On Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress that terrorist attacks in the United States by groups using drones were an “imminent” threat. Such attacks could be launched against soft targets using the small unmanned aircraft armed with chemical weapons or small explosives.
“We do know that terrorist organizations have an interest in using drones; we’ve seen that overseas already with some growing frequency and I think the expectation is it’s coming here imminently,” Wray testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee as reported by the Washington Free Beacon. “I think they are relatively easy to acquire, relatively easy to operate, and I think quite difficult to disrupt and monitor.”
ISIS has been known to use drones in both a surveillance and an attack role. Last April, Fox News reported that ISIS had posted online videos with instructions for arming commercially-available drones.
“Two years ago, this was not a problem,” said Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “One year ago, this was an emerging problem. Now it’s a real problem, and so we are quickly trying to up our game.”
Rasmussen said that counterterrorism agencies are working to understand and defend against the threat of drones. In Iraq, drones have been used by ISIS to drop bombs on Iraqi government troops, but merely flying an unarmed drone in the vicinity of a busy airport could bring down a commercial airliner. Last week, an army helicopter collided with a small drone over New York, but was able to land safely. The operator of the drone has not been identified.
Several private companies are working on anti-drone projects as well. Droneshield provides devices to detect drones as well as the “dronegun” that jams the remotely controlled aircraft and forces them to land. The company’s products have been used by law enforcement and military organizations in the field. Another company, Department 13, has developed software that allows operators to take control of threatening drones.
Current federal law complicates the ability of local law enforcement and private companies to defend against drone attacks. The federal government considers drones to be aircraft and it is a federal crime to shoot at any aircraft. Popular Mechanics points out that state laws that allow police to target threatening drones are in conflict with federal law.
Drone technology is advancing at a rapid clip and terrorists have proven adept at altering new technology to their purposes. Drone aircraft are cheap, plentiful, anonymous and can adopted to perform a variety of roles. This makes them attractive to terrorists and difficult to defend against.