Weaponizing Commercial Drones, DBIEDs, and the Spectre of Terrorist “Air Forces” in the West

Date: 5 Jun 2019 Category : | Author: Graham Penrose

Weaponized drones have an ability to cause fear and panic that far outweighs their cost or the training required to operate them. To date drone incidents have mainly consisted of the accidental (majority) or intentional (minority) breaching of airport perimeters or drone incursions into the flight paths of aircraft. While the focus has been on the risk to aviation the issue of rogue drones is just as much of a concern for critical infrastructure, stadiums, and public gatherings.

Four Airports, Four Months, 255 Incursions

The number and variety of airport drone incidents has been generally under-reported.

In 2018 drone-detection technology was installed at four undisclosed international U.K. airports. The technology remained in place for 148 days to determine if the airports had any drone incursions and to assess the threat level from unauthorized drones. London Gatwick was not included in the study.

Each of the selected airports sees approximately 2 million to 27 million passengers per year and also operates cargo services. The so-called UK Airport Counter-Drone Study made the following findings regarding instances of unauthorized drone activity during the research period:

285 drones were detected and the average number of drones detected per day was 1.93. The study also found that drone pilots use drones from a variety of drone manufacturers, which means that detection technology needs to be broad-ranging.” [Dedrone UK Airport Counter-Drone Study 2018]

Recent High Profile Incidents

The scale of the disruption drone events at civilian airports cause and the opportunity that drones present for maximum disruptive impact with minimal investment is demonstrated by several of the more prominent instances in the last 6 months:

  1. Gatwick Airport Shut Down by ‘Deliberate’ Drone Incursions, Dec.20, 2018
  2. London Gatwick Not Only U.K. Airport To Experience Drone Incursions, Dec.29, 2018
  3. Dubai Airport Disrupted by ‘Unauthorized Drone Activity, Feb.15, 2019
  4. Stansted Airport: Drone ‘missed landing plane by 15m’, Dec.15, 2018

Terrorist Tradecraft & Terrorist “Air Forces”

Weaponized drones have been widely used in the field in Syria and Iraq. ISIS use of drones in a mainly recon role was first noted around Kobane during the siege of that city in 2014. Since then the use of drones as an offensive weapon has accelerated.

The proliferation of armed, commercially sourced drones in Iraq and Syria has seen Jund Al Aqsa, Hezbollah, so called Islamic State (IS) and Iraqi Government forces all use commercial drones which have been modified to carry either improvised bombs, or in the case of Hezbollah, sub-munitions from a cluster bomb. [1]

On a recent podcast Jake Hanrahan spoke to Nick Waters about the use of commercial drone bombs in war. Drones that you can buy off of Amazon and use in your garden that have been converted by insurgents to drop bombs on their enemies and noted that “the use of these drone bombs has skyrocketed since ISIS started using them in Mosul in 2017.” [7]

At some point we will see drones used by terror groups against targets in the West. Hobbyist type drones have the ability to carry several kilos of payload and are easily acquired. Their purchase is generally unregulated and tracing the purchaser of a drone in the current regulatory environment is not a simple task. In this context the widely available nature and low cost of these hobbyist type drones makes them an obvious choice for bad actors.

The process of weaponizing drones is trivial and the logistics of carrying out a drone supported attack is far less complicated than “traditional” terror tactics. Drone attacks also place the attacker at a distance from the scene and in so doing reduce the chances of apprehending perpetrators.

It is incumbent upon Government, Public Safety Authorities, and Law Enforcement to implement viable and reliable counter drone and drone defence solutions in general and not just in the Aviation context.

The video below was recently released by The Afrin Liberation Forces (@HRE_official on Twitter – Hêzên Rizgariya Efrînê) after an attack on a TFSA (Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army) base in Afrin with drone mounted bombs.

As opposed to the arid Middle Eastern landscape in the video it would not be difficult to imagine the drone mounted camera streaming video of a European city, as it prepared to release its payload. [1] [2]

Video Sourced Here & Credit to Jake Hanrahan: [3]

DBIED Study – Warheads, Tails, and Targets

As far back as May 2017, Nick Waters conducted a study for Bellingcat [5] on the type DBIEDs and the types of munitions dropped by drones. He found that the type of DBIED varied widely and that different kinds of drone bombs appear in different theatres of conflict influenced by a wide range of different factors from the people who make them, to the materials available.

The report examined three different entities: warheads, tails and targets and makes interesting reading. But more importantly it shows that the path to drone weaponization and the delivery of a DBIED payload is not a complicated matter.

Responses to Drone Threat to Aviation

On Jan.28, 2019 Airports Council International [6] issued an advisory on drone-related disruption to aircraft operations suggesting that the following steps should be taken to reduce the threat of drone incursions – accidental and intentional:

  1. Coordinating with national authorities on the creation of bylaws governing the operation of drones in the vicinity of the airport
  2. Identifying geographic boundaries of “No Drone Zones” (no fly zones for drones) on and in the vicinity of the airport, especially approach and take-off flight paths
  3. Coordinating with authorities on regulations and obtaining guidance on the requirements for airports to implement anti-drone technologies
  4. Reviewing its assessment of the security risks associated with the malicious use of drones as part of the airport Security Risk Assessment
  5. Establishing means to suppress/neutralize unauthorized drones within the airport boundary especially adjacent to runways and flight paths, and agreeing which agency is responsible for areas outside the airport boundary or not on the airport operator
  6. Ensuring that any new anti-drone measures do not create unintended safety hazards and unmitigated risks to other manned aircraft, authorized drones and aviation infrastructures, and
  7. Establishing a Concept of Operations and Standard Operating Procedure for anti-drone measures based on advice from the national authorities.

References & Acknowledgements

  1. Jake Hanrahan (Twitter), Journalist and filmmaker. Focused on irregular warfare and professional website here
  2. Nick Waters (Twitter), Digital investigations, Yemen Project, Syria, Drones. European Press Prize Laureate 2018. Ex-infantry officer. Senior Investigator
  3. Afrin Liberation Forces Weaponized Drone Bombing TFSA Base here
  4. Insurgent Airforce: Weaponising Commercial Drones (Podcast with Jake Hanrahan and Nick Waters) here
  5. Types of Islamic State Drone Bombs and Where to Find Them here
  6. Industry, government, and law enforcement have a responsibility to work together to protect aircraft and airports from drones here
  7. Tweet Sources & Podcasts: Feb. 2019 – “Today we speak to Bellingcat researcher Nick Waters about his extensive work on the use of commercial drone bombs in war. We’re talking about drones you can buy off of Amazon and use in your garden that have been converted by insurgents to drop bombs on their enemies. The use of these drone bombs has skyrocketed since ISIS started using them in Mosul in 2017.
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