UAVs, small remote-controlled flying devices, made their appearance in the world of intelligence and counter-terrorism on September 7, 2000. Almost one year to the day before the tragic turn of the September 11, 2001 attacks, a Predator-type drone flew over a farm in southern Kandahar, where al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was reportedly staying as part of a reconnaissance mission codenamed “Afghan Eyes”.
Anti-terrorist experts were stirred by the quality of the images captured by these small “iron birds”, which are much more accurate than those of spy satellites. They then predicted that drones would play a leading role in counter-terrorism intelligence. A role that will very soon exceed all predictions. Because after September 11, the American services, launched after the al-Qaeda leaders, did not simply use drones as tools for gathering information to track down terrorist leaders. They turned them into “killing machines” by equipping them with Hellfire missiles. In this way, the drones could hit and instantly spray terrorist targets as soon as they located them.
At the time, the US Air Force had only five drones. Equipped with air-to-ground missiles, they very quickly showed the full extent of their effectiveness. And it took only 9 days for these five “iron birds” launched over Kabul from 7 November 2001, to achieve a major feat.
Indeed, on 16 November, a Predator armed with Hellfire missiles spotted al-Qaeda’s number 3, Mohamed Atef, alias Abu Hafs al-Masri, in a small house in Kabul’s western districts. The target is immediately pulverized by the drone. Atef, his deputy Abu Ali al-Yafi’e and six of their guards were killed immediately.
A program for the production of drones armed with air-to-ground missiles was then launched. In May 2004, General Atomics, the manufacturer of the Predators, delivered thirty copies to the US Air Force.
And it was immediately the beginning of a 7-years “drone war”, during which more than a million hours of flight time of these remote-controlled vehicles were carried out in the Afghan-Pakistani tribal areas. This has resulted in more than 80,000 “targeted assassinations” missions that have eliminated 2,588 terrorist targets, including 1,357 al-Qaeda members.
Later, this “drone war” continued with the same terrifying effectiveness on other jihadist fronts in Yemen, the Sahel, Libya and of course in the Syrian-Iraqi fiefdoms of Daesh.
But terrorist organizations, which have long suffered the pangs of drone attacks, now have the ambition to control these “iron birds” in turn, to use them as a new technological weapon for future jihadist attacks.
The threat is not entirely new. Since 2015, Daesh fighters have been using civilian drones, freely available on the market, which they use for reconnaissance and attack missions. By equipping them with grenades or small explosive charges of a few hundred grams, they carried out an average of 60 to 100 remote-controlled attacks per month, particularly against Kurdish fighters and American and French special forces, until the collapse of the strongholds of the Caliphate.
A confidential US report, entitled “The Islamic State and Drones: Supply, Scale and Future Threats”, states that the fall of the Caliphate did not end the Daeshian program of using drones for terrorist purposes. According to this report, documents seized after Mosul’s takeover showed that Daesh has set up a unit within its “Military Manufacturing and Development Committee” dedicated to controlling UAV technology.
For its part, a French report entitled “The Islamic State is seeking to manufacture drones equipped with high-intensity explosives” is alarmed by the fact that the tests carried out on devices developed by Daesh, for instance by modifying Chinese-manufactured DJI drones, have enabled them to be equipped with higher intensity explosive charges of up to 4.9 kg.
The high explosive charges that these modified UAVs can now be equipped with, combined with the significant improvement in their drop accuracy, raise fears among counter-terrorism services that a new form of remote-controlled attacks will emerge, which will no longer be confined solely to Syrian-Iraqi Jihadist areas.
In that case, we would move towards a “new war of drones” directed against civilian targets or sensitive areas, through “robotized or remote-controlled flying kamikaze systems”.
Worse still, the “Action Plan against Terrorism”, revealed by the French government on last 13 July, pointed out the “rise in technical skills of radicalized people”, alluding to point 19 of the Action Plan (the plan includes 32 anti-terrorist action points) aiming for “anticipating the response to emerging threats – nuclear, radiological, chemical, explosive and drones”, the existence of the “risk of misuse of commercial drones”.
If this hypothesis were to materialize, the malevolent use of drones with an unprecedented use of chemical or radiological explosive charges, commonly known as “dirty bombs”, could make of the upcoming “new drones war” a major challenge for counter-terrorism in the months and years to come.
* Writer and consultant, President of Roland Jacquard Global Security Consulting (RJGSC)