Drone Ter­ror­ism

To­day’s con­flict sit­u­a­tions are more and more at the sub-con­ven­tional level wit­ness­ing more and more em­ploy­ment of ir­reg­u­lar forces, and con­se­quent use of drones against such forces

SP's LandForces - - FRONT PAGE - Lt Gen­eral P.C. Ka­toch (Retd)

To­day’s con­flict sit­u­a­tions are more and more at the sub-con­ven­tional level wit­ness­ing more and more em­ploy­ment of ir­reg­u­lar forces, and con­se­quent use of drones against such forces.

HOW OLD ARE DRONES? That may be dif­fi­cult to an­swer. But then epics like Ra­mayan men­tion the use of ‘Udan Kha­to­las’ and Ra­mayan was hardly a fairy tale with am­ple ground proofs it was no fic­tion, to in­clude un­der­sea photos of the Ram Setu. Whether these ‘Udan Kha­to­las’ were all pow­ered or some were drones may be a mat­ter of de­bate. As per records, the Aus­tralians had at­tacked the Ital­ian city of Venice in 1849 with un­manned bal­loons loaded with ex­plo­sives, launched from a ship. But the first pi­lot­less air­craft were built dur­ing and shortly af­ter World War I, some used as fly­ing bombs. But com­ing to later times, the raid to lib­er­ate Mus­solini dur­ing World War II was con­ducted by the raid­ing force us­ing glid­ers. That may be per­haps the first use of drones in ac­tual com­bat.

Drones in Coun­ter­ing Ter­ror­ism

To­day’s con­flict sit­u­a­tions are more and more at the sub-con­ven­tional level wit­ness­ing more and more em­ploy­ment of ir­reg­u­lar forces, and con­se­quent use of drones against such forces. In 2014, 25 x US drone strikes in Pak­istan re­port­edly killed be­tween 114 and 183 in­di­vid­u­als (in­clud­ing two civil­ians and two chil­dren) while 44 to 67 were re­ported in­jured. In­ter­est­ingly in the decade 2004-14, Wikipedia de­scribes 357 x Obama strikes and 408 x to­tal US strikes since 2004 killing be­tween 2,410 and 3,902 in­di­vid­u­als (in­clud­ing 416 to 959 civil­ians and be­tween 168 and 204 chil­dren) while in­jur­ing be­tween 1,133 and 1,706 in­di­vid­u­als. This shows the in­ten­sity and ef­fec­tive­ness of use of drones in ir­reg­u­lar con­flict sit­u­a­tions. But while US blog­gers have been talk­ing of use of drones to knock out ter­ror­ists within US home­land, an Amer­i­can (US de­vel­op­ment ex­pert War­ren Weinstein) and an Ital­ian aid worker (Gio­vanni Lo Porto) hostage got ac­ci­den­tally killed in Jan­uary this year when a US drone at­tacked an Al Qaeda com­pound in Pak­istan where they were be­ing held cap­tive for past sev­eral years. This has sparked a lot of ques­tions about drones be­ing used in this type of con­flict sit­u­a­tions, es­pe­cially when the in­tel­li­gence that un­der­pinned the said drone strike was in­com­plete. But just as drones are be­ing used for coun­ter­ing terror, these are also avail­able to the ter­ror­ists. For ex­am­ple, where Is­rael is us­ing drone strikes ef­fec­tively to elim­i­nate rad­i­cals, Ha­mas too re­port­edly has ac­cess to Ira­nian ori­gin drones.

Drones in Ter­ror­ism

Dur­ing 2009, an at­tempt was made to de­liver drugs to pris­on­ers us­ing a drone in a UK prison guarded by a 50 feet high elec­tric fence. In 2011, Rezwan Fer­daus, an Al Qaeda af­fil­i­ate, planned to launch an at­tack on the Pen­tagon and Capi­tol build­ings us­ing a re­mote-con­trolled drone laden with ex­plo­sives but the plot was in­ter­cepted by the FBI. In 2012, crim­i­nals pi­loted a $600 re­mote-con­trolled quad-copter over a Brazil­ian prison to de­liver cell phones to the pris­on­ers. For the past one year, the New York Po­lice Depart­ment (NYPD) had been in­creas­ingly con­cerned about a po­ten­tial terror at­tack from the air by a drone armed with a deadly weapon. But now NYPD has openly ex­pressed con­cern that drones could be­come tools for ter­ror­ists as po­ten­tial weapons; tech­nol­ogy hav­ing ad­vanced enough that some­one could use them to carry out an air as­sault us­ing chem­i­cal weapons and firearms. So, NYPD wants to de­velop tech­nol­ogy which will al­low them to take con­trol of drones as well as scan the skies for them be­fore ma­jor events, and stop po­ten­tial at­tacks. The spurt in NYPD’s con­cern about drones has come about be­cause: one, in­crease of drone in­ci­dents in New York City by 40 per cent in one year; two, in Ger­many dur­ing 2014, a drone hov­ered over a crowd of peo­ple when Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel was de­liv­er­ing a speech – the drone fly­ing to­wards the podium and landed in front of her, three, this sum­mer, an NYPD night pa­trol he­li­copter fly­ing at an al­ti­tude of 800 feet above ground level was sud­denly con­fronted by a drone and; four, most sig­nif­i­cantly the am­bi­gu­ity in de­duc­ing the pay­load and in­ten­tion of a fly­ing drone. The NYPD is presently con­sult­ing with the mil­i­tary and has mem­bers of its coun­tert­er­ror­ism, bomb squad, emer­gency ser­vices and avi­a­tion units work­ing on a plan to counter weaponised drones.

In Jan­uary this year, a drone crashed on the White House grounds, rais­ing ques­tions over how com­mer­cial and con­sumer drones can be used safely in the US. But there were big­ger con­cerns in Ja­pan in April 2015 when a drone with traces of ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial, a bot­tle with un­spec­i­fied con­tents and mounted with a cam­era was found on the roof of Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe’s of­fice in Tokyo on April 22. The 50-cm di­am­e­ter drone was dec­o­rated with a sym­bol that warned of ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial. Ja­pan’s Chief Cab­i­net Sec­re­tary, Yoshi­hide Suga, said the in­ci­dent was a wake up call to the po­ten­tial dan­gers of drones in­clud­ing pos­si­ble terror at­tacks. It may be re­called that dur­ing 1995, post the Sarin gas bomb­ing of Tokyo sub­way it was found that the Aum Shin­rikyo cult re­spon­si­ble for the at­tack had two re­mote con­trolled he­li­copters that had luck­ily crashed dur­ing tri­als. The cult oth­er­wise had enough Sarin gas to kill one mil­lion peo­ple. Sig­nif­i­cantly, Ja­panese avi­a­tion laws have no re­stric­tions for un­manned drones fly­ing at or be­low 250 me­tres above ground ex­cept along flight routes. But now with a drone land­ing on the rooftop of the Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter’s of­fice, it is ob­vi­ous that a re­view would be un­der­way.

In­dian Scene

As per media re­ports, In­dia is the world’s top drone im­porter af­ter UK and France; 22.5 per cent world’s UAVs were im­ported by In­dia from 1985 to 2014. Drones are be­ing used in the coun­try for shoot­ing con­certs and movies, film­ing pri­vate par­ties, by po­lice or­gan­i­sa­tions for sur­veil­lance and mon­i­tor­ing traf­fic, and for sur­veil­lance and in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing by armed forces. Last year, media re­ported that an eatery in Mum­bai had de­liv­ered food items to con­sumers us­ing a drone. In­ter­est­ingly, while Ama­zon has suc­cess­fully con­ducted test bed for de­liv­ery of items at the cus­tomer’s doorsteps, it can­not make it op­er­a­tional in the US un­less the reg­u­la­tions for use of drones are re­vamped and pro­mul­gated. In Oc­to­ber 2014, the Di­rec­torate Gen­eral of Civil Avi­a­tion (DGCA) had an­nounced that till proper rules and reg­u­la­tions are for­mu­lated, use of drones in the coun­try is “illegal”. But a mere an­nounce­ment may not be enough. Last year, four in­di­vid­u­als were caught film­ing the Ganga Arti in Varanasi us­ing drone cam­eras with­out per­mis­sion. They ad­mit­ted they had al­ready done sim­i­lar film­ing us­ing cam-copter for a travel chan­nel at Al­la­habad, Varanasi, Shimla, Manali and Agra, and that the film­ing team in­cluded four for­eign­ers. The cam­copter at Varanasi was ob­served and so the per­sons could be ap­pre­hended, but at other places such film­ing was un­hin­dered.

Dur­ing Re­pub­lic Day Pa­rade of 2015 where Pres­i­dent Barak Obama was to be the Chief Guest, in­tel­li­gence agen­cies had warned that ter­ror­ists may at­tempt drone strikes, even us­ing a glider. More rently post the drone land­ing atop ofi­ice of Prime Min­is­ter Abe, Delhi Po­lice was alerted by in­tel­li­gence agen­cies of pos­si­bil­ity of ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions plan­ning a sim­i­lar ac­tion in the cap­i­tal; in­tel­li­gence in­puts that groups like LeT and Jaish-e-Mo­hammed (JeM) have been plan­ning drone at­tacks. In­ter­est­ingly, the NDRF used drones dur­ing the re­cent earth­quake re­lief in Nepal.

The Is­sue

It is re­ported that for the US to come out with com­pre­hen­sive reg­u­la­tions for use of drones it may take years. So, while DGCA in­di­cates that rules and reg­u­la­tions are be­ing for­mu­lated in this re­gard, we can ex­pect a long ges­ta­tion pe­riod. But the for­mu­la­tion of rules and reg­u­la­tions is one part and pro­mul­gat­ing them the real is­sue. The prob­lem is more com­plex if cam-copters are used at night with IR cam­eras, de­tec­tion be­ing dif­fi­cult in hours of dark­ness. A ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion could use drone (s) by night to de­liver chem­i­cal or ra­dioac­tive pay­loads. Even by day, the prob­lem can be viewed in back­drop of the weapons at Pu­ru­lia which were dis­cov­ered only af­ter the air­drop had been ex­e­cuted, and drones come in all sizes. Then, we have mul­ti­ple man­u­fac­tures in In­dia mar­ket­ing drones, even as re­mote con­trolled toys for chil­dren, cam-copters for sur­veil­lance and pri­vate clubs indulging in drone fly­ing ad­ven­ture, like else­where in the world. Mon­i­tor­ing such equip­ment in a pop­u­lous coun­try like ours is a her­culean task, and yet it must be done. It amounts to track­ing the man­u­fac­tured equip­ment, its sale and lo­ca­tions by in­cor­po­rat­ing the pop­u­la­tion into re­port­ing pos­si­ble mis­use; in­sti­tu­tion­al­iz­ing the ‘bil­lion eyes on ground’ con­cept in con­cert with the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. Com­pared to larger UAVs, small drones are much more dif­fi­cult to de­tect as they need lit­tle space to take off. Over and above de­tec­tion, would also be the prob­lem of in­ter­cept­ing and bring­ing down a terror drone in­clud­ing the method of bring­ing down with­out ac­ti­va­tion its lethal load. Ha­mas has been known to be us­ing armed drones.


In­dia has been sub­jected to ter­ror­ism for al­most three decades now. Global rad­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tions like Al Qaeda are fo­cus­ing to­wards South Asia. We also have both Pak­istan and China en­gaged in proxy and ir­reg­u­lar war­fare against us. In­dia be­ing an open democ­racy with the sec­ond largest pop­u­la­tion in the world is more sus­cep­ti­ble to mis­chief by our ad­ver­saries. Ter­ror­ists, es­pe­cially the state spon­sored ones, are look­ing at new meth­ods as­sisted by tech­nol­ogy to strike us. We need to fo­cus on drone ter­ror­ism, which is al­ready a re­al­ity.


MQ-1 Preda­tor in flight

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