramatically dismantled this network, the terror group was still able to obtain drones through other connections.
ISIL demonstrated that a VNSA could overcome the hurdles and export restrictions that allowed it to take simple hobby drones and turn them into deadly tools of war. While the technology helped tilt the asymmetric balance of powers it faced, it is not the only factor that plays into when and why groups will develop and use weaponized drones. Whenever a state or group uses new technology in warfare, it often receives a harsher response from its opponents because it is viewed as an escalation of warfare.21 Therefore, the group must be capable and willing to dedicate more manpower and willpower to up the fighting. Just as the US and other coalition forces allocated more troops and resources to fighting Islamic terrorism after the groups carried out attacks on the respective countries’ homelands, terror groups have and will continue to face increased repercussions from the coalition in response to the new threat. For example, the coalition response to ISIL’s use of weaponized drones included the targeted bombing of all locations believed to be used by ISIL for drone development and use.22
Drones not only elicit a more severe response but also pose a threat to a group’s standing and capabilities. This is highlighted by the fact that while drone use peaked during the years when ISIL was at its most powerful, usage fell when coalition forces ramped up the fight against ISIL, leading to its downfall. Once it fell and was severely weakened, it stopped using drones—not because it was more challenging to acquire them but because it could not face the consequences that came alongside their use.23
One of the most important factors for terror organizations is their image because they use it for recruitment. The group’s recruiters depend on the group projecting a powerful image through social media and the internet to contact potential new members—usually troubled young males—across the world.24 Therefore, when its image weakens, it loses the ability to seduce people onto their side. To strengthen their image, terror groups often perform violent attacks, like suicide bombings, against civilian populations to strike fear into minds and gain more publicity and recognition.25 The more deadly and vicious the attack—showcased by a sophisticated social media capability—the greater publicity, name recognition, and credibility the group achieves. This, in turn, builds a strong reputation. When used properly, weaponized consumer drones can be a deadly instrument in the hands of VNSAs.
A failed attack, especially with new technology like drones, will weaken the group’s image.26 Drones, as with any new technology, bring a set of unique growing pains as the group learns how to use the technology both tactically and strategically. This includes having attacks fail and coming nowhere close to hitting their targets or detonating and having the equipment captured by coalition forces that then heavily publicize the failed attack, ruining the group’s image. Therefore, before they weaponize and use drone technology, VNSAs must have the necessary operational maturity to carry out an operational attack and recover from the consequences that come with it.
Other theories have been used to attempt to explain when and why violent non-state actors use weaponized drone technology in combat. However, none of them are accurate because, individually, they do not capture the full story of its use. First, many say that terror groups use weaponized drone technology whenever they gain the capability to use them. This theory treats drones as just another tool for making war. While capability is the biggest requirement for the technology, it does not suffice on its own to explain why groups acquire and use it. They must also have the necessary strategic maturity that can only be developed from years of prior experience to know how to use the technology in battle to supplement their other techniques of making war.
Another argument is that terror groups will use drones whenever they wish to carry out attacks with high casualty counts or attack places they cannot easily access.27 Many countries consider weaponized drone attacks to be extremely lethal. Multiple governments have released memos regarding the threat they pose, especially to infrastructure. However, drone attacks are less deadly than other forms of terrorism used in the past, such as detonating IEDs hidden in large crowds.28 As we have argued, the use of weaponized drones will increase the chance of an attack failing. Not only can the technology be hard to use and likely to fail at key moments, but it also requires the operator to be near the target, usually within line of sight, to control the drone. Thus, terrorists must find a suitable but exposed location, increasing the chance that they will be spotted and stopped before they are able to carry out the attack.
A third argument often offered is that terror organizations will use weaponized drone technology when they want to gain more publicity for an attack. While some drone attacks have given terror groups more publicity, it does not explain why a VNSA may choose to use this technology. As previously noted, a failed drone attack will result in damaging publicity that can often have an even greater impact than a successful attack. Additionally, terror groups have found that using other attacks will often result in more publicity, such as Boko Haram’s use of young female suicide bombers in northern Nigeria.29
While these arguments provide reasoning for why a group that has already developed weaponized drones may want to use them in later attacks, the theories do not on their own explain when and why a group will choose to develop and use them.
Summary, Empirics, and Conclusion
In their struggle to gain publicity and fight to reach their goals, VNSAs often find themselves in an asymmetric war against powerful states with virtually unlimited resources. To help tilt the balance of power more in their favor, some groups have developed weaponized drone technology composed of simple off-the-shelf consumer parts. While these configurations cannot rival the military drones used by the United States and its allies, they have proven to be a lethal and worrisome threat to coalition forces and civilians globally. To combat this emerging threat, it is important to understand when and why terror organizations weaponize drone technologies.
Of the many groups that had drone technology or could acquire it if they so desired, only a small number have weaponized the drones and used them in warfare. By comparing those that did develop drone technology to those that did not, we can see three main reasons behind when and why a VNSA will develop weaponized drone technology, usually composed of consumer parts. The first essential factor is that the actor must have the capability to acquire consumer drone parts from around the world. Subsequently, it must have the technical knowhow to assemble and weaponize the drones and the skill to use the weaponized drone efficiently on the battlefield. The second factor is that the VNSA must be prepared for and capable of defending against the severe repercussions that will come from using weaponized drones. Third, it must be prepared to deal with the failures common to using new technology, which will negatively impact its image—its most potent recruiting tool. All these factors require a group that has grown solid roots within its region, has a network of supporters in developed states, and has developed a sense of maturity about how to conduct military operations that can only come after years of experience with failures and successes.
Currently, there are no practical solutions to countering this threat of weaponized drones. While various companies are working on new technology to counter their uses, none have entered full-scale production or are capable of efficiently stopping the attacks. The current strategy to stop terrorists from using weaponized drones is to bomb where they make their drones to stop them before they can use them. This plan has many cracks and flaws. Understanding this threat and where it comes from is critical to effectively stopping attacks on multiple levels. While no group has successfully carried out an attack against civilians or politicians in the West, as the technology continues to evolve and become increasingly available, more terrorists will inevitably try to carry out attacks. If they are not stopped, it will not be long before we see an attack carried out against urban population centers killing hundreds, shutting down the power grid, or blowing up a nuclear power plant.
Alexander Fleiss is CEO of Rebellion Research, an educational think tank focused on AI and smart technology, as well as a research instructor for over half a dozen schools including Cornell University.
Thomas Braun is a researcher at Rebellion Research and a student at Amherst College.
1 Violent non-state actors are also referred to as non-state armed actors/groups (NSAA/G) or terrorist organizations; these are groups partially or completely independent from state governments and use or threaten violence to achieve their goals. Examples: Terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hizballah, al-Qaeda, ISIL(S), Boko Haram, and others.
2 Amy E. Smithson, “Rethinking the Lessons of Tokyo,” in Ataxia: The Chemical and Biological Terrorism Threat and the US Response (Washington, DC: Henry L. Stimson Center, 2000), 80.
3 “Non-State Actors with Drone Capabilities,” New America, www.newamerica.org/international-security/reports/world-drones/non-state-actors-with-drone-capabilities/.
4 Adiv Sterman, “Hezbollah Drones Wreak Havoc on Syrian Rebel Bases.” The Times of Israel, 21 Sept. 2014, www.timesofisrael.com/hezbollah-drones-wreak-havoc-on-syrian-rebel-bases.
5 David Hambling, “ISIS is Reportedly Packing Drones with Explosives Now,” Popular Mechanics, December 16, 2015, http://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/a18577/isis-packing-drones-with-explosives/.
6 Joby Warrick, “Use of Weaponized Drones by ISIS Spurs Terrorism Fears,” Washington Post, 21 February 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/use-of-weaponized-drones-by-isis-spurs-terrorism-fears/2017/02/21/9d83d51e-f382-11e6-8wd72-263470bf0401_story.html?utm_term=.11aab1591ca9.
7 Adiv Sterman, “Hezbollah Drones Wreak Havoc on Syrian Rebel Bases,” The Times of Israel, 21 September 2014, www.timesofisrael.com/hezbollah-drones-wreak-havoc-on-syrian-rebel-bases/.
8 “Exclusive: IS Group's Armoured Drones Attack from the Skies in Battle for Raqqa,” France 24, 26 June 2017, www.france24.com/en/20170626-syria-exclusive-raqqa-drones-islamic-state-group-battle.
9 David Axe, “Great, Mexican Drug Cartels Now Have Weaponized Drones,” Vice, 25 October 2017, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/j5jmb4/mexican-drug-cartels-have-weaponized-drones.
10 DJI – Based out of Shenzhen, China, DJI it is the world’s leading producer of consumer drone technology.
11 “DJI Matrice 600 Pro,” DJI Store, https://store.dji.com/product/matrice-600-pro.
12 Christoph Koettl and Barbara Marcolini, “A Closer Look at the Drone Attack on Maduro in Venezuela,” New York Times, 10 August 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/08/10/world/americas/venezuela-video-analysis.html.
13 Matthew Taylor, “Twelve Protesters Arrested over Heathrow Drone Threat,” The Guardian, 13 September 2019, www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/sep/13/heathrow-protests-two-held-near-airport-as-activists-threaten-drone-disruption. See also Natasha Lomas, “Drone Sighting at Germany's Busiest Airport Grounds Flights for about an Hour,” TechCrunch, 9 May 2019, techcrunch.com/2019/05/09/drone-sighting-at-germanys-busiest-airport-grounds-flights-for-about-an-hour/; Patrick Mcgeehan, “Newark Airport Traffic Is Briefly Halted After Drone Is Spotted,” New York Times, 22 January 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/nyregion/drones-newark-airport-ground-stop.html; and “Gatwick Airport: Drones Ground Flights.” BBC News, 20 December 2018, www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-sussex-46623754.
14 Tim Shipman, “Al-Qaeda Terror Group Returns to Target Airliners and Airports,” Sunday Times, 23 December 2018, www.thetimes.co.uk/article/al-qaeda-terror-group-returns-to-target-airliners-mlj3lgf87.
15 Amar Toor, “Paris Has a Drone Problem,” The Verge, 26 February 2015, www.theverge.com/2015/2/26/8113291/paris-drone-uav-eiffel-tower-charlie-hebdo.
16 Michael Schmidt and Michael D. Shear, “A Drone, Too Small for Radar to Detect, Rattles the White House,” New York Times, 26 January 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/01/27/us/white-house-drone.html.
17 Don Rassler, Remotely Piloted Innovation: Terrorism, Drones, and Supportive Technology (West Point, New York: Combating Terrorism Center, 2016), https://ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Drones-Report.pdf.
18 Don Rassler, Muhammad Al-`Ubaydi, and Vera Mironova, “The Islamic State's Drone Documents: Management, Acquisitions, and DIY Tradecraft,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 31 January 2017, ctc.usma.edu/ctc-perspectives-the-islamic-states-drone-documents-management-acquisitions-and-diy-tradecraft/.
19 Matthew Gault, “How the Islamic State Gets Its Drones,” Vice, 13 July 2018, www.vice.com/en_us/article/gy3bzx/how-the-islamic-state-gets-its-drones.
20 Don Rassler, The Islamic State and Drones: Supply, Scale, and Future Threats (West Point, New York: Combating Terrorism Center, 2018), https://ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Islamic-State-and-Drones-Release-Version.pdf.
21 Karl Mueller et al., “The Nature of Escalation,” in Forrest E. Morgan et al., Dangerous Thresholds: Managing Escalation in the 21st Century by (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2008), 7–45, https://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG614.html.
22 Robert J. Bunker, Terrorist and Insurgent Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Use, Potentials, and Military Implications (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College Press, 2015), https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1050&context=cgu_facbooks.
23 Fariha Karim, “Terror Trial Told of Isis Drone Plot,” The Times, 11 September 2019, 20, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/hisham-muhammad-terror-trial-told-of-isis-drone-plot-fp2tm0689.
24 Joseph A. Beninati, “Examining the Cyber Operations of ISIS,” Order No. 10108064, Utica College, 2016, Ann Arbor: ProQuest, Web, 18 December 2019, https://hssonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/ISISdiss77-10-4444-COMPLETE-2-08.29.2017.pdf.
25 Jordan N. Galehan, "Gender and the Enactment of Suicide Bombings by Boko Haram." Order No. 13901011, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 2019, Ann Arbor: ProQuest, Web, 18 December 2019, https://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2713&context=dissertations.
26 Stephanie Werner, “How the Use of Violent and Non-Violent Strategies Influence the Effectiveness of Terrorist Organizations,” Order No. 13884680, Webster University, 2019, Ann Arbor: ProQuest, Web, 18 December 2019.
27 Ross Furneaux et al., “Drone Terrorism Is Now a Reality, and We Need a Plan to Counter the Threat,” World Economic Forum, www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/08/drone-terrorism-is-now-a-reality-and-we-need-a-plan-to-counter-the-threat.
28 “Threats to the Homeland,” U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, 27 September 2017, https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/hearings/09/18/2017/threats-to-the-homeland; and Caroline Wheeler, “Terror Threat Alert: UK’s Nuclear Plants Are at Serious Risk of Terrorist Drone Strikes,” Daily Express, 26 February 2015, www.express.co.uk/news/uk/559718/Nclear-plants-are-at-risk-from-a-terrorist-strike-by-unmanned-drones.
29 Vesna Markovic, “Suicide Squad: Boko Haram’s Use of the Female Suicide Bomber,” Women & Criminal Justice 29, no. 4-5 (2019): 283–302, https://doi.org/10.1080/08974454.2019.1629153.
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