Opinion: Have drones now become the new weapon for terrorists?

Written By: U C Jha
Delhi, India Published: Aug 20, 2018, 10:57 AM(IST)

Representative image. Photograph:( Zee News Network )

Story highlights

The Islamic State (IS) was first terror group to use drones to attack military and civilian targets. It is considered that the IS’s black-market drones are still the most technologically advanced in the world. 

On August 4 this year, President Maduro of Venezuela came under an unsuccessful drone attack while delivering a speech in Caracas. He was quickly hustled off stage by the security staff. It came to light later that Maduro was targeted by two small drones one detonated near the venue, while the other crashed, causing a fire. A dissident group called ‘Soldiers in T-shirts’ claimed responsibility for the attack.

Experts are of the view that the M600-model drones used in Venezuela would have cost as little as $8,000 a piece and were strong enough to deliver a powerful payload and fast enough to cover the length of a football field in less than seven seconds. The incident marked the first drone attack by a Non-State Armed Group (NSAGs) on a head of state. Since drones are becoming common it is only a matter of time before it happens again.

The Islamic State (IS) was first terror group to use drones to attack military and civilian targets. It is considered that the IS’s black-market drones are still the most technologically advanced in the world. 

Most are fixed-wing units with a range of more than 60 miles. These drones can drop grenades on their targets and return to the pilot to be loaded again and re-used. Other NSAGs that have drone capabilities include Houthi Rebels, the Iran-backed rebel group in Yemen Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group Hamas, the Palestinian group which rules the Gaza strip the Syrian rebel groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and Colombian and Mexican drug cartels active in Central Mexico.

In January 2017, the IS released a propaganda video showing nearly a dozen examples of releasing munitions on its enemies from the air with a fair degree of accuracy via quadcopter drones that it had modified. The Islamic State’s drone programme reportedly owes its success to two Bangladeshi brothers who have joined the NSAG. They have acquired dual-use components from their contacts based in the UK, Spain and Bangladesh. The lethal capabilities of drones can be enhanced by putting together cheap, easily acquired add-on components. For instance, quadcopter drones can be developed to carry lethal quantities of explosives. Multiple drones carrying small quantities of explosives can be used to create greater confusion in public gatherings.

The demand for drones has increased rapidly in the last few years and is expected to continue to grow in the coming years. In the last 10-15 years, the production, proliferation and use of drones has seen a major increase. Nearly 90 countries have acquired small and large drones and estimations are that by 2024, every country will have the capacity to use armed drones, thus making proliferation to NSAGs easier. Hobby shops and private firms are selling large and robust drones for a range of civilian and agricultural purposes. The devices are able to carry a wide variety of payloads, such as cameras, sensors and lifting mechanism. These drones could be modified by NSAGs to carry explosive devices such as hand-grenades, IEDs or even chemical or biological weapons. In January this year, Russia responded to an attack by a swarm of drones on its airbase in north-western Syria and a naval station on the Mediterranean Sea. The multi-drone attack, which is suspected to have been launched by militants, is the first of its kind, representing a new threat from terrorist groups.

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which entered into force in December 2014, provides the highest possible common standard for regulating or improving the regulation of international trade in conventional arms and to prevent and eradicate the illicit trade/ diversion of conventional arms.

Article 6.3 of the ATT states, “A State Party shall not authorise any transfer of conventional arms covered under Article 2 (1) or of items covered under Article 3 or Article 4, if it has knowledge at the time of authorisation that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes as defined by international agreements to which it is a Party.” However, this treaty would be of little help to control the acquisition of commercial drones by NSAGs.

We must not ignore the likely threat of small-scale drones being used by NSAGs, for which the security agencies must be prepared. The police and the armed forces will have to cope with adversaries equipped with different types and sizes of drones, both armed and unarmed. The French Air Force and the Netherlands National Police are using birds to hunt and catch drones that fly near nuclear power plants, airports, and official government buildings.

We could also come up with similar measures and have robust regulations and export controls on the use and acquisition of drones, whether for civilian or military purposes. In April this year, the government announced a 13-member task force for the implementation of drone technology. This task force must make implementable recommendations for the Central and state governments, industry and research institutions.

(The author is a retired Wing Commander)

(This article was first published on The DNA. Read the original article.)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

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