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Updated: Oct 29, 2020

Pandemic Terrorism Series 4, October 2020 Edition

By: Rommel K Manwong, PhD

LEAPS Academy Philippines


Biotechnology, robotics and autonomous unmanned system; artificial intelligence; cognitive neurosciences; nanotechnology, stealth meta-materials; additive manufacturing, and the intersection of each with information and computing technologies are just some of the current technological developments and advances man has ever discovered.

Science and technology revitalized our human history in all areas and domains of our affairs. But the advent and sophistication of technology have brought us both positive and negative outcomes. They offered us the means to create and achieve things easily and advances us to a more improved living condition.

The battle against the COVID-19 pandemic also brought us initiatives in utilizing resources of all types. Technological solutions have impacted almost all countries. The use of technology to address global health issues has generated knowledge and shared to us some best practices. Drone technology is now an essential asset. As a tool, drone has seen extensive use among law enforcement agencies and all other first responders, including humanitarian personnel. They are used in emergency services, food and medicine delivery, imagery collection and video recording that helps monitor various situations. They are also useful in aerial communication to people and during disinfection operations in the urban areas.

On the other hand, the threat that this technology poses to our human kind can be equally cutting-edge paralleled. Technologies can take us to doomsday if they are not keenly managed or understood. The changing aspects of world affairs shows that advance and emerging technologies are becoming part of the framework of national strategic developments, where most countries, particularly the world’s powerful nations have invested heavily. The arms race and other military- related programs in Asia, the Middle East, and the Western powers are rapidly developing in the name of national and regional security. New technology strategies are also profound on political and socio-economic prosperity and competitiveness. Yet again, the threat it poses remains.

Drones in General

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). A type of aircraft without a human pilot on board and a type of unmanned vehicle. It has in its system a controller, a recording and communication system or mechanism and can be operated on certain degrees of human, computer or some kind of robotic controls.

Historically, drones were used by military air forces during world war I and II. But while they are originated mostly for military applications, their current use is rapidly expanding to commercial, scientific, recreational, agricultural, and other applications such as policing and surveillance, product deliveries, aerial photography, infrastructure inspections, smuggling, drone racing, and the like.

Trends in Drone Usage During Pandemic

Technological acceleration - deployment of drones during the current pandemic is an illustration of how exceptional events can act as technology development and employment accelerators. Nonetheless, the expansion of a system or technology beyond its original purposes is always imminently attached. It is here where threats and risks arise.

Privacy and data protection - the employment of drones raises privacy and data protection issues. Concerns are not just in terms of contemporary, real-time surveillance, but also because the use of drones generate massive amounts of new data that needs to be managed according to the specific legal requirements.

Accidents and criminal activity - the proliferation of drones in the civilian airspace will increase the likelihood of accidents and may also facilitate criminal activity. Accidents may happen due to failure of technology, through collisions in the airspace, or by breakdown in the delivery of cargo, for example. The criminal activity can happen through many forms, in particular by hacking drones used by law enforcement or humanitarian actors, by using drones to deliver contraband amidst a drone-populated airspace, and by using drones to conduct some sort of attack.

Politicized Agenda – A country responding to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic may invoke state of emergency, generally characterized by an expansion of state power, allowing it to perform actions and adopt exceptional measures that it could not carry out in times of normal politics. States of emergency allow the adoption of extraordinary political, financial and administrative resources, as well as authorize ‘new’ security practices. These resources and practices can be instrumental to advance political agendas or destabilize societies. For instance, the use of drone for pandemic related counter terrorism initiatives.

Dangerous Drones

There are various emerging security threats on land, air and water in modern days. Dangerous drones are just one of them. Therefore, there is a great demand for securing critical infrastructures and soft targets such as airports, seaports, stadium and sport event areas, commercial establishments, government facilities and utilities, power plants, and many more.

From a global terrorism outlook, ISIS recently released a propaganda video showing the use of drone attack across its territories in Syria and Iraq and trying to project a strong image by showing what appears to be a drone dropping bombs on a Syrian Army ammunition depot near the Syrian Border with Iraq. With the terror organization on the run, its official media agency Amaq news was trying to send a message – that ISIS is very much alive.

Drone bomb dropping is new to our modern world. It is a threat to both our military and police ground operations. On March 2020, Christopher woody of Business Insider illustrated drones dropping explosives on US soldiers in Syria, and it was not clear who were behind the attacks. This simply implies that drone bomb dropping is becoming a tradecraft by and among the terrorists.

Another terrible thing that may happen is that extremists might use drones to drop dirty bombs or poison on strategic locations in urban cities. Counter terrorism experts predicted that it could just be a matter of time before Islamic State fighters take drone usage from the battlefield in Syria and Iraq to the urban areas of their target countries. Concerns about such tactics grew way back in 2017, after Australian Federal Police disrupted an Islamic State plot to build an improvised chemical dispersion device (ICDD) that terrorists sought to deploy in urban areas. The plotters aimed to spread hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas.

Both terror groups and criminals can easily hold one or multiple drones since these technologies are easy to purchase, easy to fly and easy to modify and improve flight stability. For these reasons, the exploitation of drone for terrorism and criminal purposes are just as imminent. Drone attacks have been experienced also in Mexico and there are foreseen criminal uses in the United states, Europe and anywhere in the world.

Drone Weaponized

For various years, the proliferation of drone aircraft goes on with very little regulation. The government only acted upon when businesses started using drones at a time when there were no regulations in lieu to ensure unmanned vehicles and do not interfere with air traffic. Now, drones over a certain size and those employed in business require a license. There are also restrictions about where one can fly a drone. But such restrictions can be easily ignored and are inutile in the minds of criminals and terrorist weaponizing drones.

As a cases-in-point, turtle drones were used by rebels in Syria to mount attacks against Russian soldiers. Some malfunctioned and flew across the sea to Turkey. In Tecate Mexico, a drone was flown over the house of Secretary of Public Safety of Baja California. The drone has two grenades attached. Luckily, the explosion did not explode.

There are also recovered drones from prison and border patrols. Drones are becoming more common along the US-Mexico border as Mexican cartel assets. Drones are typically considered a tool for smuggling, but they are now increasingly seen as having application for other purposes including espionage, surveillance, and as weapons. In some US prisons, contraband were seized by authorities pursuant to intercepted drone drops of marijuana, steroids, cellphones and their accessories, syringes, and saw blade among others.

Critical Infrastructure faces the same threat from dangerous drones. On July 3, 2018, a superman-shaped drone crashes into a French Nuclear Plant in Bugey, near Lyon, France. It was known that the Greenpeace, a group of environmental activists flown the drone, piloted by one of its members into the no-fly zone around the utility. On purpose, the drone then crashed against the wall of the plant's spent-fuel pool building. Accordingly, it was initiated to underscore and demonstrate security vulnerability of the facility from outside attacks. Similarly situated critical soft target are airports and planes taking off.

Some people use drones to facilitate the commission of a crime. This include drug smugglers, terrorists, Illicit goods players, voyeurs, spies, and robbers who use drone to conduct surveillance before a robbery. Criminals can use drone to carry out long range bombing or assassination. An example of this was the attempt on the life of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. On August 4 2018, two drones detonated explosives near Avenida Bolívar, in Caracas, where President Maduro was addressing the Bolivarian National Guard in front of the Centro Simón Bolívar Towers and Palacio de Justicia de Caracas. The Venezuelan government claimed that the event was a targeted attempt to assassinate Maduro, though the cause and intention of the explosions was disputed. Others have suggested that the incident was a false flag operation designed by the government to justify repression of opposition in Venezuela.

A Rapidly Accelerating Threat

Dangerous drone events are occurring as lower-end and lower-performance unmanned aircraft systems have become weaponized to an increasingly remarkable degree. Even those built-in sheds in the middle of war zones have been employed with not only deadly, but also highly disruptive effects. For instance, drones have inflicted major damage to one of the world's richest and most heavily defended country's cash cow-oil production in the state-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia in September 14, 2019.

On the same month, September 2019, two nights of mass drone incursions over America's most powerful nuclear power plant in Palo Verde occurred. Considering that Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant is the largest in the US and serves as a critical strategic infrastructure against possible terrorist threats, the incidents of swarm drones under prolonged activities brought a series of questions of security. If ever a drone attack happens in such a critical infrastructure, one could just image the socio-economic impact it can bring to society.

The Drone Threat Classification Matrix

Drone Threat Paradigm

The drone threat paradigm can be explained in three aspects: as a tool, a threat, and as evidence. As a tool, despite its implications, challenges and limitations, drone usage for law enforcement and associated guidance is critically important. As a threat, drone utilizes systems and intelligence. Thus, drone counter measures such as detection, identification, and drone incident handling must be in practically in place. As evidence, the recovery of data from identifiers and drone associated equipment must be created and explicitly defined on a forensic recovery of drone data, as well as in SOPs and Guidelines.

Although there is no single bullet to solve the challenge of drone threats, this paradigm provided planner to design counter measures based on scenarios and nature of businesses, with consideration of legislation issues, cyber security issues and learned lessons from the failures and successes of drone programs.

The installation of counter measures should be dealt with like a puzzled, that without all the pieces then the picture is not complete. The drone arena requires all entities to openly communicate and exchange information. Drones are ever evolving and is constantly changing and so with counter measures.

As Christopher Church from the Interpol once said, there is always a way. Because no matter what you do to stop the criminal act, criminals always find a way and stay determined. So, it is imperative to know what they want to achieve and focus how to stop them achieving their criminal goals. That is the essence of policing and security.


Suggested Readings:

Interpol Framework for Responding to a Drone Incident for First Responders and Digital Forensic Practitioners (May 2020 Edition)

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