A failed attack by explosives-laden drones on Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro could be a harbinger of a new era. Cheap, easy-to-use, remotely-piloted aerial vehicles aren't just toys, anymore. They're potential tools of assassination.
But don't panic. This is not the first time assassins have adapted a new technology for nefarious ends. Politicians and their protectors have ways of coping.
On August 4, someone launched two hexacopter-style drones toward Maduro, his wife, and other top officials as Maduro was making a speech at an outdoor event in Caracas. The drones each packed two pounds of explosives and were on course to explode in front of and above Maduro, Interior Minister Nestor Reverol claimed.
The Venezuelan military electronically "jammed" one of the drones and knocked it off course, while the second drone crashed into an apartment building two blocks from Maduro's event, Reverol further claimed, according to the Associated Press.
CaracasNews24 obtained video footage it claimed depicted one of the drones exploding in mid-air. Separate videos show Maduro reacting to an explosion as government agents surround him with sheets of handheld, flexible armor.
The attempted assassination-by-drone in Caracas probably won't be the last of its kind. "We will see more attacks, as the technology has a very low barrier to entry," Peter W. Singer, a drone expert at the New America Foundation, told me. "Indeed, it is harder to get the bomb than it is to get the drone."
It was perhaps inevitable that political assassins would turn to off-the-shelf drones. Criminals and terrorists began using inexpensive UAVs years ago. Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria built a remote-control air force by combining commercially-available drones with small explosives. The exploding drones harassed and demoralized Iraqi and US troops during the long battle to liberate the city of Mosul from militants in 2016 and 2017. As US Army colonel Pat Work, who advised Iraqi forces in Mosul, said of ISIS's drone tactics during a presentation at West Point in January, "You don't have to kill your enemy if you kill his courage."
Mexican cartels first used cheap drones to deliver drugs before modifying them as weapons, too. In October 2017, police in Mexico pulled over four men in a pickup truck near the city of Salamanca. Along with an AK-47 assault rifle, the men had in their possession a remotely piloted aerial vehicle fitted with an explosive device and a remote detonator.
"Small drones are an efficient way of carrying a payload to a target," Nick Waters, a former British Army officer and independent drone expert, told me. "Whether that payload is your new book or several hundred grams of explosive is up to the sender."
Don’t worry, Singer said. "We also shouldn't overreact and think we can somehow turn back time."
Singer pointed to a historical precedent. "The first assassination attempt using a horseless carriage was in 1905, targeting the Ottoman sultan. The Times described it as 'one of the greatest and most sensational political conspiracies of modern times.'"
If politicians and security forces adapted to the threat of carriage-borne assassins, then they can adapt to killer drones, too. Means already exists to protect politicians from exploding robots.
Venezuelan forces reportedly jammed one of the drones that targeted Maduro, apparently using the same radio-signal-disrupting technology that the Russian military uses to protect its bases in Syria from militants' frequent drone swarms.
Work, for one, said attentiveness is key to protecting against such attacks. "Just look up and see the problem. That helps."
It’s about minimizing the risks, Singer told me. Panic could lead to absurd, disproportionate regulation, he warned. "It is a strange but likely regulatory outcome that it will be harder to get and use a small drone than an AR-15 rifle and bump stock able to kill hundreds at a school or concert."
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