Small drones and the use of chemical weapons as a terrorist threat.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The fear is that IS are planning to marry together two technologies, drones as a dispersal device and chemical, biological or radiological material as the dispersant.”  


Inventive and spectacular ways of killing people has long been a hallmark of Islamic State’s modus operandi and recent intelligence reports suggest that the group are becoming even more ambitious in their planning.  With the return to the UK from Syria and Iraq of between 400-500 Jihadists counter terrorism experts are now concerned that IS are planning a “technology transfer” of techniques, substances and tactics learned abroad for use in Europe. 

Use of mustard gas and chlorine against Kurdish Peshmerga fighters is well documented, as is research by IS to develop radiological dispersion devices. It is these technologies that are of particular concern to the security services but their concern does not stop there. IS has used drones for propaganda filming and intelligence gathering for years and last October it used a homemade drone to attack and kill Pashmerga fighters. Then in November a secret bomb factory was discovered in Mosel, Northern Iraq. The fear is that IS are planning to marry together two technologies, drones as a dispersal device and chemical, biological or radiological material as the dispersant.

Small drones are cheap, easy to buy and operate and can provide distance and anonymity to their operators. As the first iteration of the robotics revolution they have proliferated on a massive scale with estimates of over five million drones having been sold worldwide. The same technology that enabled the smart phone revolution has now provided unprecedented access to the air. Improvements in battery technology give drones greater power, lift and endurance; cameras are now tiny and highly capable allowing distant operation through live streaming, and fast chips and sensors allow automatic stability and easy operation.

However, the same technology that facilitates the fantastic photography on Planet Earth II could also be put to malign or nefarious use. The ability to attach an improvised explosive device (IED) to a drone has already been demonstrated, and the task of weaponising a drone to carry a chemical agent is technically possible, as seen in crop dusting use. What is more, the terrorists don’t even need to acquire chemical weapons in order to create weapons. Even gasoline spread as a vapour when ignited has 15 times the explosive energy of the equivalent weight of TNT. Moreover, even if the gasoline was simply ignited its effect on a crowd would be devastating.

How serious the small drone threat should be taken is hotly contested in the counter terrorist community. A Paris style marauding attack or a rucksack filled with ammonium nitrate would technically be an easier terrorist operation to mount and could cause more carnage than the payload of a small drone. But a drone attack would be psychologically unnerving and terror inducing. 

Given the use of drones in Afghanistan and Iraq by Britain and the US it also has symbolical appeal to IS and its affiliates. To guard against the small drone threat would also require a rethink of some established notions.  Traditionally a building is secured by perimeter defence and entry point control. In November 2015 this prevented terrorists entering the Stad Du France in Paris. If the jihadists had put their devices on drones, however, they could have flown into the stadium with potentially devastating effect. Similarly, defending aircraft in flight or on the ground from a swarm attack by drones is also a concern for police and security services. The British Airline Pilots Association has called for studies of the effect of a drone strike on a jet engine. The concern is that their lithium batteries alone could cause an engine fire. Multiple drones flown at these engines for deliberate effect could cause a mass casualty event. Clearly the misapplication of “dual use” chemicals or recreational drones poses new challenges for security in the age of terrorist attack. How to assess these threats and how to deal with them accordingly is also the job of academics interested in security studies.