Terror Groups Are Strapping Bombs to Cheap Consumer Drones
“They may not inflict mass casualties, but the terror and panic they could cause is really worrying."
Most discussions involving the use of remotely piloted aircraft in combat likely conjure up images of America's giant Predator and Reaper drones, tailor-made military aircraft designed for surveillance and killing. But videos posted recently to YouTube coupled with US military reports suggest that combatants and civilians alike in war-torn regions might also need to worry about weaponized versions of small, inexpensive consumer drones.
In Syria, a country ravaged by civil war, militant groups have started jury rigging quadcopter-style drones with makeshift bombs to drop on targets, military officials told the Associated Press. These small-fry drones would have once been dismissed as unnerving, but harmless. However, a video posted last month showing a drone purportedly belonging to Jund al-Aqsa (a fragment of al-Qaeda) dropping bombs on Syrian armed forces in the Hama province of Syria indicates this may not be the case for much longer.
Another video, this one of alleged footage filmed from a Hezbollah-flown drone, shows bombs being dropped on targets near Aleppo, in Syria.
The Islamic State is also reportedly directly involved in the rudimentary weaponization of consumer drones. A US military official told The New York Times this week that a drone "the size of a model airplane" exploded after being shot down in Iraq recently. The explosion killed two Kurdish fighters, and the official described how the drone contained an explosive device "disguised as a battery." The small drone, which was thought to be just like many others Islamic State forces use for reconnaissance, exploded after the fighters took it back to their outpost for inspection.
The incident is believed to be the first time Islamic State has successfully killed with a drone deployed with explosives, and the Times reports that American commanders in Iraq are warning allied forces to be wary of any small flying aircraft moving forward.
A video posted to YouTube showing what is claimed to be a Hezbollah armed drone in Syria. It is worth noting that the authenticity of these videos is still unclear.
Jack Serle, a journalist with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's Covert Drone War project, told Motherboard that while these drones do not pose the same threat as conventional weapons launched from military aircraft or so-called hunter-killer drones like Reapers and Predators, their capacity to induce panic in civilian areas is a problem.
"What's really been making people nervous about shop-bought drones in the hands of non-state groups is use in civilian areas, especially in crowded places like shopping centers or sports stadiums," Serle wrote in an email. "They may not inflict mass casualties, but the terror and panic they could cause is really worrying. This potential for this kind of thing has been on many people's minds for some years now, and the technology is starting to become a reality."
American troops stationed in Iraq and Syria have also commented on the rise of small consumer drones being spotted in the air, according to the Times. Such sightings go hand-in-hand with new tactics from the Islamic State.
"In August, the Islamic State called on its followers to jury-rig small store-bought drones with grenades or other explosives and use them to launch attacks at the Olympics," the Times reported. While no such attacks ever took place in Brazil, the message from Islamic State highlights the terrorist organization's apparent willingness to expand its toolkit.
Serle told Motherboard that the problem may also be growing as a result of the falling cost of consumer drones that are simultaneously becoming more sophisticated. While traditional anti-air and newly-designed anti-drone weapons exist, Serle said that as consumer drones get more advanced, and the pilots operating them become more adept, "you can imagine a big swarm of them being very hard to stop."
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.