LAST week a camera-equipped fixed-wing propeller drone crashed on to the Orange Line train terminal in Lahore’s Thokar Niaz Beg area, causing a fair bit of panic among the authorities, who initially suspected it may have been an attempted act of terrorism, or perhaps a dry run for a future attack. Police traced the drone to a man named Hamid, who claimed to run a business selling and repairing commercial drones in Lahore’s Hall Road market. Hamid claimed that he was test-flying the drone and it crashed because it went out of range, but the police have taken him into custody on the suspicion that he may have been trying to reconnoiter the area through his drone for some less than kosher reasons.
A few months back, following a spate of terrorist attacks in various parts of Pakistan, and in particular the deadly attack on Chinese nationals at the gate of Karachi University, the Sindh Police banned the use of commercial drones in Karachi’s District South out of fear that they could be used by terrorists to stage an attack on government buildings, foreign missions and other ‘sensitive’ installations. This fear is not unfounded and, in fact, it only speaks to part of the deadly potential even commercial drones possess when placed in the hands of the imaginative and amoral. The distinction of ‘commercial’ is important, because when we think of weaponised drones the mental image that is conjured is inevitably that of the dreaded Predators and Reapers raining death from the skies or, more recently of the Turkish Bayraktars and other loitering munitions.
But the use of much smaller, easily purchasable and modifiable drones for staging attacks has been picking up, with the pioneers of this strategy being the Islamic State group in the Syrian and Iraqi theatres. Here, multi-propeller and small fixed-wing drones were first seen loaded with explosives — essentially like flying IEDs — when they were deployed against Kurdish peshmerga in 2016 on a limited scale. The following year saw the creation of an actual department within IS dealing exclusively with the development and weaponisation of unmanned aircraft.
Recently, Mexican drug cartels have been seen using modified commercial drones to drop improvised explosives on their enemies, creating a new dimension to Mexico’s bloody cartel wars. Here, the finger is being pointed at the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which has been using drones for such attacks since 2017, converting drones into flying bombs by taping C4 explosives and pellets onto the drones and detonating them remotely.
Drones are proving to be the surveillance technology of choice.
You don’t have to have the resources of a terrorist organisation or a criminal cartel to be able to pull this off, as police in the American state of Pennsylvania learned. Plagued by a series of unexplained explosions which peppered homes with shrapnel from nails and pellets in a suburban township, police were at a loss as to how to trace the perpetrator, given there were no footprints or tyre tracks which could have pointed to whoever had planted the bombs. Then, a resident’s security camera got a glimpse of a drone dropping a homemade bomb, leading to the arrest of a local man named Jason Muzzicato, who was then sentenced to five years in jail.
The use of drones by criminals is on the rise, with gangs in the US using drones to ferry drugs and weapons into prisons for the use of their incarcerated brethren. Indeed, drones are proving invaluable for smuggling small items across the world, as Chinese authorities discovered in 2018, when they busted a gang using small drones to smuggle about $80 million worth of smartphones from Hong Kong to mainland China. Operating mostly after midnight, the smugglers needed only a few minutes to transport small bags containing 10 iPhones across the border, managing to smuggle up to 15,000 phones in a single night. The same phenomenon has also been seen at the US-Mexico border, with the aforementioned cartels using drones for small drug shipments.
Drones are also proving to be the surveillance technology of choice for burglars and robbers, and even voyeurs, and there have been several cases of criminals using drones to surveil apartments and residential areas in order to pick the easiest targets with little to no risk of being identified. Indeed, one criminal network in Australia used drones to monitor port workers, calling in hoax fire and theft alarms whenever the workers got too close to a container containing contraband. In one particularly imaginative example, an FBI team on a stakeout was swarmed by mini-drones, which succeeded in forcing them to give up their position, allowing the targets to get away.
Examples abound, and while there are also many positive ways that drones are and can be used, it would be unwise to ignore the potential damage and disruption they can cause, especially in those parts of the world where police technology and capability is shaky to begin with.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2022