“Drones are becoming more and more powerful and smarter,” EU Security Commissioner Julian King warned this weekend, “which makes them more and more attractive for legitimate use, but also for hostile acts.”
This is not new news—the threat from a drone attack on a crowded space in the West has been focusing security minds for some time now. And the real fear from a drone attack is that a chemical or biological payload could be delivered into the midst of a crowded space with relative ease. The challenge with such attacks has always been delivery. A drone takes that challenge away.
According to Germany’s de Welt—which published King’s comments—in December last year, France’s Anti-Terrorism Unit (UCLAT) issued a “secret report” for the country’s Special Committee on Terrorism. The report warned of “a possible terrorist attack on a football stadium by means of an unmanned drone that could be equipped with biological warfare agents.”
I have reported before on terrorist use of drones in the Middle East to mount attacks—countless Islamic State raids on the Iraqi frontline, recent Houthi attacks on Saudi targets and the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad sharing video online of an attempted drone attack on Israeli tanks on the Gaza border. I said at the time, that security agencies will overlook the specifics of such attacks, and will focus instead on the implied threat that a larger or more ominous payload would represent to targets in the West.
That terrorist threat has now become more front of mind, with the vulnerability of aircraft and crowded spaces to such devices highlighted as particular causes for concern. With this in mind, King said that he will “support EU member states to build networks for sharing information, increase engagement at the international level, and provide funding for projects that address the threat of drones—both for the threat as it appears today and how it will look in the future.”
Last year, at a closed meeting with one of the U.K.’s leading soccer clubs, the stadium’s security director told the room “there are two things that terrify us: a large vehicle driven at speed at thousands of fans as they head home after a match, and, of course, drones.” The meeting room overlooked a stadium where 50,000 plus people gather 25 plus times a year, the threat from drones did not require elaboration.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate Homeland Security Committee last year that the terrorist threat from drones is escalating—such devices “will be used to facilitate an attack in the U.S. against a vulnerable target, such as a mass gathering,” he warned. A year earlier Wray had told senators that “we do know that terrorist organizations have an interest in using drones. We’ve seen that overseas already… the expectation is that it’s coming here. They are relatively easy to acquire, relatively easy to operate, and quite difficult to disrupt and to monitor.”
Islamic State propaganda posters have already depicted a drone attack on the Eiffel Tower in Paris and New York City, and former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen has warned that the threat from drones “is outpacing our ability to respond… terrorist groups such as the Islamic State aspire to use armed drones against our homeland and US interests overseas… We have already worked with our partners to stop terrorist plots that could have involved drone technology.”
Remember, IS operatives have extensive drone experience from the Middle East. As U.K. police counter-terror lead Neil Basu pointed out, drones “have been used on the battlefield and what’s used on the battlefield will eventually be adapted to be used on domestic soil.”
The relative ease of availability and execution to mount a drone attack terrifies security agencies worldwide, and the context is that payload risk. The amount of explosive that can be carried by a commercial drone remains somewhat limited. A targeted attack on a high-profile location or an aeroplane in-flight would be possible but challenging to execute. In a crowded space it would generate headlines but limited damage. But a rudimentary attack using a non-explosive payload into an unprotected public space…
King’s latest comments echo a similar warning in Europe from U.K. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who said last year that “terrorists continue to explore new ways to kill us on our streets: chemical and biological weapons are marching in closer. They have developed and worked on a better arsenal. We have to be prepared for the day that might come to our streets here.”
Zak Doffman Contributor
I write about security and surveillance.
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