Commercial drones are increasingly being employed as a tool of political violence – will they be the new guerrilla weapon of choice?
What do the chaos in Venezuela and the breakdown of the ceasefire in Yemen have in common? Both crises witnessed the use of low-tech unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise referred to as “hobby drones” in assassination attempts by dissidents or non-state actors.
On January 10, a drone assassination by the Houthis killed the Yemeni Intelligence chief, Brigadier General Saleh Tamah, a member of the Saudi-led coalition. The now embattled Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro survived a similar assassination attempt by drone in August 2018.
While the assassinations are minor episodes in the ongoing crises in both countries, they portend a future trend of the weaponisation of commercial drones, a brutal precedent set by Daesh during the battle for Mosul in 2017.
If the weaponised car was the tool of modern terrorist violence in the 20th century, the hobby drone could be its postmodern equivalent in the 21st century.
In August 2014 Daesh employed commercially purchased drones to gather battlefield intelligence and document the aftermath of suicide bombings. Daesh thereafter weaponised drones, like the X-8 and the Phantom, made in China by the Shenzhen-based DJI, the world’s largest commercial drone manufacturer.
Some of these hobby drones can travel 7 kilometers, with payloads up to 40 kilograms. Daesh could attach a three-pound mortar shell to the drone, creating a flying improvised explosive device (IED) to be dropped against Iraqi government troops, with an effective blast radius of 10 to 15 meters.
After a few trial attacks with modified drones equipped with IEDs, on 24 January 2017, the terrorist group formally announced the establishment of a new “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen” unit.
The Daesh drones had no strategic or operational effect on the battlefield, but rather were meant to terrorise forces that sought to expel it from Mosul, and the footage was meant to inspire its supporters.
Nonetheless, military resources were diverted to deal with the Daesh drone threat. For example, in September 2017 the US military targeted Junaid ur Rehman, a Daesh drone pilot trainer and engineer, near Mayadin, Syria, south of Raqqa.
For a decade the US had a monopoly on drones, such as the Predator and Reaper, which of course are larger and more lethal than commercial drones. When terrorists gained the capacity to strike back, like Daesh did in 2017, the age of the drone wars had begun.
Attacks in Venezuela and Yemen
In August 2018 Nicolas Maduro, accompanied by a general who served as the interior minister, and the chief judge of the Supreme Court, were gathered in the presidential stand, looking down at a parade of national guard troops.
On 10 January 2019, the head of Yemen’s Intelligence Service, a senior military commander, and the governor of Lahij province were seated in a similar arrangement, looking on at a military parade.
In both cases, high ranking officials concentrated in a single place during a military parade made for a tempting assassination target. In the 20th century a sniper ensconced in a building nearby would have conducted the assassination. In the 21th century someone remotely controlling a drone had the potential to wreak more damage than a sniper.
The attack in Venezuela failed, but the one in Yemen succeeded. The attack in Caracas against Maduro was the first known assassination attempt by use of drone against a head of state, in this case a DJI Matrice 600, which costs $5,000 and is used by professional photographers.
While that attempt failed, in Yemen the weaponised drone, carrying 70 and 100 kilogrammes of explosives, detonated just meters above where Yemeni officials were seated.
The Houthi attack, employed an Iranian-made Qasef-1, technically not a commercial drone, but using off-the-shelf commercial technology by electronic suppliers based mostly in Asia. That attack killed at least five and wounded at least 20 military personnel. Ironically the attack took place at Al-Anad airbase, which was once the headquarters for US forces overseeing the drone war against Al Qaeda. The place where the drone war against Yemen was ushered in was itself attacked by a drone.
The ceasefire in Yemen’s key port city of Hudaida is on the verge of collapse amid continued violations by rival sides. The ceasefire, negotiated by the UN Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, was part of a peace agreement negotiated in Sweden. Soon after Griffiths’ announcement, the drone assassination occurred. While the strike was outside the ceasefire zone, it foreshadowed the eventual collapse of the entire de-escalation process.
The attack was part of the strategy of the group’s leader, Abdul Malik Al Houthi, to use drones and ballistic missiles against their foes. The ballistic missile was the symbol of the 20th century modern warfare, first developed in Nazi Germany as the V2, the first manmade object that entered space, and the same technology that would later be used in humankind’s first trip to the moon.
In the Houthi strategy the small low-tech drone has been equated with the ballistic missile, the latter a means which the Houthis have used to try and strike targets deep into Saudi Arabia.
The Implications for the Future
Commercial hobby drones are used peacefully by thousands of hobby enthusiasts, and even by humanitarian aid and disaster relief support by nongovernmental organisations and activist groups. The China-based Skywalker Technologies company told the Financial Times: “As a manufacturer, we are unable to control what people do with them similar to the manufacturers of pick-up trucks, cars or other items that have been weaponised in conflict zones.”
The statement alludes to the evolution of terrorism. The 20th century was ushered in by the assembly line that mass produced the automobile for the masses, which would become the vehicle of choice for terrorist in the 70s and 80s. The same century’s greatest achievement in mass transportation was the civilian airliner, which would be used as cruise missiles on 9/11 to strike New York and Washington. In the 21th century the hobby drone represents the postmodern evolution of this trend.