The new terrorist threat from drones

Security experts believe “it is only a matter of time” before terrorists arm drones to launch attacks. New drones are easily affordable and can be remotely-controlled from smartphones – and “if armed, and so turned into an improvised explosive device (IED), could cause significant damage”, warns Steve Maton of the Information Systems Security Association (ISSA) UK.

Jun 8, 2016
By Steve Maton

Security experts believe “it is only a matter of time” before terrorists arm drones to launch attacks. New drones are easily affordable and can be remotely-controlled from smartphones – and “if armed, and so turned into an improvised explosive device (IED), could cause significant damage”, warns Steve Maton of the Information Systems Security Association (ISSA) UK.

He said drones of all types – unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) and even underwater unmanned marine vehicles (UMVs) – are now available to terrorists.

“Gone are the days of obtaining military drones as per Hezbollah. So-called Islamic State group (Daesh) have been using kit devices for a while for creating their high-quality propaganda videos and performing battlefield reconnaissance. It is only going to be a matter of time before terrorists arm larger drones as IEDs and with possible jam-proof communications,” said Mr Maton in a paper prepared for the Security and Counter Terror Expo in London in April.

He said civilian UAVs can be operated at distances of more than two miles using radio waves and first-person view (FPV) or GPS navigation.

“Additionally, some inexpensive drones can carry payloads in excess of 3kg – some even up to 7kg,” he added.

“UAVs are allowed to fly up to an altitude of 400ft (122m), however, this is only based on the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority regulations and clearly ignored by any terrorist. Many domestic drones can fly to an altitude of over 1,000m, and with a price tag of £200 to £,1000, they are also within most individuals’ price range.

“Most UAVs can now be controlled using FPV and smartphones connected to the controller, allowing the user, if required, to blend in with the crowd and so hide their actions. All these reduce the probability of the user being identified and caught, allowing them to escape or perform parallel attacks.”

Mr Maton said it would be hard for such devices to penetrate military compounds, however, they could be used for targeting civilians.

“The terrorists are away from the target, using the remote video surveillance to direct the drone(s) to their exact target,” he added.

“They have less pressure and can change tactics easier than being on the ground. They have a greater view of the surroundings, allowing them to target, infiltrate and inflict the highest level of terrorism.

“Although there is still a short flying time on non-military UAVs, this would not typically be an issue as they only need to get to their targets and not circle and return.

“Depending on where the UAVs are flying, such as over a public field, civilians wouldn’t necessarily be concerned; even moving closer to view and as such placing themselves in direct danger.

“Imagine modifying a commercial drone crop-duster into a chemical weapon. Imagine the result of flying multiple UAVs into a large crowd at an open air show.

“UAVs can be highly manoeuvrable. Once a crowd understands their intentions, through multiple low-level detonations, remaining UAVs could then be used as a visual object, much easier than unseen ground forces and shots. Imagine these drones offering high speed manoeuvrability, controlled hovering and, once capable of handling the recoil, installed with a gun. Fleeing crowds could be directed to additional danger, such as planted ground explosives. This shows ways of using new technology to perform old and familiar terrorist herding tactics.”

Mr Maton said UAVs have the capability to bypass ground-level protection – “such protection has been analysed and deployed by skilled security consultants who understand today’s security weaknesses, [but] not air attacks from drones”.

“Concrete perimeter defences, CCTV with restricted vertical adjustment, alarms installed based on infiltration from the ground, fences are erected, lights focused on entrances and darkened areas on the ground. Guards and dogs are another form of ground protection that will also have very little impact,” explained Mr Maton.

“Once at the target, a UAV has the capability

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