Drones – evolving technology for terrorist attack

Lata Jain

The sky also hold new terrors for everyday people who were now within reach of an airborne enemy- these fears included the possibilities of bombing, poison gas, surveillance and social control.

Drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are aircraft either controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground or increasingly, autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. There are dozens of different types of drones; however, they can be categorized as either those that are used for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes, or those that are armed with missiles and bombs. Drones can fly for longer periods of time and are much cheaper than traditional military aircraft; additionally they are flown remotely, thus appeasing public demands to keep soldiers safe.

As the use of drones expands, so too does the controversy around their use. Supporters of armed drones argue that they have increased control over when and where to strike, thus enabling greater accuracy and less ‘collateral damage’. Opponents argue that by removing one of the key restraints to warfare—the risk to one’s own forces—unmanned systems make undertaking armed attacks too easy and will make war more likely. The ‘persistent presence’ of drones over a particular area looking for suspicious behavior is leading. Drones have also been responsible for large numbers of civilian casualties. Additionally, legal experts and human rights organizations have condemned the rise in targeted extrajudicial killing enabled by the use of armed drones.

Drones come in many shapes and sizes. Although Predators and Reapers get most of the attention, they are only part of a large, diverse fleet of unmanned vehicles. What they have in common is that they offer a new dimension in intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance—knowing where the enemy is and what he is doing.

Drone technology is accessible to everyone, including terrorists and their organizations. While there has been a concerted effort by nations to control certain sensitive military technology and weapons, it will be far more difficult to control drone technology due to its commercial availability.

Terrorists will continue to seek out and exploit vulnerabilities. The technology represented by drones, like the Octocopter of suitable proportion, provides a spectrum of opportunities that can be exploited by technologically savvy terrorists who wish to undertake violent actions with the objective of spreading  destruction against what they deem as worthy targets. The combination of payload, range, accuracy as well as ability to control and target, from a safe distance, enabling the operator an opportunity to flee and “fight another day” would gladden the heart of any terrorist planner.

In 2006, Ali Asad Chandia, a Maryland teacher working on behalf of the Pakistani terror group Lashkar e Tayiba, was convicted of attempting to acquire an electronic automatic pilot system for an RCMA for terrorism purposes. This system incorporates a stability and control computer that allows it to be programmed and fitted with a 10 to 12 foot wingspan. The GPS coordinates can then be programmed to turn on a video camera when the plane reaches those specific locations .

It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand that a drone is very hard to stop. It flies low and isn’t stopped by the entire infrastructure we have in place to make sure people don’t go to the places they’re not supposed to go. Fences and walls and gates and barriers, it simply goes over these things…. As these drones get cheaper, more prevalent, easier to get, attract less attention, it raises the risk that they will fall into the wrong hands and be used inappropriately

Intelligence and security authorities recognize that terrorist planners and operators are persistent and appreciate that technology is constantly advancing and can be readily exploited. Moreover, terrorists appear determined to utilize RCMAs, and will likely seek out sympathizers, potential jihadists and opportunists who have the engineering and technical skills to refine the drone technology at hand in order to weaponries for future operations.

There is an inevitability of a successful terrorist attack with this highly attractive and evolving technology.

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