Venezuela drone attack signals terror groups' troubling use of UAVs

Airports and large public spaces remain uniquely vulnerable to small and localised drone attacks.
Wednesday 08/08/2018
Palestinian members of al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, display a home-made drone during a military parade marking the 27th anniversary of Hamas' founding, in Gaza City December 14, 2014. (Reuters)
Palestinian members of al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, display a home-made drone during a military parade marking the 27th anniversary of Hamas' founding, in Gaza City December 14, 2014. (Reuters)

TUNIS - An alleged assassination attempt on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro involving explosive-laden drones has highlighted a growing trend among terror groups: the use of unmanned aircraft to strike at targets with minimal expense and risk, sometimes at considerable distances

The attack on Maduro, which occurred during a military parade in Caracas on Saturday, involved two DJI M600 drones, each carrying a kilogram of C-4 explosive, Interior Minister Néstor Reverol told reporters.

Maduro was quick to blame his political opponents for the attack, principally the Colombian government, which has been at odds with Venezuela over the handling of its growing economic crisis.

The alleged assassination attempt has implications beyond regional politics, however: It highlights the troubling ability of terror groups to deploy either homemade drones or unmanned aircraft intended for hobbyists to carry their lethal payloads into areas impossible to access through more traditional means.

In Syria, the Russian airbase at Hmeimim has come under repeated drone attacks from the rebel-held territory at Idlib in the country’s north. Elsewhere, Israel claims to have intercepted several low-tech drones it believes Hamas was testing over Israeli airspace and along the Mediterranean coast.

Scientists and analysts have long warned of the threat posed by low-cost unmanned aircraft. Speaking after the attack, Steve Wright, an associate professor at the University of the West England in Bristol told The Express that the attack on Maduro has "always been in the pipeline - it's too easy to do something like this."

The aerospace engineering researcher added that the two places most at risk of a drone explosion are airports and "large stadiums full of people, including rock concerts and football matches."

That point was echoed by the CIA’s former director of counterterrorism, Bernard Hudson, who wrote in the Washington Post on Sunday that “weaponised drones start with a tactical advantage: Most can fly lower than current technology is capable of readily detecting. Even if they were carrying only a small quantity of explosives, they could bring down a civilian aircraft in flight.”

Alternatively, simple unarmed hobbyist’ drones could enter an airport’s airspace and hover in a commercial aircraft’s path, Hudson wrote.

While there are numerous deterrents intended to halt traditional ground attacks, airports and large public spaces remain uniquely vulnerable to small and localised drone attacks.

Wright, speaking to The Express, highlighted three main counters to drone attacks: “You can try to shoot it out of the sky with a shotgun. That’s the most obvious way.

"Except that is not very safe in public arenas if bullets are fired, or bits of drone begin to rain down on a crowd.

"There is also the jamming approach where we fire a big beacon radiowave at the drone to confuse its electronics.

"However, this is not as controllable as we would like and will also shut down mobile communications."

"Then, we have a hacking attack, where we can hack into the drone's operation and command the machine to go somewhere else, away from the target,” he said.

For now, the use of drones by terrorist groups is likely to continue, analysts say, with states’ own preferred means of delivering death at a distance being turned upon their most vulnerable locations.

“Weaponised drones are firmly in the hands of non-state actors,”  Hudson concluded. “No one is safe. Not heads of state. Not the flying public. We cannot afford delay in devising ways to combat this new peril.”