Last week, someone tried to kill Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro using a drone. Maduro’s speech was interrupted by an explosion — video shows the camera shake, Maduro and his wife flinch, and witnesses flee in panic.
There were a few injuries in the crowd, but Maduro escaped unscathed. The Venezuelan government claims to have shot down two explosives-laden drones before they could attack. A dissident group called Soldiers in T-shirts claimed responsibility.
This marks the first attempt to kill a head of state with a small, commercially available drone.
Are drone assassinations the next terrorist weapon? Here are four things to know.
1. Why would terrorists use small drones?
Unmanned aircraft appeal to terrorists, insurgents and other militant nonstate actors for the same reasons they appeal to states: It’s a relatively inexpensive way to attack a target without risking personnel.
Terrorism and assassination are nothing new, but strategies change as militants learn about new technologies. Suicide bombing, for example, spread from Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka to become a popular terrorist technique. Over 90 percent of suicide bombings since 1968 have come in the 21st century.
Why this big expansion? Most likely, it’s because suicide bombings kill more than non-suicide bombings and make a larger statement. They’re harder to stop — an abandoned bag usually looks more out of place than a person in bulky clothing — and the attacker can move toward the target, waiting for an opportune moment to strike.
Similarly, drones offer terrorists a “poor man’s smart bomb.” A drone attack lacks the shock value of suicide — and the signal that sends to both targets and potential recruits — but does not sacrifice personnel. Drone bombings will likely diffuse in a pattern similar to suicide bombings and other innovations in terrorism, perhaps further and faster given the rapid spread of commercially available drones.
2. How have militants used drones?
Maduro’s attackers used a DJI Matrice 600 — a high-end model that costs about $5,000 and can carry over 5 kilograms, or about 11 pounds — but cheaper drones can be dangerous as well. Top-selling quadcopters, such as DJI’s Phantom, are available for $1,200 and can hold up to 1 kg. That’s enough for a camera to film bridges, government buildings, stadiums or motorcades to look for security flaws. Or terrorists could swap out the camera for a grenade, which typically weighs about 400 grams, or a little less than a pound.
We’ve already seen this shift in insurgent warfare. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS commanders used footage from multiple drones to coordinate attacks on army bases. Other drone-shot images appear in ISIS recruitment videos designed to look like first-person shooter games like Call of Duty. These videos are part of the group’s efforts to recruit young men.
Starting in 2016, ISIS employed Jerry-rigged drones to drop small bombs or crash into coalition forces in Iraq and Syria. In addition to conventional threats, counterinsurgency forces now have to worry about attacks from above.
Military-grade surveillance and combat drones can cost millions, but most of the models ISIS used cost less than $1,000. In this way, drones have democratized warfare. For the first time in history, nonstate actors have an air force.
3. Is drone terrorism a threat to Western countries?
Western security services have thwarted attacks in the planning stages. A 2016 counterterrorism raid in Britain found drone manuals and maps of popular London shopping areas. And in 2012, the United States indicted a man for plotting to fly explosive-laden model airplanes into buildings in Washington, DC. He confessed that he wanted to avenge U.S. drone strikes in Iraq.
Analyzing drone proliferation, Michael C. Horowitz, Sarah E. Kreps, and Matthew Fuhrmann single out “operations by violent nonstate actors” as “a legitimate concern.” In September 2013, demonstrators flew a small drone close to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In January 2015, a drunken U.S. federal employee accidentally crashed a Phantom on the White House lawn. These incidents highlight how Western security services are insufficiently prepared to counter potential drone terrorism.
While assassination by drone — like the apparent attempt on Maduro — is concerning, attacks on random civilians also are a threat. Each year, U.S., U.K., French and Canadian regulators report increasing numbers of small drones in unauthorized airspace — above stadiums, intersections, hospitals and airports.
4. Can regulations help?
The nonmilitary drone market is growing rapidly, with $30 billion in sales estimated by 2020. This creates opportunities for businesses, artists and hobbyists — but creates security challenges for governments.
Regulations vary by country, although most have settled on a few key principles:
- Height limits, typically 400-500 feet
- No flying over populated areas or in restricted airspace, such as above airports
- Drones must remain in operator’s line-of-sight
- Registration and licenses are required, especially for commercial activity. For example, in December 2017, the FAA started requiring drone owners to register all aircraft weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds.
These regulations can help address accidents and liability, but there are numerous questions. Can homeowners shoot down drones hovering overhead? Will local, state, or federal authorities have primary responsibility for drone legislation/enforcement? And how will governments accommodate plans by Amazon and other companies to conduct drone deliveries? The United Kingdom and Canada have already authorized pilot programs, and the U.S. probably will soon.
Drone licensing and registration requirements resemble regulations for cars and civilian aircraft, but drones are smaller and cheaper, making the regulations easier to avoid. But people who intend to use a drone in a terrorist attack will probably not fear a fine for failing to register. With new and used drones sold online in dozens of countries, national regulations can do little to prevent terrorists from acquiring them.
Missile defense systems would be excessive and dangerous in civilian areas. In fact, Dutch and French police train eagles to take down drones. Other options include shooting down drones with guns or lasers, capturing them in nets fired from the ground or carried by another drone, and jamming the operator’s signal.
The effectiveness of regulations and countermeasures is uncertain. The danger of drone-borne terrorism is not.