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Inexpensive Weaponized Drones Will Pose Unique Domestic Threats

@Tony_Hallett, CEO, Unmanned Response

The April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing was planned and executed by brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerian Tsarnaev. Their tactics illustrate how terrorists adapt to conditions and opportunities. They knew the area would be swept prior to the crowds arriving so they waited until the race had started then casually placed two backpack bombs along crowded sidewalks.

However, as with other “lone wolves” who were physically present at their crime scenes, the terrorism careers of the Tsarnaev brothers were short-lived.

Bombings masterminded by organized terrorist groups typically utilize suicide bombers or other intermediaries which will (1) increase the chance of accurate targeting and timing and (2) eliminate the need to facilitate an escape from the target site. In essence, it’s remote-control terrorism using suicide bombers to do the dirty work.

Leadership   —>   Intermediary   —>   Target

The 9/11 attack on the U.S. fits this equation. Lone wolf terrorists have also used intermediaries. Ted Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber) conducted 16 bombings over 18 years. He avoided identification by using an unsuspecting intermediary: the U.S. Postal Service.

Kaczynski   —>   Parcel Delivery (USPS)   —>   16 Targets

The use of intermediaries is the dominant feature of ‘in absentia’ crime or terrorism: Leadership is not linked directly to the crime scene. By serving both roles – leaders and intermediaries – the Tsarnaev brothers did not follow the equation.

Tsarnaev Brothers   —>   Target

It proved to be a deadly mistake. Surveillance cameras, personal cell phones, and extraordinary analytics (personnel and technology) quickly identified the suspects.

Kaczynski   —>   Intermediaries   —>   18 Years To Identify 

Tsarnaev Brothers  —>   No Intermediaries   —>   3 Days To Identify 

The Tsarnaevs’ actions suggest they did not want to get caught – they weren’t suicide bombers planning a one-way trip to Martyr Paradise. Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City) was also a “one-and-done” domestic terrorist who tried to avoid detection. Like the Tsarnaev brothers, he didn’t use intermediaries and was quickly identified and arrested.

Its conceivable that domestic terrorists will make tactical adjustments because of the back-end failures of lone wolves like McVeigh and the Tsarnaev brothers. They will continue to exploit our vulnerabilities but also may deploy a new type of intermediary. Consider:

  • In 2007, 43-year-old, al Qaeda trained Christopher Paul was arrested in Columbus, Ohio, for plotting a series of terrorist bombings. Paul had researched drones and possessed a 5-foot-long remote-control helicopter when arrested.
  • In 2011, 26-year-old Rezwan Ferdaus was arrested in Boston for plotting to fly three fixed-wing drones loaded with C-4 plastic explosives into targets in Washington, DC. The FBI’s affidavit provides intriguing details.
  • In early 2013, four terrorists were jailed in England for plotting to strap explosives to a remote-control car and drive it under the gate at a nearby military base.

Terrorist organizations frequently use inanimate intermediaries (weaponized cars, trucks, boats, and planes) that are delivered by human intermediaries. It is reasonable to assume they and their followers will adopt unmanned systems technologies, especially considering the low cost and easy acquisition. An quadcopter capable of carrying an improvised explosive device (IED) can be easily purchased online or in hobby stores for under one thousand dollars. There are technical challenges to weaponizing small drones but terrorists are clever craftsmen of destruction.

The use of unmanned intermediaries would dramatically complicate investigations and prolong the identification and apprehension of perpetrators. There will be little initial evidence to determine if an attack was caused by an idealogical, disgruntled, or delusional lone-wolf, or if it was transnational or even state sponsored terrorism. Additional features of concern include:

  • Unmanned systems afford the same advantages of a live intermediary – accuracy and timing.
  • A single operator can conduct multiple, simultaneous attacks.
  • A drone strike in the U.S. would create widespread public fear and be a major public relations victory among those hostile toward the U.S. military drone policies.

The unmanned systems threat isn’t only aerial. Any ground vehicle (cars, trucks, construction equipment, ATVs, etc.) can be retrofitted with remote-control technology. Will it be long before we see a self-driving car bomb? Boats and subsurface vehicles can also be converted. Should we prepare for an unmanned weaponized maritime attack on a bridge, pipeline, dam, or riverfront night club?

Weaponized drones present unique tactical challenges for first responders. Primary and secondary bombing targets can be declared “clear” (no device located), but not “safe” (since an IED can be remotely guided in at any time, just as the Tsarnaev hand delivered their bombs after the marathon started). Perimeter security such as fencing around sports stadiums is no longer a detriment and could actually amplify the destruction because of the chaos created by clogged exit routes.

There is a clear need, arguably an urgent need, for public safety professionals to prepare for the domestic threat posed by unmanned systems. Consider Timothy McVeigh’s chilling statement made shortly before his 2001 execution: “You can’t handle the truth, because the truth is, I blew up the Murrah Building, and isn’t it kind of scary that one man could wreak this kind of hell?”


Other posts by Hallett on the Society of Police Futurists International blog include: Drones, Friends or FoesTen Reasons Why First Responders Aren’t Buying UAVsThe Proliferation of ‘In Absentia’ Crime; and Remote-Control Recruitment by Sexual Predators

Remote-Control Recruitment by Sexual Predators

@Tony_Hallett, CEO, Unmanned Response

Sexual predators are early adopters of technology. They embraced the Internet, which dramatically enhances their ability to engage and groom victims. Remote-control planes, copters, cars, trains, and boats (which are collectively referred to as “R/Cs” in this paper) also fit perfectly into their methodology.

  • Engage and Recruit: R/Cs are kid magnets. Predators can take one of these to a local park and will find plenty of children who are eager to engage.
  • Groom: Predators will quickly establish a common bond with children, spurred by “shared” fascination and interaction with the R/C.
  • Gifts: Predators will solidify their relationships by giving victims their own R/C to take home, show parents and friends, and prominently display in their bedroom.

Sexual predators are charmingly manipulative. “Do you like remote-control toys?” (bait) “Have you asked your parents to get you one?” (probe to determine if its a single-parent home) “Why won’t your parents get you one?” (emotionally isolate the child) “Would you like to operate the controls?” (offers excitement; exhibits trust in the child) “Don’t worry, its not hard to operate and I’ll help you.” (supportive; sets stage for physical contact) “Look at how good you’re doing!” (positive reinforcement)

A predator may position himself to “help” with the controls, providing the opportunity to experiment with (seemingly) nonsexual contact while the child’s focus is on the R/C. (For frotteurs, the contact is a sexual experience.) A predator with extra R/C batteries can continue this cycle of engagement, grooming, and contact for hours, exploring and exploiting the vulnerabilities of several potential victims and parents.

R/Cs will also appeal to stalkers and sexual voyeurs. Their powerful audiovisual “capture and transmit” capabilities enable R/Cs to be hidden near a park, playground, public swimming pool, bar, school, or workplace, allowing operators to observe and even follow unsuspecting targets.

R/Cs of all types and sizes are potentially high-tech Trojan horses. A predator can remotely activate on-board electronic devices to gain audio and video access from the R/C, even if it is located inside a target’s home. A tech-savvy predator can tap into a local wireless network and browse through files, email accounts, and chat sessions.

Acquiring an R/C is easy. Thousands of personal drones are sold each month and that number is rapidly expanding. A good R/C quad copter with a high resolution video camera costs about five hundred dollars, although models are available in all price ranges. Some companies offer conversion kits they claim will “turn anything into a drone.”

If an incident is reported to police, will officers realize that an R/C may be sending a live audio/video feed to a perpetrator? If an R/C is stalking a victim or a neighborhood, will the police conduct a stakeout and pursue the offending drone with their own R/C police copter?

The answer to both questions is “probably not.” Most law enforcement officers are not aware of the threats and capabilities of R/Cs. Less than 25 of America’s 18,000 state and local police departments have been granted permission by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate unmanned aerial systems. Until there is broad integration of unmanned systems into public safety operations, police officers will not have the familiarity or capability to effectively address this growing threat.

Consider this: If a police department wants to operate an R/C, it must first do the following:

  • Employ at least two operators (pilot and observer) who pass a training program approved by the FAA and pass an FAA second-class medical exam
  • Demonstrate operator proficiency on their specific R/C model
  • Apply for and obtain permission from the FAA (a Certificate of Authorization, or COA) to fly their specific R/C model – a two-month process at best
  • The COA restricts flight operations to a pre-defined area
  • The COA restricts flights to only daylight hours unless the operator has an FAA pilot’s license and instrument rating
  • Maintain meticulous logs of all flight activities

In contrast, if a sexual predator, even a registered sex offender (or anyone else for that matter), wants to operate an R/C for “recreational purposes” they must first do the following:

  • Nothing

No registration, no training, no tests, no approvals, no reports. Just buy and fly, day or night.

Same remote-control plane or copter. Two very different standards.

The regulatory complexities are not the only issues that discourage police departments from researching and deploying R/Cs. Wails of protests from privacy advocates and reactionary politicians have unfairly portrayed law enforcement professionals as everything from peeping toms to architects of a police-state. Why would a police chief invite public scorn, fight for a new line-item in the budget, navigate the regulatory compliance process, and place the R/C into service, only to watch helplessly as overzealous lawmakers outlaw the use of unmanned aerial systems by police departments?

Eventually, these and other challenges will be overcome. Until then, it appears likely that sexual predators, stalkers, and voyeurs will creep into the lives of unsuspecting victims using remote-control technologies while police departments are (as usual) handcuffed by politics, bureaucracy, and ever-changing rules.

The Proliferation of ‘In Absentia’ Crime

@Tony_Hallett, CEO, Unmanned Response

Statistics imply that the crime rate in the United States is stable; perhaps even declining. However, there are equally compelling statistics, albeit not neatly packaged, that suggest a dramatic rise of unsolvable crime is on the horizon.

Consider cybercrime, widely recognized as America’s top national security threat. The separation from both the crime scene and victim dramatically reduces the likelihood of prosecuting, or even identifying, a perpetrator. Current FBI statistics show conventional crime (such as burglary) is declining while cybercrime, which is more lucrative, is increasing:




Avg Loss





– 3.7%



FBI 2012 UCR



+ 8.3%


5.0% (est)

FBI 2012 IC3

Cybercrime is not the only “long-distance” crime. Postal services have been used for anonymous delivery of explosives for 250 years. Telephones have been used to threaten and defraud victims for decades.

One of the most infamous long-distance perpetrators is the Unabomber. His 18-year terror campaign prompted one of the longest and most expensive FBI investigations in history. Yet, Ted Kaczynski eluded detection until he was turned in by his own brother. The implications are chilling. One delusional guy, living in a shack, remotely terrorized America for nearly two decades.

We are now at the doorstep of an even more terrifying modus of remotely-committed crime. Fueled by success in combat, unmanned robotic vehicles (aka drones) in all shapes and sizes are headed for American soil, airways, and waterways. Drones will soon proliferate in business, recreation, and (predictably) crime.

First responders are not only unprepared for robotic crime, most are unaware this threat even exists. Perhaps the concept of a drone committing a crime is just too abstract for anyone but Sci-Fi enthusiasts. Not long ago, the concept of two planes flying into the World Trade Center was also quite abstract.

The unique feature of parcel, telephone, cyber, and robotic crime is that a perpetrator can effectuate a criminal act from a remote location through an intermediary such as a mail carrier or the Internet. I call this in absentia crime.

In Absentia Crime





Explosives and Biological Agents

Threats, Pranks, Stalking, Fraud

Fraud, Child Porn, Stalking, Threats

Virtually Any Cyber or Conventional Crime

Robotic crime will have a profound impact on all public safety agencies. “UFO” sightings, pranks, accidents, stalking, property crimes, and eventually violent crimes will dramatically disrupt conventional response and mitigation protocol. A threatened bomb site can no longer be given an “all clear” after a search – weaponized drones can be deployed to any target, any time. Indeed, unmanned robotic systems extend the tactical capabilities of a tech-savvy lone wolf who can now simultaneously attack multiple targets with multiple drones.

Criminal investigations will likewise be disrupted. Place and time, as in “placing the suspect at the scene when the crime occurred”, are no longer relevant parameters. The characteristics of in absentia crime will contribute to longer and more expensive investigations.

Investigation Objectives

“In Absentia” Crime Characteristics

1.  Identify the suspect

2.  Verify the suspect had the means, motive, and opportunity

3.  Connect the suspect to the crime scene

– Incomplete, inconsistent, or non-existent criminal statutes

– Few if any witnesses to provide testimonial evidence

– Little or no physical evidence at primary crime scene

– Perpetrators difficult to identify and find

– At least two crime scenes, often in multiple jurisdictions

– Responders and investigators unfamiliar with the technology

– Warrants often needed for social media and wireless carriers

– Lack of forensic examination standards for robotic crime

– Perpetrator seldom has physical connection to crime scene

Who will respond to and investigate robotic crime? Most of the 18,000 local and state law enforcement agencies do not have the capacity for complex responses and prolonged investigations. Yet, local departments will have no choice but to respond when a shotgun-toting quad shows up in the neighborhood or a camera-equipped quad is peering into someone’s bedroom window.

Then what? Which of the 70+ federal law enforcement agencies might have responsibility and jurisdiction? Even if a rouge drone is safely “captured,” which of the 400+ public crime labs in the country is prepared to conduct a thorough forensic analysis?

Disruptive innovation is a game changer that awards competitive advantage to early adopters. The addition of robotic crime to cyber and other in absentia crime dramatically disrupts longstanding tactical strategies of first responders and criminal investigators. It is imperative to recognize and prepare for this imminent threat before the sinister image of a weaponized drone replaces the hooded Unabomber sketch as the icon of unsolvable crime.