Drones: Weapons of Terror?

Yemen’s Houthi rebels have taken responsibility of the drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil sites in Abqaiq and Khurais. These strikes have escalated tensions in the Middle East. Sources report that 5 million barrels a day of crude oil production were impacted; this impacted the half of Saudi’s output or 5% of the world’s output.

The Houthis claimed that the attacks were in retaliation of the years of airstrikes on its citizens and they will continue to expand their targets. They carried out the attacks via 10 drones. The claims of the Houthis have been challenged by the US, which continues to state that Iran orchestrated the attacks. Iran has vehemently denied involvement and warned the United States it would retaliate “immediately” if targeted over the attacks.

This is not the first instance of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)/drone technology by extremist groups. ISIL has made the most of advances in the field of drone technology. While organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham have their own drone programs, it took these groups a considerable time to apply the drone technology in conflict situations. Compared to the slow adoption by other groups, the Islamic State adopted drone technology exponentially. This can be partly attributed to the development, availability, and commercialization of the technology. The application by ISIL involves a modification of the existing drone’s design or even constructing them from scratch once the basic blueprint from the commercialized drones is available.

ISIL’s first use of drones was for reconnaissance purposes. By September and October 2016, they had managed to weaponize the drones by attaching explosives and releasing them on the intended target. The first recorded incident was in October 2016 when two Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers were killed, and two French special forces soldiers were injured after a drone they were inspecting exploded.

A 2017 report provides detailed insight into the ISIL drone program, identified separate centers for training, weaponization, modification, and maintenance, as well as the existence of a center for storage and distribution. Owing to ISIL’s sophistication, each of these centers, based in Raqqa, also had their own separate command structure.

The Taliban has also used the drones in recent years. Much like other groups in the region, the use of drones has been mostly for surveillance, there not many reports of the Taliban using weaponized drones against its opposers. In October 2016, they released drone footage showing a suicide bomber driving a Humvee into a police base in Helmand province, the largest province in Afghanistan.

In the latest reports, Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have been using unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor US troops, and their coalition partners in Afghanistan, Air Force Research Laboratory official Tom Lockhart revealed.

Outside the Middle East and Central Asia, drones have also been used in Central America. In August 2018 Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said he escaped an “assassination” attempt that used an explosive-laden drone after a live broadcast showed him being escorted away by his security personnel when a bang went off during a Caracas military parade. His government said seven soldiers were wounded in the incident.

The easy access, affordability of drones, and the modifications they can undergo, make them a tricky technology to tackle. While it is the militarized drones grab headlines, the real value of UAVs lays in surveillance, according to Paul Scharre, a senior fellow and director of the technology and national security program at Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Small, cheap drones can stay in the air for a considerable amount of time. The military drones are used to get a better view of the battlefield and gain a tactical edge on opponents. That is true for extremist groups as we saw in the example of the Taliban.

Militarized drones, the kind probably available to groups such as the Houthis, are heavier and can carry several pounds of explosives at speeds up to 160km/h with a range of 650km. They have an immense tactical advantage as most can fly lower than current technology is capable of detecting, which was the case for the drone strike at the oil sites.

Countering drone attacks may lie in jamming the communication links that allow them to operate.  Drones generally rely on a GPS or radio link to a human controller, which can be blocked or hijacked. This seems like a good strategy for a conflict zone, but jamming communications in a typical civilian setting, like at an airport, can have more devastating consequences.

Whether the responsibility for the attacks lies with the Houthis or Iran, the attack on Saudi oil sites has demonstrated the difference in the adaptability of the drone technology and the lack of a fitting defensive technology.

Image Credit: Forbes

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