Aviation Security Analyst at Osprey Flight Solutions, discusses the threats posed by unauthorised
commercial drone flights near airports and highlights the aviation sector as a
prime target for militant groups.
Emerging Threat Report: Drone use by Militant Groups
2014, there has been an increased emphasis on monitoring and countering unauthorised commercial drone flights near airports or in close proximity to
civilian aircraft inflight.
According to data released by the United
Kingdom Airprox Board, there were just six emergency situations involving small
commercial drones and civilian aircraft in 2014. However, that number increased
exponentially to 70 such incidents in 2016. In similar fashion, the United
States Federal Aviation Administration documented 1,145 drone sightings near
airports or by civilian aircraft inflight during 2016, with just 57 instances
reported in 2014.
Our own comprehensive analysis of publicly
available data has identified over 5,200 drone sightings near airports or by
civilian aircraft inflight worldwide in just the past decade.
Historical evidence highlights the aviation
sector as a prime target set for militant groups, from a threat-to-life,
psychological and economic impact perspective. During July 2017, the US Director
of the Department of Homeland Security stated: “terrorists want to bring down
aircraft to instill fear, disrupt our economies, and undermine our way of life;
and it works - which is why they still see aviation as a crown jewel target.”
A key concern on this topic shared by
governments and by security experts within the aviation industry is that
militants with a hostile intent will begin to use small commercial drones
outside areas of armed conflict to attack aircraft and/or airports.
Our analysis of multiple areas of armed
conflict coupled with an in-depth examination of global terrorism trends
indicates that drone use by militants for reconnaissance, propaganda development
and weaponisation for terror attacks is steadily expanding. The focus of this
article will evaluate efforts by the extremist Islamic State group (IS) and the
al-Qaida-linked terror network (AQ) to develop and hone the use of small
commercial drones for use in armed attacks. Since 2014, governments have taken
notice of the threat posed by drones and enacted limited measures to protect
public safety in response:
Following a near
miss between a passenger jet and a small drone near London Heathrow Airport
(EGLL/LHR) in July 2014, security professionals at Birmingham University
issued a report on drone use by terror groups that called for ‘urgent’
measures to protect UK airports and airspace from an attack scenario. During
early-July 2017, two separate emergency situations involving small
commercial drones and civilian aircraft occurred near UK airports in a
three-day span, renewing calls for increased vigilance and oversight.
sector in the UK is not alone in its concerns regarding the threat posed by
drones. Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron noted in an address at an
April 2016 summit in the US that IS was: “planning on using drones to
spray nuclear material over Western cities in a horrific ‘dirty bomb’
attack.” A UK government-backed terrorism insurance company issued a
report in late-2016, warning of the use of weaponised drones by IS against
‘soft targets’ in the country.
France has also
witnessed a spike concerning drone activity, highlighted by reports of over
60 unauthorized drone flights over sensitive areas between October 2014 and
March 2015. Prior to the UEFA Euro 2016 football tournament, which took
place during June-July 2016, French security forces conducted anti-terror
training exercises designed to defend against weaponised drone attacks. In
addition, French authorities issued an order to police in November 2016
which detailed the threat posed by drones used in terror attacks and
mandated drones be treated as ‘suspicious packages’. More recently, during
the first half of 2017, French police forces began training eagles to hunt
down small drones operating in unauthorised airspace; and Charles de Gaulle
Airport (LFPG/CDG) installed counter-drone radar systems.
The historical threat of weaponised drone
attacks dates back to the mid-1990s with key plots linked to the AQ terror
group. In July 2001, reports surfaced that AQ was plotting to attack the G8
Summit in Genoa, Italy with explosive devices attached to remote-controlled
drones. This was followed by a disrupted plot in the UK during June 2002, where
an AQ operative planned to attack the House of Commons with a drone equipped
with an anthrax poison device. Within the US, an AQ operative was convicted in
2008 for conducting research into the weaponisation of small drones and
reportedly plotting attacks using remote-controlled helicopters equipped with
explosives. During April 2017, Belgian authorities issued a terror alert to the
country’s security services regarding the potential threat of an IS-inspired
weaponsied drone attack. IS and AQ and their affiliates have been documented
using small drones for propaganda, reconnaissance and/or attack purposes in
Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Philippines.
Both IS and AQ-linked groups in Iraq and Syria
have many foreign fighters in their ranks from all over the world, including
Western Europe, North Africa, Russia and the former Soviet states, Turkey,
Jordan and Saudi Arabia. A main concern is the return of remaining foreign
fighters to their home countries outside the conflict zones, potentially to
providing local extremist networks with battlefield experience and capability. A
small number of these returning fighters may have the capacity to weaponise
drones for use in ABIED attacks, employ drone technology for pre-attack
reconnaissance and/or make use of drones in propaganda production. Drone use by
militant groups inside areas of armed conflict highlights evolving tactics,
techniques and procedures (TTPs) available as an inexpensive and effective means
of terrorism. These developments highlight the metastasized nature of global
terrorism trends and the increasing number of attack modes available to
militants seeking to use drone technology.
Extremist IS Group & Affiliates
The extremist IS group has a history of
operating drones for reconnaissance and propaganda purposes dating back to
mid-2014 in both Iraq and Syria. During 2015, the group increased its efforts to
weaponise its drone inventory by creating small munitions which could be dropped
from the air or by arming the drone itself in the form of a ‘kamikaze’ attack
vehicle. Based on our analysis, the majority of weaponised drones operated by
the extremist IS group are of the first variety: an airborne improvised
explosive device (ABIED) attached to the drone fuselage and dropped from the air
on targets below.
The first documented use of an ABIED by IS in
Syria occurred in December 2015 in Aleppo Governorate, when a small weaponised
drone was shot down by Kurdish militia forces during clashes with the group. In
October and December 2016, Syrian military forces reportedly downed multiple IS
drones carrying rocket-propelled grenade warheads in Dayr az Zwar Governorate.
Reports of IS weaponised drone use in Iraq emerged in early-October 2016 when
the group deployed a weaponised ‘kamikaze’ drone, killing two Kurdish militia
forces and injuring two French military personnel in the Kurdistan Region. This
attack demonstrated further innovation, as the drone was reportedly
‘booby-trapped’ with an IED disguised as a battery, which only exploded when the
militia examined the crashed drone.
US-led coalition forces have conducted dozens
of airstrikes on IS group drone launch sites and production facilities in Iraq
and Syria since 2015. Analysis of US-led coalition airstrike data indicates that
IS began frequently using drones to conduct ABIED attacks and reconnaissance
operations in Iraq and Syria from late-2016. Correspondingly, IS began releasing
propaganda videos depicting its drones dropping ABIEDs in Iraq and Syria in
late-January 2017. Our analysis indicates that IS conducted over 150 such
attacks in Iraq and Syria during 2017.
Of additional concern, IS-linked groups in Yemen, Libya and the Philippines have
reportedly utilised drones for reconnaissance and or propaganda purposes. During
September 2017, IS released a propaganda video of its fighters training in the
al-Bayda Province of Yemen, which included portions filmed via drone. In Libya,
IS militants used drones for reconnaissance purposes during clashes with
internationally recognised government-aligned militia forces in city of Sirte in
2016-2017. In addition, IS militants released propaganda images taken by a drone
of rocket attacks conducted in the Libyan city of Benghazi in December 2016. In
the Philippines, militants in Marawi have repeatedly used drones for
reconnaissance purposes during clashes with government security forces since
Despite recent losses in Iraq and Syria, IS
will continue to operate in pockets of those countries and in areas of weak
governance, such as Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate, Afghanistan, Libya,
Pakistan, Nigeria and parts of the Philippines. More and more verifiable
available data regarding the effectiveness of IS drones in combat within Iraq
and Syria is becoming available and it is clear that the group has gone from
small-scale use of drones for reconnaissance or propaganda to developing TTPs
for mass and standardised production.
AQ-linked militants in Pakistan have a
documented history of drone activity dating to 2002. During late-2005, an AQ-linked
militant was arrested in the US for purchasing a small drone for the
Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group in 2002. In addition, AQ militants
in the North Waziristan area of Pakistan reportedly used small drones for
reconnaissance purposes during clashes with government security forces in
September 2005. A subsequent raid against an AQ site recovered a commercial
drone and IED materials that were assessed to be intended for weaponisation
The AQ-linked Taliban group in Afghanistan
also has a limited history of small drone use since 2012. During a raid against
a Taliban compound in Helmand Province during May 2012, US military forces
recovered a small drone which was included in a weapons cache. More recently,
the Taliban has used drones for reconnaissance and propaganda purposes,
highlighted by the release of a video filmed by a drone of an attack in the
Afghan capital of Kabul in October 2016. In addition, a drone was recovered
during a security forces raid against Taliban fighters in the Afghan capital of
Kabul in January 2018.
Multiple AQ-linked groups in Syria have
reportedly operated drones for reconnaissance and propaganda purposes dating
back to mid-2014, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Turkistan Islamic
Party and Ahar al-Sham. HTS, formerly known as the Jabhat al-Nusra, has taken a
leap further and pursued the use of weaponised drones. Social media analysis
indicates HTS has conducted drone operations in Syria’s Idlib and Hama
Governorates as recently as September 2017. Jund al Aqsa - an HTS affiliate at
the time - released a propaganda video showing a drone airdropping multiple
ABIEDs on Syrian military forces in Hama Governorate during September 2016.
While the video did not appear to show significant damage or casualties caused
by the ABIED attack, it denotes the further experimentation with both explosives
and drones by HTS.
On 8 January 2018, the Russian Ministry of
Defence (MoD) issued a statement reporting its military air defence forces in
Syria's Latakia Governorate at Hemeimeem Airbase (OSLK/LTK) thwarted a
coordinated swarm attack consisting of 13 weaponised drones operated by
militants on 5-6 January 2018. The Russian MoD statement indicated six drones
were downed via GPS jamming and seven additional drones were downed via
conventional surface-to-air missile system engagement. Specifically, Russia
claims the militants responsible for the attack operated the drones from
territory controlled by HTS in the Syrian governorate of Idlib. Images released
by the Russian MoD indicate the drones used in the attack were handcrafted and
weaponised via the attachment of air-releasable sub-munitions. Local media
reporting indicates Russian military air defence forces in Latakia thwarted a
prior weaponised drone swarm attack on 27 December 2017, again reportedly
conducted by militants from territory controlled by HTS in Idlib.
In both Somalia and Libya, AQ-linked groups
have used small drones for propaganda and reconnaissance purposes. The AQ
affiliate al-Shabaab released a propaganda video in November 2016 showing
militants operating a small drone in Somalia. This was followed by reports of
al-Shabaab operating small drones for propaganda purposes in the Jilib area of
Somalia during September 2017. Along these lines, the AQ-linked Shura Council of
Benghazi Revolutionaries (BRSC), Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna (MSCD) and
Ansar al-Sharia have each used drones in similar fashion in multiple cities in
Libya. Such activity occurred by the BRSC in Benghazi in March 2017 and by the
MSCD in Derna during April 2016.
Instances whereby the attackers in a planned
or actual terror attack were inspired by online propaganda have grown in
frequency since 2001, highlighting the ability of terror groups to incite
violence via the internet. The TTPs and incidents discussed above could evolve
into the use of small drones as an attack vehicle in areas outside areas of
armed conflict. However, potential for a terrorist network, individual militant
or internet extremist to utilise a drone for an ABIED attack and/or pre-attack
reconnaissance purposes is not without precedent. Examination of foiled attack
plots is key to understanding the evolution of the threat environment:
Authorities in the US arrested an AQ-inspired internet extremist allegedly
planning to use small drones loaded with explosives in the capital,
Spanish authorities released a video of suspected AQ members using a drone
to practise for ABIED attacks; the case led to the arrest of three suspected
German authorities arrested members of an AQ-inspired terror network
allegedly plotting to use small drones to carry out terrorist attacks.
IS issued propaganda urging followers to
conduct weaponised drone attacks on the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro,
Brazil. Brazilian authorities, with the help of US law enforcement agencies,
arrested 10 individuals for plotting attacks at the games.
A militant cell in Albania linked to IS was
arrested in possession of a drone while planning a terror attack.
A Syria-based Australian IS member plotted to conduct weaponised drone
attacks in the Australian city of Sydney.
Turkish authorities in Istanbul arrested an IS militant, recovering two
drones in his possession. In the weeks following the initial arrest, Turkish
authorities charged nine members of an IS cell with plotting to use
weaponised drones in attacks in Istanbul.
An individual with IS sympathies was arrested
in the US city of Tampa Bay for allegedly planning a weaponised drone
An IS-inspired militant was jailed in Qatif, Saudi Arabia for planning to
blow up police and security forces sites using weaponised drones.
Turkish police in the city of Adana detained a Russian citizen, suspected of
being an IS operative, who planned to down a US military aircraft via a
An IS sympathiser in the Italian city of Lodi was arrested after planning to
bomb a train station and receiving instructions via Telegram on weaponised
Employment of drones, weaponised or otherwise,
in forms of terrorism both inside and out of areas of armed conflict is an
emerging threat that has to potential to negatively affect the aviation security
environment at airports globally. While it is not clear in the examples above
how advanced the attack planning was, nor whether the operatives actually had
the capability to carry out a drone attack, it is inevitable that conflict-zone
drone TTPs will migrate away from such areas. Terror group TTPs for drone
modification continue to be proliferated on a wide scale due to the expansive
nature of the internet; and availability and sophistication of commercial
off-the-shelf systems has expanded globally since 2014. In addition, the trend
of attacks by returning foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria, terrorist acts
conducted by individual militants and plots hatched by internet-inspired
extremists indicates that the employment of a weaponised drone in a terror
operation is a credible scenario.
Potential targets for any form of terrorist
act are difficult to effectively categorise, making acute control of exposure
unfeasible. In general, soft targets remain the preferred setting for attacks.
Crowded public areas represent the most likely venue of a potential weaponised
drone attack. However, the aviation target set has been a key focus area for
militant groups since 2001 and the potential for a weaponised and/or unarmed
drone attack within the industry must be adequately accounted for. We advise
aviation security managers take the following actions:
advisories as well as trends in terrorist TTPs, such as the employment and
proliferation of weaponised drones and ABIEDs. Evaluate instances where
drones were recovered in possession of the suspects, where attacks were to
include drones for pre-attack reconnaissance or weaponisation of the drone.
Conduct a threat
assessment of nefarious drone capability and intent for airports and
installations of recurring flight operations, based on the potential risk to
facilities, aircraft, passengers and crew.
mechanisms for suspicious activity, safety and security reporting. Revisions
should account for drone sightings as part of a wider aviation risk
management strategy to protect aircraft, passengers and crew.
for alerting personnel to a nefarious drone event similar to an “Active
Shooter” notification. Following any nefarious drone incident, investigate
the background of the event and implement mechanisms for sharing the
findings with appropriate authorities and relevant aviation industry bodies.
About the Author
is an Aviation Security Analyst at UK-headquartered Osprey Flight Solutions, a risk analysis and
management solutions company offering comprehensive airport, country and
overflight risk assessments to business aviation operators. Mark has many years'
experience in the public sector as a senior aviation security intelligence
analyst in the UK government.
BlueSky Business Aviation News | 4th January
2018 | Issue #445