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.

Have your say...

  • YxIE3
    1. At 5:31PM on 30 July 2017, wrote
  •  alan
    2. At 11:56PM on 23 January 2018, alan wrote

    just a matter of time before vehicles like drones in conjuction with various chemicals will be used with deadly effect alan

    man historically has invariably employed his weapons

    of destruction

    Also only one rich man could finance deadly

    biwarfare attacks

  • Doug Sear
    3. At 12:38PM on 08 June 2018, wrote

    Hi David, great piece and very relevant in todays world, despite most regular people not really being aware of such threats. I would be more than happy to show you our range of compact chemical / smoke escape masks as the exclusive UK distributor for Duram Mask. Our Chembayo mask is compact, can be carried in your bag or jacket pocket, will protect you against weaponised chemical, biological and blood agents, for about the same price as a high end pair of trainers!...Also protects you against the effects of toxic smoke / chemicals given off in a typical building fire. I'm based in the West Midlands, so would be great to meet you and discuss further. Best regards Doug.

  • D
    4. At 1:42PM on 17 September 2020, D wrote


  • lesley clark
    5. At 4:08PM on 09 January 2021, lesley clark wrote

    Let me tell you about drones that deliver a chemical suspension onto a person. A suspension that causes the human brain to overwork in order to compute the stimuli of sound and light that any normal healthy human easily computes. When death is not the desired outcome but taking someone's credibility is. Day in and day out of the buzz to the ear can cause a person to go insane. The bimolecular affect of dragging around a cloud, or a suspension in electrostatic repulsion takes a toll. I do not know how the suspension is delivered exactly from the drone. You will not see the drone. Whistleblowers and those who know to much beware. The beast is if you know about the cloud and trying to inform others of your very local situation. You will be called crazy and your credibility will be questionable.

  • janice richards
    6. At 8:42AM on 13 September 2021, janice richards wrote

    HI lesley,regarding the read up on here ,i am one of those people you are making aware but its far to late for me healthwise now,every word you wrote is spot on from start to finish,i am a expert,would love to get the chance to correspond somehow,im not sure how to use these sites but i will have a good go,regards janice

  • Barbara Moriggan
    7. At 11:45PM on 03 October 2021, Barbara Moriggan wrote

    When I talk about the past, I always think of religion. I recently wrote an essay on the New Testament, and I used this resource - . It helped me write a good student paper, for which I got the highest score.

    8. At 2:37AM on 07 December 2021, wrote

    That is alarming

    9. At 2:37AM on 07 December 2021, wrote

    Drones are high tech

  • colorman
    10. At 9:26AM on 28 December 2021, colorman wrote

    I totally agree, this is a great idea!

  • feyfey
    11. At 11:30AM on 07 March 2022, feyfey wrote

    Thank you for sharing this amazing post. keep up the great work.

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