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The Role of Drones in Future Terrorist Attacks

Counter-Small Unmanned Aerial Systems program training at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, 5 Nov 2020. Photo: Brigette Waltermire

Terrorist groups have already begun to use aerial drones to conduct and coordinate attacks. As these groups learn lessons from previous attacks, most notably the Islamic State’s use of drones during military operations in Mosul, they will continue to adapt. The rapid improvements in drone technology and its increasing capabilities will provide terrorist groups with multiple new avenues to sow fear.

A particularly frightening application of drones is the distribution of chemical and biological agents. Terrorists do not even have to use an actual biological or chemical weapon to perpetrate the attack. The simple act of spraying water or some other household cleaning agent over a crowded area would be enough to create panic. Critical infrastructure is also vulnerable, and hardening thousands of locations against attack would be financially restrictive, at best.

The ability of a small group or individual to conduct multiple simultaneous attacks, at a relatively low cost and with significant standoff distance, will lead to the use of drones as a primary tactic of future terrorist attacks. The advantage is with the attacker; expensive counter systems for drones can be defeated with the addition or removal of specific onboard systems or a change in modality.

The Role of Drones in Future Terrorist Attacks. Land Warfare Paper 137, Association of the United States Army, February 2021.

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