The Evolving Terror Threat Posed by Aerial Platforms

Posted By March 19, 2015 No Comments

In early December 2013, Amazon Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Jeff Bezos unveiled the company’s initiative to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Known less formally as drones, these machines would deliver Amazon purchases to the buyer within a 30 minute delivery time.[1] Bezos played a demonstration video for CBS’s 60 Minutes, showing the drone he called “Octocopter” picking up packages in a small yellow bucket at one of his supply centers, where it subsequently lifted off to deliver the order. Available the next 4 to 5 years, the drones will deliver the packages to the individual customer within a half hour from purchase on the online site.[2] According to Amazon, this technology is ready to enter commercial operations; however, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is reportedly working on the rules and regulations for the use of this type of UAV.[3] According to the New York Times, a new federal law signed by United States (U.S.) President Obama in February 2012, “compels the Federal Aviation Administration to allow drones to be used for all sorts of commercial endeavors – from selling real estate and dusting crops, to monitoring oil spills and wildlife, even shooting Hollywood films [sic].”[4] For manufacturers of drones, also known as Remote-Controlled Model Aircraft (RCMA), this is good news as it opens up new opportunities in a market estimated at USD5.9 billion and expected to double over the next decade. Commercial and recreational hobbyist RCMAs can cost millions of dollars for the most sophisticated types, to as little as USD300 for one that can be operated from a common iPhone,[5] while other models can be purchased for as little as USD40.

This daring commercial initiative by Amazon underlines the advances in technology, particularly in the development of UAVs, since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The development of microchips, global positioning systems (GPS), sophisticated gyro-technology and miniaturization have enabled this commercial dream to become reality. As with every breakthrough—military technology in this case— gives a temporary edge to the society that invents it. However, there is also an inherent downside to technological innovation. For example, technology like the Octocopter can be used for beneficial applications as easily as it can for nefarious purposes. As technology advances, the payload and application of future Octocopters and other types of RCMAs will undoubtedly increase, including the opportunity for terrorists to use these technologies.

At the February 2014, Sochi Olympics in Russia, the drone hovering and moving around the Olympic ski slopes was being used to transmit live video feed of the various ski jumping and snowboarding competitions. Unlike military drones employed for intelligence, reconnaissance and strike operations, which often look like remote-controlled aircraft, the drone in Sochi resembled a huge flying spider.[6] The drone provided the sports audience with unique views, allowing for different camera angles and close-ups. The drone functioned quietly and therefore did not disturb the Olympic competitors or the audience.

In commercial applications, like sporting events, drones are much less expensive than renting a helicopter with a pilot and the accompanying camera crew with their equipment. The drone has a flight deck that encompasses a flight control system with GPS for navigation, sensors, and receivers. It has a camera that can either be mounted on the flight deck or suspended below it. On the ground, the controller has a control deck enabling him to receive a real-time feed of what the camera is viewing, as well as the flight details that include rate of descent and ascent, speed, altitude, and how much power is left in the battery. A battery-powered drone will fly for 30 to 40 minutes before it needs to be recharged.

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.

RCMAs: A Potentially Advantageous Terrorist Methodology

Terrorists will continue to seek out and exploit vulnerabilities. The technology represented by drones, like the Octocopter or an RCMA 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  fear, death, and destruction against what they deem as worthy targets. The combination of payload, range, accuracy (due to GPS), 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.

Lone wolf terrorism is conducted by a singular, non-group affiliated terrorist,[7] such as the famed Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who orchestrated 16 bombings during an 18 year career.[8] Kaczynski avoided positive identification, ironically, through the use of the United States Postal Service, which allowed him to move messages and parcels undetected.[9] Unlike Kaczynski, the orchestrators of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Dzhokhar and Tamerian Tsarnaev, were inexperienced  and did not effectively distance themselves from their actions. They were therefore easily identified through subsequent investigations, leveraging material for other technology including CCTV footage. These brothers were not suicide bombers and their subsequent actions indicate that they intended to escape in the wake of the bombings. Rather, this terrorist action has been described as a “one-and-done”[10] or a domestic terrorist incident whose perpetrators’ intent was to avoid detection. These issues remain to be clarified.

RCMAs: Off-The-Shelf Delivery Technology With Broad Applicability

RCMA technology has been developed by remote-control aviation hobbyists and the aviation industry. Militarily, this technology is utilized by military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq—among other suitable missions—who continue to use these lightweight, man-portable drones for site monitoring, target surveillance and general tactical reconnaissance. Within the civilian sector, more sizable drones have been used for hurricane hunting, 3D mapping, protecting wildlife, search and rescue, as well as agricultural purposes to enable farmers to easily monitor their fields and ascertain their needs regarding water, pesticides or fertilizers. Drones can help identify exactly where such resources are required in order to facilitate agricultural production.[11]

RCMAs: The Terrorist’s Hope That Springs Eternal

The attempted use of RCMAs for terrorist operations is not new and has been well-documented. In 2006, Ali Asad Chandia, a Maryland teacher working on behalf of the Pakistani terror group Lashkar e Tayiba,[12] 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.[13] Such guidance technology would be vital to accurately navigate a weaponized RCMA.

Another American, Christopher Paul, was arrested in Columbus, Ohio in 2007 for plotting a series of terrorist bombings. According to his indictment, Paul was accused of being a member of Al Qaeda in the early 1990s and had conducted research on a variety of remote-controlled models, including a boat and helicopter.[14] Paul pleaded guilty in 2008 to planning terrorist attacks in the U.S. and Europe.

On September 29, 2011, the U.S. federal grand jury indicted 26-year-old American Rezwan Ferdaus on terror charges relating to a plot to attack Washington, D.C. with several RCMAs. Ferdaus, a physics graduate of Northeastern University, was radicalized online and through an FBI investigation was targeted for a sting operation, where he willingly modified cell phones to serve as electrical switches for improvised explosive devices (IED) for use in the Middle East.[15] FBI agents said that, “Ferdaus traveled to Washington, D.C. to ‘conduct surveillance’ and take photographs of his targets before acquiring his weapons, including six AK-47 assault rifles, grenades and what he believed to be C-4 explosives.”[16] Ferdaus intended to execute an elaborate plan using three drone aircraft carrying explosive payloads targeting federal government landmarks in Washington.[17] It was his intent to recruit others who would be assigned to undertake a ground assault. According to one report, Ferdaus:

“told the undercover agents that the plan needed to be expanded even further, to include a ‘ground’ component. That plan, according to court documents, included six heavily armed gunmen, to be divided into two teams. According to the plan, these 2 x 3—man assault teams they would be directed to create ‘chaos’ and ‘take out’ everyone [sic],”[18] as they would be fleeing the buildings that were targeted for aerial attack.

Ferdaus had already obtained an F-86 Sabre RCMA from a distributor based in Florida. He intended to fly it using an onboard GPS guided autopilot.[19] According to reports, he became personally committed to conduct a jihad against the U.S. in 2010.[20] Fortunately, the FBI became aware early on and through a sting operation—were able to disrupt his plan. Ferdhaus was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 17 years in prison.[21]

Iraqi authorities advised in June 2013 that they had uncovered an Al Qaeda plot to smuggle and employ chemical weapons into Europe and North America. According to one report, five men were arrested after the Iraqi military intelligence had been monitoring their activities for three months. Reportedly, three manufacturing sites for chemical agents were discovered; these sites produced chemicals that included sarin and mustard gas. According to Defense Ministry spokesman, Mohammed Al-Askari, a number of remotely controlled helicopters were seized at the workshops that were intended to release a chemical agent on the target. The men confessed to the plot and said they had received instructions from an Al Qaeda offshoot. According to the spokesman, their arrest was reportedly due to the close cooperation between Iraqi authorities and an unnamed foreign intelligence service. This would not be the first time chlorine had been planned for use in Iraq. In October 2006 and June 2007, 16 crude chlorine bombs were detonated; hundreds of Iraqis were sickened, but fortunately there were no deaths.[22]

In June 2013, German authorities raided a number of residences to foil an Islamic terror plot that was intending to employ remote-controlled aircraft filled with explosives. Specialist counterterrorist units raided homes in Stuttgart, Munich and Dachau after receiving information of a planned assassination attempt. The plot was to be carried out using RCMAs as guided missiles.[23] According to one report, Germany’s Attorney General stated: “searches in the Stuttgart area and in Belgium were directed against two men of Tunisian origin who are suspected of collecting information and items for the commission of radical Islamist bombing with remote-controlled model aeroplanes.”[24] The German public broadcaster further indicated that “two of the suspected plotters were students in the aeronautics department at the University of Stuttgart, who were developing systems for using GPS to guide pilotless aircraft.”[25]

The following month, a German right-wing extremist allegedly incited an accomplice to build an RCMA for use against his political opponents. A search of the house of the alleged bomb builder discovered a working explosive device, some chemicals, as well as several model airplanes.[26]

A 2013 Critical Threats article noted:

“Alarmingly, al Qaeda’s operational arm seems to be reviving its more audacious and imaginative side with respect to the ambitiousness of the attacks it is planning. Police in Islamabad on October 11 raided an al Qaeda safe house described as being ‘purpose built’ with the lab in the basement dedicated to the research and development of explosives-laden drone aircraft. After an al Qaeda member and electrical engineer who had previously worked for Pakistan’s air force was spearheading the one-and-half year long plot and had reportedly made serious headway in both developing and testing remote-controlled (RC) aircraft capable of carrying significant quantities of explosives. It is worth pointing out that an al Qaeda cell routed in Spain in August 2012 was also experimenting with using bomb—laden RC planes—at least one of the men involved traveled to Pakistan for training [sic].”[27]

Terrorist attacks employing remote-controlled model aircrafts have been explored by Al Qaeda operatives and others for some time. In hopes of successfully facilitating these operations, Al Qaeda posted an eight-page training manual online in July 2008 to assist their cadres—and anyone else for that matter—in planning and carrying out an attack using, “unmanned light aircraft and cars by remote control.”[28]

A 2008 report noted that Spanish authorities, “detected an Al Qaeda plot to attack UN peacekeepers in Lebanon and Afghanistan. According to a Spanish report, a detailed set of instructions on the use of remote-controlled bombs targeting UN troops was published online for Al Qaeda’s European cells. The eight-page handbook provides instructions for three different ways of setting off unmanned light aircraft and cars by remote control.”[29]

Spanish authorities were involved in an investigation relating to the potential employment of an RCMA terrorist operation. As a result, Spanish officials arrested three suspected terrorists in one of their largest official operations against Al Qaeda. It is believed by Spanish security services that the disrupted plan was aimed at attacking the Gibraltar, a British territory on the southernmost tip of Spain, from the air. This investigation was sparked by a paragliding instructor advising Spanish police that Cengiz Yalcin, the alleged cell’s Turkish member, had requested the instructor to fly him in a paraglider over the Gibraltar shopping mall to take photos. This request seemed suspicious and the instructor advised authorities.

Yalcin, who worked as an engineer with a construction firm on Gibraltar, had lived in Spain for a number of years with his Moroccan wife. During a subsequent search of his residence, explosives were discovered along with videos and photos believed to be used for planning an aerial attack.[30] Spanish security authorities believed the cell was testing the capability of an RCMA as a potential aerial delivery means for explosives. This suspicion surfaced after a video was found in which Yalcin was reportedly flying a 3-metre long RCMA. The RCMA filmed was being maneuvered into a dive where two packets were seen being released from the wings of the plane on his command.[31] The three men were released by a Spanish judge for lack of evidence.


Importantly, Al Qaeda and an array of other terrorist organizations have developed highly sophisticated planning, engineering, and technical skills. This was demonstrated by the events of 9/11 and the methodology employed, as well as recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan that showcased the terrorist’s use of sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The employment of RCMAs in a fully supported, well planned terrorist attack remains a potential reality, particularly given recent history. While there are technical arguments over the range and payload of these drones or RCMAs, such technical and engineering challenges can be overcome by operationally savvy terrorists.[32]

According to John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles:

“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 all of the 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 [sic].”[33]

It must be appreciated that the overwhelming majority of law-abiding people—using RCMAs as hobbyists—would never consider employing these means for nefarious ends. Notwithstanding, this technology has already attracted the attention of terrorist groups, as well as concerned governmental representatives and citizens.[34] This security threat was the subject of testimony heard by a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee from Dennis Gormley of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Center for Non-proliferation Studies. The security implication of drones was also explored in an unclassified 2005 report published by the federally funded Institute for Defense Analysis, which argued that a drone, “could be fired from beyond visual range at a target. While the terrorists make their escape before impact,” and that there, “would be little danger of detection in transportation, launch, or escape.”[35]

Many of the concerns relating to RCMAs are predicated on the dramatic changes that we have witnessed in technology in recent years, which have greatly increased the capabilities and extent of these aerial platforms as potential threats. It is disconcerting that—with the technology at hand—an RCMA operator intent on conducting an aerial delivered terrorist attack can get close enough to reconnoiter a target, conduct surveillance, and wreak havoc on command without substantial risk to themselves. As one analyst pointed out:

“For most of the history of warfare, getting close enough to carefully scrutinize a target has often meant incurring the risk of becoming one. Armed drones upend this axiom by bringing weaponry close to a target while simultaneously providing high-resolution, real-time video to an operator kilometers away. In the hands of a responsible military this capability is a game-changing asset; in the hands of a rogue group is a chilling threat [sic].”[36]

Today’s security philosophy for buildings and sensitive sites is to limit access to these areas. Unfortunately, this has little impact against a RCMA, which can easily surmount walls and fences and avoid detection from traditional radars that are designed to track and monitor larger passenger aircrafts.[37] Moreover, because of size and technical sophistication, this technology can be transported by car, a bicyclist with a back pack or innocuously on foot, and can be launched from literally anywhere, including a parking lot, city street or open field.[38] Once in flight, the drone could be set up, positioned, and flying within minutes to the terrorist target.[39]

Recent events underline that the efforts of Al Qaeda, as well as others, appear determined to explore and exploit the RCMA potential as a weapon. This reality has sensitized those within the intelligence, police and security fields that such employment may not only be possible but imminent. In May 2008, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI published a bulletin entitled Radio Controlled Model Aircraft as Possible Improvised Explosive Device Delivery Platforms[40] underlining the findings that terrorists continue to demonstrate interest in utilizing weaponized RCMA to conduct attacks.

The potential hobbyist and commercial markets guarantee that industries related to this business will continue to offer a selection of inexpensive RCMAs, which terrorists will modify and utilize as a platform for an attack.[41] The RCMA bulletin advises the reader the difficulty in, “distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate use of these devices.” The bulletin proceeds to offer a number of indicators such as an individual’s interest in the carrying weight and capability of the aircraft, as well as interest in the advanced capabilities such as autonomous flight methods, and methods to increase range of flight time.[42]

Police forces have been sensitized to this threat. In the United States the Osceola County Sheriff’s office published a document that provides the reader with a number of behaviour indicators that would indicate a dangerous interest in RCMAs. Behaviors out of the ordinary include: demonstrating unusual interest in remote-controlled aircrafts, inquiring about remote controls and model aircraft payload capacity and maximum range, not appreciating that learning to fly expensive large-scale aircraft requires the initial ability to fly small-scale aircrafts, exhibiting unusual interest or specific interest in rocket motors or igniters, shoplifting or purchasing large quantity of model aircraft fuel, several large aircraft, engines or transmitters, using cash for large transactions or a credit card in someone else’s name.[43]

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 weaponize for future operations.

Recent British Concerns

On July 22, 2014, the pilot of an Airbus A320 coming into Heathrow Airport was startled to see a drone at 700 feet in direct proximity to his aircraft. During this period neither the aircraft’s radar nor air traffic control had picked up the drone. It was assessed that the drone was flown by an amateur whose intentions, albeit innocent, posed a direct threat to the aircraft. This situation—while a non-terrorist threat—underlines the potential havoc that could occur when drones are not controlled, particularly within the airspace of active airports. Advances in technology have allowed inexperienced drone pilots to successfully fly with little experience. Today, sophisticated drones can be set to monitor and follow smart phone’s GPS signal, enabling it to follow you while active and can be easily fitted with a camera to record what the drone sees.

In Britain there are mounting concerns that thousands of consumers are purchasing drone kits, unaware of the risk that they pose to aviation, and to the privacy of individuals: “As the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) makes clear, ‘Unmanned aircraft, irrespective of their size, are still classified as aircraft—they are not toys.’ You cannot fly them in built up areas or in crowds, although many people appear ignorant of these rules or happy to flout them [sic].”[44]

It is interesting to note that the CAA prosecuted two drone operators who were found guilty of flying their drones inappropriately, thereby breaching flight safety regulations.[45]

Further concerns relating to drones were echoed by Professor David H. Dunn of the University of Birmingham who argued that terrorists could fly multiple remote-controlled unmanned aircraft into the engines of a jumbo jet and cause it to crash. Dunn noted that, “these drones can be bought anonymously online, piloted anonymously, and the attacker would be untraceable as these are completely unlicensed.” He argued that this amounted to a, “gaping hole in the country’s national defences.”[46]

RCMA: An Attactive Terrorist Methodology

Advancements in the form of GPS-based autonomous guidance systems, technical advancements in wireless videos, miniaturization of electronics and control systems, as well as the ever evolving sophistication of RCMAs will increase the feasibility and utilization of this technology in the near future. For the terrorist, the employment of RCMA technology, singly or in numbers—described in technical and military parlance as swarming—would likely circumvent or inundate any potential defenses. This could sow mass panic, particularly if the targeting methodology utilized open-air venues. Notwithstanding, this would be of enormous interest to a terror organization intent on utilizing this aerial technology as a mass casualty weapon.

In contrast to a swarm attack, modern drones, in the form of a device such as the Octocopter, could personalize the attack by directly targeting government leaders, public figures, military and security personnel. This underlines a lesser appreciated aspect of this technology, that is the fear inspiring psychological aspect of this type of technology.

In order to counter such an aerial threat, it has been argued that security and police agencies should have the capability to disable drones before a terrorist could use one as a weapon. One technology expert proffered that the government should be developing drone-jamming technology in order to pre-empt drones from executing a terrorist attack, and that sensitive government locations incorporate the technology to jam RCMAs,[47] thereby pre-empting an attack.

Some analysts have argued that access to RCMAs should be limited to those citizens and organizations that are trustworthy to ensure that it is used responsibly. The reality, however, is that any attempt to limit the spread of this technology through non-proliferation efforts would face a spectrum of difficult challenges. Moreover, there is a large law-abiding group of hobbyists who build and develop highly sophisticated drones and remote-controlled model aircraft who would likely take offense and who would politically and legally challenge any curtailing of their hobby. Considering the large-scale legitimate non-military use of this technology in agriculture, 3-D mapping, law enforcement, as well as the surveying and monitoring of infrastructure such as oil pipelines, and forestry, any notion of curtailing or banning their sale would be impractical and challengeable in court.

The utility and cost saving opportunities of RCMAs, as exemplified by Amazon and the Sochi Olympics, will ensure that such technologies will be welcomed with open arms for commercial exploitation. As with any new venue that will employ people, enhance research and development, and facilitate the generation of tax dollars, governments will likely support these initiatives. However, the increased availability of off-the-shelf products—that can easily be adapted for terrorist initiatives—will also increase the appeal of RCMAs to terrorist elements like Al Qaeda. The intelligence and security community will find it increasingly difficult to address this threat. Future governments will struggle to control commercial RCMA technology despite the potential for a drone-based terror attack. 

What Is The Threat? What Has Canada Done?

The RCMP has acknowledged its concern for the potential acquisition use of off the shelf RCMAs to target not only VIPs but also critical infrastructure.[48] An internal document entitled Extremist Exploitation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles acknowledges more the a dozen attempts to employ RCMAs to carry explosives as well as bio and chemical agents.[49] As to the latter, “attempts of bio and chemical agents the report notes that it is, “very difficult to refine an effective dispersal device for chemical and biological agents and to obtain or develop biological agents.”[50] To date, none of these RCMA plots have been successful.

In November 2014 “Unmanned Systems Canada Conference” in Montreal it was stated that, “drone makers, users and suppliers are working with Transport Canada to establish new regulations for the unmanned systems.”[51] On November 27, 2014 Transport Canada adopted new rules and regulations[52] as well as exemptions that are less onerous to the expanding RCMA industry.[53] Those commercial RCMAs weighing under 25 kilos are exempt from requiring a Special Flight Operation Certificate (SFOC) and certificate wait times were reduced from weeks to days.

Notwithstanding Canada’s view, governments differ in their regulations and are predicated on their respective circumstances. Both Canada and Australia are, “relatively permissive in allowing private and commercial drones. The U.S. with more congested airspace and serious concerns about privacy, terrorism and litigation, is doing the opposite.”[54] This latter stance will likely harden with the recent report that a small drone crashed on the lawn of the White House complex[55] raising questions about, “potential security challenges posed in a world where drone use is cheap, easy and everywhere-amid constantly improving technology.”[56] The crash prompted an immediate lockdown and launched a Secret Service investigation as to who piloted the drone into restricted airspace, the security of the President and first family and the threat posed by these tiny, inexpensive and available aerial vehicles. This latest event has only sparked further security concerns regarding this rapidly developing technology.


Considering the constant advances in RCMAs, as well as the expanding planning and technical know-how of terrorists will only make it more difficult to pre-empt or interdict incidents employing this methodology. The use of such aerial platforms, if planned and executed properly, provides a degree of anonymity for any perpetrator or terrorist who intends to do harm to others and evade authorities. Concomitantly, this technology poses a greater challenge for the intelligence, police, and security authorities to balance this threat with fundamental civil liberties. For hobbyists, the right to purchase and operate drones without intrusive interference is paramount. Consequently, it is inevitable that a lone wolf or a terrorists group will orchestrate an attack against a high value target employing RCMAs. Interestingly, this parallels the ongoing debate regarding American state gun laws that attempts to control the purchase, carrying and use of such weapons in all their configurations but is a fundamental right under the US Constitution. Notwithstanding, as one former Canadian intelligence officer advised, “There is an inevitability of a successful terrorist attack with this highly attractive and evolving technology.”[57]