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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?”

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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

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