Playing defense against the drones
The attempted target in Venezuela was new, but the risk was not, nor is the anxiety among analysts and officials that it’s only getting worse and that countries, including the United States, are unprepared to deal with it. Only months after the Islamic State took the Iraqi city of Mosul in the summer of 2014, there were reports that the group was flying surveillance drones. The fall of 2016 brought the first known instance of fatalities from a suspected ISIS drone, when two Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq were killed examining an explosives-rigged drone they had shot out of the sky. At the peak of ISIS drone activity in 2017, according to a report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, its drones were flying dozens of missions a month across Iraq and Syria, with one Syrian Defense Force soldier reporting repeated drone attacks on logistics lines and ammunition depots.
“This has been building for some time,” Vance Serchuk, the executive director of the KKR Global Institute, the geopolitical-strategy arm of the investment firm KKR, told me. His institute has conducted research on drone and counter-drone technologies; he is also an Atlantic contributor. In Iraq and Syria in particular, ISIS “figured out how to weaponize drones before we figured out how to counter them … Modern air defenses are built against planes and cruise missiles. A quadcopter is small, low, and slow. We don’t have a good architecture for defeating this on the battlefield.”
This technological evolution is typical of terrorist groups’ tactical innovations, which often involve devising low-cost ways to inflict disproportionate damage on a stronger enemy. It’s easier and cheaper, for example, to rig and hide a simple explosive device along a roadside, as various insurgent groups did to devastating effect in Iraq, than it is to find and disarm them, or protect personnel against them. Similarly, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and others have turned everyday technologies—from pressure cookers, to vans, to airplanes—into weapons of war. Commercial drones are just the latest example of a long-standing pattern.
ISIS has a drone strategy too
While ISIS’s drone activity has declined with its loss of territory in Iraq and Syria, the problem is not limited to them, or to the world’s battlefields. In 2015, Reuters reported that a protester flew “a drone carrying radioactive sand from the Fukushima nuclear disaster onto the prime minister’s office, though the amount of radiation was minimal.” Mexican cartels have used drones to smuggle drugs and, in one instance, to land disabled grenades on a local police chief’s property. Last summer, a drone delivered an active grenade to an ammunition dump in Ukraine, which Kyle Mizokami of Popular Mechanics reported caused a billion dollars’ worth of damage.