Joystick Terrorism

Joystick Terrorism

The Threat of Weaponized sUAS

Caleb Canna

The potential for small Un-manned Aircraft Systems (sUAS), commonly referred to as drones, to be weaponized by terrorists poses a substantial threat to US homeland security. More accessible than ever, drones can and have been used by terrorists to bomb and surveil targets overseas. Recent incidents demonstrate it is probable terrorists will do the same on US soil. While US authorities have recognized this threat, the ability of sUAS to circumvent security measures, coupled with outdated laws, leaves the US vulnerable to an attack. In order to counter the threat posed by weaponized drones, the US government must first remove restricting regulations before then developing and distributing counter-drone systems to law enforcement and government agencies. More significantly, the US government should heed the lesson presented by sUAS and develop a strategy to preemptively counter dangerous dual-use technology.

sUAS have become both accessible and affordable, due to the rapid growth of the commercial drone industry in recent years. Lightweight, small, mobile quadcopters are increasingly being integrated into business operations in such industries as construction, mining, agriculture, surveying, and real estate. This, combined with public demand, has fueled the development of drone technology. Roughly 300 companies are currently investing in the U.S. drone industry, now worth over a billion dollars as of 2017.1 sUAS are now irreversibly accessible everywhere. In a total of 80 countries, there are over 600 types of UAS used.2 In the U.S. alone, over one million drone operators are officially registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).3

sUAS have become both accessible and affordable, due to the rapid growth of the commercial drone industry in recent years. Lightweight, small, mobile quadcopters are increasingly being integrated into business operations in such industries as construction, mining, agriculture, surveying, and real estate. This, combined with public demand, has fueled the development of drone technology. Roughly 300 companies are currently investing in the U.S. drone industry, now worth over a billion dollars as of 2017.1 sUAS are now irreversibly accessible everywhere. In a total of 80 countries, there are over 600 types of UAS used.2 In the U.S. alone, over one million drone operators are officially registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).3

Globally, foreign terrorist organizations have begun to acquire and use drones. The list of terrorist groups and non-state actors that have used sUAS includes ISIS, al Qaeda, Hamas, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Haqqani network, Aum Shinrikyo, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Russian separatists in Ukraine, Houthi rebels, and Colombian and Mexican drug cartels.4 Drone incidents and plots have taken place in “Syria, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Colombia, Germany, Spain, the United States, Japan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.”5

ISIS has exploited commercial sUAS with adaptations that have allowed for successful surveillance, bombings, and suicide mission detonations. Thus far, ISIS has been the primary terrorist organization to use sUAS in combat. Throughout 2016 and 2017, ISIS launched air attacks against Iraqi soldiers using weaponized sUAS with its “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen” program.6 These combat sUAS were equipped with weapons that fired small munitions. In Spring 2017, it was estimated that sUAS were responsible for 60-100 bombings every month.4 One Iraqi surgeon in Mosul estimated his hospital received 10 patients injured from drone bombs daily.4 General Raymond Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, later recounted that these ISIS sUAS nearly stalled the Iraqi offensive in Mosul one day, when “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.” Gen. Thomas named weaponized sUAS the “most daunting problem” of 2016.7

Aside from ISIS, several other terrorist and criminal organizations have used sUAS in recent years. Hezbollah has used UAS to surveil Israeli forces, drop bomblets, and reportedly launched armed drone attacks.8 Hamas have entered Israeli airspace with sUAS and claim to be able to use them for kamikaze attacks at will.6 Houthi rebels have used kamikaze drones against Patriot missiles defense batteries.6 Mexican drug cartel members, who arrested in October 2017, were found with a bomb-carrying sUAS.9 Moscow-backed rebels used sUAS to attack Ukraine’s massive Balakliya arms depot in March 2017, which exploded 70,000 tons of munitions.
Incidents and close-calls in recent years demonstrate the high probability that foreign terrorist organizations and/or lone wolfs will attempt to launch similar attacks on American soil. In 2011, terrorist Rezwan Ferdaus planned to use F-4 Phantom model airplanes that could fly 160mph and carry 10-12 pounds to bomb the US Capitol and Pentagon.10 In June 2013, German officials raided a suspected Islamic extremist group and confiscated “model airplanes that were reportedly capable of carrying enough explosives to destroy a commercial building.”11 Also in 2013, Iraqi authorities found model airplanes near chemical workshops and arrested five men that had planned to use them to distribute sarin and mustard gas against unspecified Western targets.4 In September 2013, an unarmed sUAS landed in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a campaign speech. Twice in 2015, sUAS were landed on the White House lawn.12 In summer of 2015, Black Sage Technologies simulated (for security purposes) a drone nerve gas attack inside a stadium. Security measures were unable to stop the drone.13 In February 2016, a drone easily entered prohibited airspace at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, where Trident nuclear submarines reside.14 Mostly recently, in August 2018, alleged terrorists made an assassination attempt on Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro using IED-equipped sUAS.15 These events exemplify the real possibility that terrorists will use weaponized sUAS to attack seemingly secure areas.

In the hands of terrorists, sUAS pose a multitude of threats to the US homeland. With drone acquisition, terrorists can significantly enlarge their destructive capabilities. First, drones elevate the battlefield presence of terrorists. Unlike conventional weapons, sUAS are easy to obtain and transport without notice. If a lone wolf terrorist could successfully create a reliable IED, drones would enable the terrorist to attack nearly any type of target.10 Second, sUAS afford terrorists relative anonymity. Because sUAS can be controlled remotely or flown autonomously, terrorists can safely conduct bombings from a distance. This increases the likelihood of such attacks and inhibits the ability of law enforcement to apprehend terrorists. Third, weaponized drones can be used to execute many different types of attacks. They can drop bombs onto crowds, provide surveillance for targeting, release deadly chemical substances, and fly into buildings and people. Furthermore, drones will only continue to increase in lethality as the technology further develops. sUAS will likely increase in “command and control distances, electro-optical sensor resolution, GPS guidance accuracy, and battlefield autonomy.”16 They will become smaller, faster, lighter, and capable of carrying larger and more deadly munitions. Already, the popular $1000 DJI Mavic is capable of autonomous flight, following GPS routes, tracking and following objects, and avoiding obstacles.

Leaders in the U.S. Armed Forces and Intelligence Community have recognized the threat posed by drone terrorism. In August 2018, Bernard Hudson, the former CIA Director of Counterterrorism, warned of weaponized drones, saying “No one is safe. Not heads of state. Not the flying public. We cannot afford delay in devising ways to combat this new peril.”17 Lieutenant-General Stephen Townsend, a former commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, called weaponized sUAS “the number one threat facing soldiers fighting IS.”9 Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Senate in May 2018 that “It’s only a matter of time before the threat manifests in a violent way.”12 In his testimony to the Senate, FBI Director Christopher Wray said “I think we do know that terrorist organizations have an interest in using drones… We have seen that overseas already with some frequency. I think that the expectation is that it is coming here, imminently.”18 Nicholas Rasmussen, Director of the CIA National Counter Terrorism Center, provided slightly optimistic news that “there is a community of experts that has emerged inside the federal government that is focused on this pretty much full time.”19

Despite recognition of the threat posed by weaponized sUAS, the US is currently unprepared to prevent or counter drone terrorism. Existing measures to counter malicious drones are ineffective. Radar is ineffective against sUAS since they fly low, give off small signatures, and can be indistinguishable from birds.20 Drones are difficult targets for firearms to hit, due to the small size, agility, and 70+ mph speed of most sUAS. While jammers that break the radio link between drone and operator are currently viable, both autonomous flight abilities and optical navigation technology being developed by the drone industry may make GPS jammers useless.9 Additionally, drones can be launched quickly and near intended targets, giving law enforcement limited time to react. It is unclear whether law enforcement entities across America have even been adequately informed of the threat posed by weaponized sUAS, much less been trained to counter them. These combined deficiencies leave the US homeland vulnerable.

While the US is currently unprepared for terrorist drones, there are substantial efforts underway to develop counter-measures. For Fiscal year 2018, the Pentagon allocated over $400 million (5.9% of the military drone budget) to counter-drone systems.21 Systems already procured include nets fired by shotguns and drone-jamming devices. Systems in development include a DARPA program (with collaboration from Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and University of Washington) that would use “a network of sensors to provide wide-area surveillance of all drones operating below 1,000 ft. in a city.”12 Commercial efforts to counter harmful drone activity have also been growing. There are already 230 products available from 155 manufacturers in 33 countries that aim to subvert malicious drones.12 It is estimated that this global industry will reach $1.85 billion by 2024.22 Technologies such as electromagnetic jammers, physical building barriers, fiber optic laser guns, electronic boundaries, and effective drone radars must be quickly developed and responsibly distributed within the States.

Current US regulations constrain counter-drone technology and prohibit many actions essential for stopping weaponized sUAS. Under FAA regulations, sUAS are legally treated as passenger jets. Because of this and current electronic eavesdropping laws, it is illegal to take down drones, access drone signals, geolocate operators, and disable drones midair with electromagnetic signals. While these regulations make sense applied to the general public, they should not entirely apply to law enforcement and government agencies. In October 2016, the FAA expressly prohibited major airports from testing UAS detection and counter-drone technology, except for technologies that participated in the interagency CRDA program.23 These prohibitive regulations have inhibited the development of US-based counter-drone technologies and created a shadow industry of sorts.10 These regulations directly undermine US homeland security.

Legislative fixes that would remove regulations currently prohibiting counter-drone measures remain stagnant. Congressional bills, such S.2836 and H.R. 6401, have proposed making it illegal to weaponize consumer drones, requiring drones to broadcast their identity, and giving government agencies legal authority to track and take down unauthorized UAS to designated facilities, infrastructure and assets.24 25 Most significantly, in May 2017, the Trump Administration proposed, but hasn’t approved, legislation to “expand the power to track, monitor, and destroy UAS to ‘any member of the Armed Forces, a federal officer, employee, agent, or contractor, or any other individual that is designated by the head of a department or agency.’”26 These pieces of legislation should be passed immediately. As Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security, said in July 2018, “I can tell you that threat is outpacing our ability to respond. Without congressional action, the U.S. government will remain unable to identify, track and mitigate weaponized or dangerous drones in our skies.”
The danger posed by weaponized sUAS exemplifies an even greater underlying threat: the inability of the US government to follow developments and properly regulate emerging dual-use technologies. The US government lacks an effective strategy to preemptively counter emerging dual-use technologies. General Raymond Thomas recognized this trend in his May 2017 statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, in which he wrote that “with improvised threats, we continue to see examples of our adversaries taking commercial off-the-shelf technologies and manipulating and employing them as weapons as well as surveillance systems, such as small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS).”28 Weaponized sUAS are but one threat the US will face. Emerging commercial technologies in aviation, aerospace, information technology, and automation (e.g. artificial intelligence, CRISPR-Cas9 gene drives, and brain-machine interfaces) will continue to be exploited. As Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Tingle and Second Lieutenant David Tyre warned in April 2017, “future unforeseen commercial technologies will readily lend themselves to military applications, unnerving those most concerned with maintaining national security.”16 The US government should learn from the lesson presented by weaponized sUAS and adopt policies that will prevent emerging dual-use technologies from reaching the world before it’s too late.

  1. Richard Levick, “Drone Industry Just Beginning To Take Off,” Forbes, 15 May, 2018,
  2. “United States Army Counter – Unmanned Aircraft System (C-UAS) Strategy Extract,” U.S. Army, 5 October, 2016,
  3. Aaron Boyd, “1 Million Drones, Operators Register to Fly in US,” Nextgov, 24 January, 2018, “
  4. Don Rassler, “The Islamic State and Drones: Supply, Scale and Future Threats,” Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2018,
  5. Brian Abbe and Troy Abbott, “Taking An Enterprise Integration Approach to Counter Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” Booz Allen Hamilton, 2017,
  6. Elisa Catalano Ewers, Lauren Fish, Michael Horowitz, Alexandra Sander, and Paul Scharre, “DRONE PROLIFERATION: Policy Choices for the Trump Administration,” Center for a New American Security, June 2017,
  7. David Larter, “SOCOM commander: Armed ISIS drones were 2016’s ‘most daunting problem’,” Defense News, 16 May, 2017,
  8. Ash Rossiter, “Drone usage by militant groups: exploring variation in adoption,” Journal
    Defense & Security Analysis Vol. 34 (2), 20 June, 2018,
  9. “Home-made drones now threaten conventional armed forces,” The Economist, 8 February, 2018,
  10. Benjamin Seibert, “The Dark Side of Drones: Implications For Terrorism,” Combating Terrorism eXchange Vol. 5 (4), November 2015,
  11. “German Police Shoot Down Model Plane Terror Plot,” Spiegel Online, 25 June, 2013,
  12. W.J. Hennigan, “Experts Say Drones Pose a National Security Threat — and We Aren’t Ready,” TIME, 31 May, 2018,
  13. Douglas Starr, “This Brilliant Plan Could Stop Drone Terrorism. Too Bad It’s Illegal,” WIRED, 28 February, 2017,
  14. Hal Bernton, “Who flew drone over Bangor submarine base? Navy wants to know,” The Seattle Times, 25 February, 2016,
  15. Rachelle Krygier and Anthony Faiola, “Venezuela braces for possible crackdown after apparent drone attack on Maduro,” The Washington Post, 5 August, 2018,
  16. Anthony Tingle and David Tyree, “The Rise of the Commercial Threat: Countering the Small Unmanned Aircraft System,” Joint Force Quarterly 85, 1 April, 2017,
  17. Bernard Hudson, “Drone attacks are essentially terrorism by joystick,” The Washington Post, 5 August, 2018,
  18. Nancy Bilyeau, “Can We Prevent a Drone Terror Attack?,” The Crime Report, 20 March, 2018,
  19. Sean Higgins, “FBI: Terrorists expected to use aerial drones ‘imminently’,” The Washington Examiner, 27 September, 2017,
  20. Maj Bryan Card, “Terror from Above: How the Commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Revolution Threatens the US Threshold,” Air & Space Power Journal Vol. 32 (1), March 2018,
  21. Dan Gettinger, “Drones in the Defense Budget: Navigating the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Request,” Center for the Study of the Drone, October 2017,
  22. “Anti-Drone Market Size Worth $1.85 Billion By 2024 | CAGR: 24.1%,” Grand View Research, May 2018,
  23. “FAA UAS Detection Testing Letter,” Federal Aviation Administration, 26 October, 2016,
  24. Ben Joelson and Sean Horner, “The Drone Threat Is Real. The Solution Is Complex.,” Real Clear Defense, 5 September, 2018,
  25. Patrick Tucker, “A Criminal Gang Used a Drone Swarm To Obstruct an FBI Hostage Raid,” Defense One, 3 May, 2018,
  26. Richard Schoeberl and Kendall Smith, “Protecting the Homeland From Nefarious Drone Use,” Domestic Preparedness, 22 November, 2017,
  27. Kirstjen Nielsen, “The U.S. isn’t prepared for the growing threat of drones,” The Washington Post, 4 July, 2018,
  28. Gen. Raymond Thomas, III, “Statement of General Raymond A. Thomas, III, U.S. Army Commander United States Special Operations Command Before the Senate Armed Services Committee May 4, 2017,” Senate Armed Services Committee, 4 May, 2017,

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