According to an ongoing research carried out by the MEMRI, Domestic Terrorism Threat Monitor (DTTM) team of researchers show that neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups in the US and worldwide have been using drones, as well as discussing drones and their potential for a range of uses. Many of these groups are violent and regularly issue threats of attacks against their opponents and governments.
In the US, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and anti-government extremists have used drones to project antisemitic messages on buildings, usually filming this and posting the videos online. Drones have also been used to promote extremist messaging and publications. During the January 6 Capitol riot, drones had reportedly been stashed at a nearby hotel.
Extremists worldwide have discussed how drones can be used to attack cellphone towers and have commented on Iranian and Russian drone strikes in the Ukraine War. Wagner PMC, Russian soldiers, Russian soccer hooligans, and pro-Russia American volunteers have raised money for purchasing drones. They have also used drones for a variety of purposes including thermal imaging, security, surveillance, and reconnaissance. They have also sought to sell American drones on the dark web. One man, billing himself as an expert, said he was a “propaganda tzar” for extremist groups in Italy, Greece, and Spain and had used drones to carry out “thermal inspections of cell towers and water towers… [and] solar panels”.
The 2017 landmark MEMRI Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM) study, A Decade Of Jihadi Organizations’ Use Of Drones – From Early Experiments By Hizbullah, Hamas, And Al-Qaeda To Emerging National Security Crisis For The West As ISIS Launches First Attack Drones, warned: “Because drones are so easily obtained today – for example, online retailer Amazon offers an extensive selection, and drones are also an integral part of its plans for the future – they are no longer used only by state militaries, but are now in the hands of private individuals – including jihadi and terrorist organizations”.
US government reactions to the threat of extremists using Drones
That same year, 2017, US government officials began warning that domestic extremists and terrorists were experimenting and using drones just as jihadi terrorists did before them, and expressed concern about the possibility of terrorists using drones to carry out domestic attacks. John Mulligan, then-deputy director of the US National Counterterrorism Center, said in March 2017 that terrorists “are doing all sorts of innovative and experimental things” with drones.
Further, a July 2021 article on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) website underlined that although drones are often used by “benign hobbyists,” these “small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) can be exploited for any number of illegal activities, thereby posing a significant threat to facilities related to critical infrastructure and national security”.
Indeed, the website of the US government’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency currently states: “UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] can… be used for malicious schemes by terrorists, criminal organizations (including transnational organizations), and lone actors with specific objectives.” It further stressed that “depending on power and payload size, UAS may be capable of transporting contraband, chemical, or other explosive/weaponized payloads”.
The FAA announced in March 2021 that it had selected five host airports to test and evaluate technologies and systems that could detect and mitigate potential safety risks posed by unmanned aircraft, as part of its Airport Unmanned Aircraft Systems Detection and Mitigation Research Program. In late 2021, the agency mandated that all uncrewed aircraft made or sold in the US must transmit Remote Identification information, and that by September 16, 2023, drone pilots will also be required to register and operate their vehicles in accordance with the final rule on Remote ID.
On April 25, 2022, the Biden administration released the first ever whole-of-government plan to address unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) threats – the Domestic Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems National Action Plan. One of this plan’s recommendations was to “create a Federal UAS incident-tracking database as a government-wide repository for departments and agencies to have a better understanding of the overall domestic threat.” In its statement about the plan, the Department of Justice expressed its “strong support” for it, stressing that “the threat posed by the criminal use of drones is increasing and evolving”.
Officials from the FAA, Homeland Security, and Justice Department warned, in a July 14, 2022 hearing on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, of the growing threat posed by the more than two million drones authorized to fly in U.S. airspace. Brad Wiegmann, Justice Department deputy assistant attorney general of the National Security Division, said that “there is a very significant threat” of a drone attack on a mass gathering in the country, warning that it is “only a matter of time.” Other topics included cartels using drones to smuggle illegal drugs into the country and contraband into prisons. Also at the hearing, Samantha Vinograd, senior counselor for national security at Department of Homeland Security and acting Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention, said: “Of all the things that keep me awake at night, one that is foremost on my mind is the potential for a major tragedy at an airport”.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported on August 25, 2022 that it had begun testing state-of-the-art technology to detect, track, and identify (DTI) drones entering restricted air space around Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Other US government agencies too are aware of the possibility of drone attacks by domestic extremist groups. The DHS currently states on its Science and Technology section that “[t]he rapid increase in the availability and sophistication of UAS represents a significant challenge, as their capabilities progress faster than the ability to assess and mitigate the threat posed by nefarious small UAS.”
Over the past year, US officials have investigated a number of cases of attempted delivery of bombs via drone. FBI director Christopher Wray said at a November 2022 Senate hearing: “We are investigating, even as we speak, several instances within the US of attempts to weaponize drones with homemade IEDs”.
The Department of Homeland Security’s “Summary of Terrorism Threat to the United States,” released November 30, 2022, warned that the US “remains in a heightened threat environment,” that “lone offenders and small groups motivated by a range of ideological beliefs and/or personal grievances continue to pose a persistent and lethal threat to the Homeland”, and that “targets of potential violence include public gatherings, faith-based institutions, the LGBTQI+ community, schools, racial and religious minorities, government facilities and personnel, US critical infrastructure, the media, and perceived ideological opponents”. Drones would be an effective way to carry out many of these kinds of attacks.
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