Categories: Rise to Peace blog

Drone Technology and Its Malicious Use by Terrorists

Emerging technologies may offer recognised benefits, but they pose threats to national security also. A case in point are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — one of the most common examples of dual-use technology.

Drone technology refers to a pilotless aircraft whose operation is based on a combination of technologies, such as artificial intelligence and computer vision. Although initially developed for military purposes, drones now receive wider attention and use.

Over the past few years, UAVs have been used by various businesses, including refining companies, online marketplaces, broadcasting services, airlines, construction and logistic companies in addition to governmental and defense organisations. Therefore, from timely delivery at peak time and geographical mapping of inaccessible regions to border control surveillance and supervision of unreachable military bases, drones are proving to be highly beneficial for a broad range of sectors.

However, alongside the aforementioned businesses and governmental organizations, drone technology has had a beneficial effect on terrorism as well. More specifically, newly affordable prices and growth in popularity have attracted the attention of a number of terrorist organisations, including Hezbollah and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Hezbollah has paved the way for the extensive use of drones by non-state groups. Indeed, the Lebanese militant group is reported to have the longest-standing and most advanced drone program of any non-state actor. It is believed that most of its drone fleet was supplied by Iran which has been developing its drone program since its war with Iraq.

Over the past decade, Hezbollah has made a great deal of progress in the acquisition of highly sophisticated UAVs. They have exploited them to gain useful intelligence and to intercept poorly encrypted Israeli drone feeds. Consequently, the Hezbollah drone program poses a constantly growing threat not only to Israeli security, but also to other non-state combatants.

Similarly, the Islamic State’s use of drones is developed to the extent that it can be described as a ‘drone program’. However, ISIL differs from other terrorist groups in that it has exploited drone technology in a more creative manner. Focusing more on acquiring simple, cost-effective and replaceable devices, they managed to build their own drone fleet.

Another point that sets apart the Islamic State’s drone program is the emphasis put on drone imagery. Rather than just weaponizing drones to conduct an attack, ISIL has strategically used the ability to capture aerial photos that later become central components of its propaganda machine.

In the light of the significant and rising threat posed by the possession and malicious use of drones by non-state actors, several companies were prompted to come up with technologies able to bring them down. These include electronic fences which block drone signals and drones equipped with nets which can capture enemy drones. However, additional measures should be implemented in order to prevent terrorist groups from having access to such technologies.

It is clear that alongside the tremendous benefits, drone technology also involves a direct threat to national security. Although they were first developed for military purposes, the ever-increasing commercial use of drones has also enabled terrorist groups, such as ISIL and Hezbollah, to acquire or even to manufacture their own drone fleets.

Vasileia Kioutsouki

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