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Cheaper tech, easy access increase chances of terror attacks at events like World Cup

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Carrying out a terror attack at the Qatar World Cup and other large sporting events using drones is now much easier than some ten years ago, as the technology is cheaper and easier to get hold of, experts told Al Arabiya English.

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The football tournament, set to take place in the last two months of the year, will host thousands of spectators from around the world. The smallest of eight stadiums can hold up to 40,000 spectators, and the largest al-Lusail stadium up to 80,000, according to the Qatar government website.

“There is a large risk of there being an attack by the nature of the event,” Yannick Veilleux-Lepage assistant professor of terrorism and political violence at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands told Al Arabiya English.

Meanwhile, former Director of Strategy for the US National Counterterrorism Center Michael Nagata told Al Arabiya English that “[a] drone threat is certainly a possibility.”

He believes there will be a “rise in the use of increasingly powerful digital technologies to conduct a wide array of criminal terrorist [attacks] or other forms of illegal, or just unsavory activities.”

A man works on the pitch of the Lusail Stadium, the 80,000-capacity venue which will host the FIFA World Cup final in December, on the outskirts of Qatar's capital Doha on March 28, 2022. (AFP)
A man works on the pitch of the Lusail Stadium, the 80,000-capacity venue which will host the FIFA World Cup final in December, on the outskirts of Qatar's capital Doha on March 28, 2022. (AFP)

Drones are regularly weaponized, used by the US army to kill former al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri in Afghanistan at the end of July, in the Russia-Ukraine war, and by other groups such as ISIS.

And they are much easier and cheaper for people to get their hands on.

“Commercial drones 20 years ago were extremely expensive and hard [for people] to get [their] hands on,” Le Page said.

Amazon is currently selling drones for as little as $40, Ebay $31 and Alibaba at just $18.

“The barriers to entry to acquire increasingly powerful technology are falling everywhere,” Nagata, who also worked in the US army in Special Operations and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Washington-based Middle East institute added.

Counter security

In a bid to fight against potential drone attacks, Qatar will use other drones to help protect football stadiums during the FIFA World Cup 2022, the BBC reported in July.

Fortem Technologies will provide so-called interceptor drones, following an agreement with Qatar’s government, the British broadcaster reported.

The Fortem drones will bring down and relocate other drones near stadiums that could pose a security threat after the company reportedly said the “agreement reflects growing fears about the threat potential drone attacks pose in general.”

“For something as high profile and as lucrative as the World Cup I wouldn't be surprised to know that there are dozens of government agencies, ministries and entities that are seeking in either large ways or small ways to detect threats and potential threats against the World Cup,” Nagata added.

Why are drones such a threat?

Drones can be hard to defend against and are becoming more sophisticated, with the ability to carry heavy weights and fly at high speeds.

China, just last year, released a drone that can reach speeds of up to 700 km per hour, Bloomberg reported at the time.

They are also becoming more autonomous, which means they can be preprogrammed to fly to a certain destination or perform a particular action.

When a drone is controlled by someone on the ground using a remote control, intelligence forces can usually stop the drone by cutting off the electric current between the remote control and drone. This is not the case with drones that have been preprogrammed.

“If these flying devices are autonomous there is no electronic tether… they are going to become much harder to defend against,” said Nagata.

“They will [also] become increasingly capable of flying in very large swarms,” he added. “Imagine for a moment 1000 drones in the sky, each of them carrying an explosive device and all simultaneously attacking a large venue.”

He continued, “If someone were to ask me, ‘does anyone on Earth have the ability to stop 1000 drones attacking simultaneously?’ The answer is no. No one has that ability right now.”

Drones can also carry heavier amounts of weight, with videos online showing the technology transporting a full-sized man.

Change in who will carry out attacks

Having access to cheaper technology to finance terror attacks has also changed the nature of how they can be carried out and the types of people who can carry out the attacks.

When looking at terror attacks some 20-years-ago “we were very focused on centralized network organizations” such as al-Qaeda, Veilleux-Le Page said. But ease of access to technology has meant that there is now a higher chance of attacks being carried out by individuals or sympathizers of terror groups such as ISIS.

“The threat now is more [from] unaffiliated sympathizers [and] the smaller the cell the higher the threat,” he said, explaining that this makes it more difficult for intelligence agencies to find out about the attacks beforehand and intercept them.

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