On August 4th, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was reportedly attacked by two drones armed with explosives while making a speech at a public outdoor event in Caracas. The president and his entourage escaped largely unharmed, but for many, this incident introduced the idea of the potential threat from drones outside war zones. Was this the moment of reckoning the drone research community has been waiting for?
The wider public was — understandably — surprised and shocked. But many drone scholars have been bracing for exactly such an attack for a while. Author and researcher Dennis M. Gormley presciently warned of the use of drones and missiles by non-state terrorist groups already in 2003. More recently, a study by N.R. Jenzen-Jones and Michael Smallwood traced the quick rise of non-state actor drone use, predicting further novel and technically advanced uses.
The exact circumstances of the attack remain unclear, as initial reports suggested a gas tank explosion. The investigative website Bellingcat, through the geo-localization of videos of the incident, concluded that drones were indeed flown at the event and likely involved in the attack. The videos showed one drone exploding in mid-air, and another one crashing into a building.
The systems that were reportedly used in the Caracas attack were DJI Matrice 600 drones, a system for professional photographers, which can carry up to six kilograms (13.2 pounds) of photographic equipment. They were loaded with a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of C-4, according to The Washington Post. Maduro was quick to blame the attack on the “Venezuelan ultra-right in alliance with the Colombian ultra-right.” This, combined with fast arrests and a history of using alleged anti-government plots to jail dissidents, led to speculations about a false flag attack. But even if the political circumstances are contested, the drone attack itself is plausible.
However, in this attack, it is not the drones as such that should be getting the attention. Instead, the interesting part is that it was flown by a non-state group (reportedly the ‘T-Shirt Soldiers’) and that this attack happened in a civilian context, rather than in a conflict zone. It is this aspect that makes the Caracas event a departure from what we have seen before. But it had been a long time coming.
For decades, drones have been used by militaries around the world, with approximately 90 countries using military drones of some kind today. Civilian drones, by contrast, are much younger. But even though the commercial drone market is still in its infancy, millions of hobbyist drones have been sold around the world. Of course, this did not go unnoticed by non-state actors such as terror groups.
Using drones makes a lot of sense for non-state actors — possibly even more than for states. As Alexandra Sander, researcher at the Center for a New American Security, found out when running a drone wargame in 2015, non-state actors disproportionately benefit from access to drones because drones provide them with air-based capabilities that they usually lack. Drones allow non-state actors to take to the air.
Though not the first non-state actor to use drones, ISIS is the group that has most systematically developed its drone capability. It began by using commercially available drones for propaganda, then intelligence, and shortly after, took the step of arming drones. Initially, explosives were strapped to the drone, thus creating flying IEDs for one-time-use, but later the group learned how to reuse drones by dropping grenades or other ordnances.
Until the attack on President Maduro, this tactic has been observed only in conflict zones, from Iraq and Syria, to Ukraine. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this attack will remain an outlier — because using drones for terrorism is not that difficult.
Even though ISIS invested some effort into its drone training and development program, not much work or knowledge is needed to turn a hobbyist drone into a tool for more nefarious purposes. On the internet, drone hobbyists show off their drones which they have equipped with machine guns or flamethrowers. In fact, commercially available drones have become so sophisticated that even Western militaries have begun to acquire them, including the Dutch and German navies and the US Special Operations Command.
The DJI M600 drones used in the Caracas attack are about $5,000 and meant to carry several kilograms of gear, making it easy to exchange this payload with something else. It is easy to imagine many evil uses. In fact, drone researchers are beginning to worry about speaking openly about possible nefarious drone uses, as to not give people ideas, as Jenzen-Jones noted. But assassination attempts on otherwise well-protected VIPs has always been high up on the list.
The drone research community had expected an attack of the Caracas type, possibly even sooner, and with worse consequences — and that attack may still come. In response, anti-drone technology has boomed: a 2016 Goldman Sachs Investment report estimated that almost 10 percent of US defense research and development funds goes into financing counter-drone systems.
The technology meant to defeat drones has been varied: jamming rifles and lasers, drones that fight other drones. There have even been tests with drone-hunting eagles. But all these systems have vulnerabilities. Drone jammers are difficult to use in urban areas, as they risk jamming more than the drone’s frequency, while anti-drone drones and eagles would need to be present everywhere where an attack is possible. So far, there is no one system that has proven to be mobile, reliable, and cost-effective against all kinds of possible drone attacks.
Given the political ambiguities around the Caracas attack, and the fact that — luckily — no one was seriously injured, interest in the incident is already fading. But if Caracas was not the moment of reckoning, it should be a wake-up call: expect more terror attacks involving drones. There’s no reason to panic, but more work on counter-measures is required in order to mitigate possible harm from the next attack.