Egyptian Jihad movement Leader Nabeel Naeem once told a story that Usama Bin Laden has launched a project that seeks to acquire techniques which produce lethal weapons, establishing contacts and meeting with some mediators in Asia for that purpose. The mediators sold him a number of containers and trained some Al-Qaida affiliates on their use, in exchange for a huge sum of money paid by Bin Laden. Later, however, Al-Qaida discovered it has been conned on a large scale. This anecdote gives us a glimpse into the firm keenness of terrorist organizations to keep up with technological advances in order to improve their military training, change the rules of engagement, and enhance their methods of targeting.
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For more than two decades, both Shiite and Sunni terrorist organizations have been searching for highly effective weapons that can decide the result of battles, attempting to make use of the technological revolution to wreak havoc across this world and gain access to hard targets. Al-Qaida organization could not achieve that technological development, unlike Hezbollah in Lebanon and its proxies in some countries, including Iraq. It is true that ISIS and Taliban did use advanced technologies that include drone planes, but it is a different story with Hezbollah and its replicas in the Islamic world.
Hezbollah has been the first beneficiary from the Iranian technical experiments that invested in multiple drone plane programs and their advancement, especially by China which owns more than 25 drone development systems, beside importing some drones from South Africa. By the start of the millennium, Iran managed to manufacture its own drone named ‘messenger of death,’ with the regime in Teheran justifying it as ‘a message of friendship and peace’. Later, Iran manufactured other drone types that bear countless names.
Michael j. Boyle, the researcher in terrorism and political violence published a study titled “the Cost and Consequences of Drone Warfare” in which he opines that Iran’s provision of drones to the Syrian regime and Hezbollah is a dangerous indication to how advanced this technique has become, adding that the use of drones might not remain confined to hostile states such as Syria and Iran, but would extend to terrorist organizations, which already happened when Hezbollah announced in October 2012 that it sent Iranian drones to hit targets inside Israeli territory.
The world is spending more than $100 billion on the development of drones, which are also an effective means to hit terrorists in Africa, Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Although a debate has emerged on the ethical aspect of drone use (on which I wrote an article on this newspaper published on 4 May 2014 titled: “Smart planes, and the status quo of the organization of evil”), the focal point has shifted today, as governments are rather scrutinizing the issue of drones in the hands of terrorists. The Iran-affiliated groups have proven to be superior in the use of drones, and one should recall that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard proclaimed its success in developing that technique since 2017, meanwhile bragging of the availability of drones by its proxies, such as Hezbollah with its Lebanese and Iraqi branches, and the Houthis in Yemen.
Another insightful study in drones is a book published in 2014 by researcher Rabi’ Yahya Titled: “Drone Planes; US-Israeli Superiority and the Rising Powers.” In the book’s pages, Yahya stated an early prediction that points to the hazards of using drones by terrorist entities. The arguments highlighted by Yahya can be summarized as follows:
• The operations carried out by drones have two objectives; raising the number of victims, and stirring up a state of chaos and horror. The hazards of drones increase when they are loaded with weapons of mass destruction, and they can substitute suicide-bombers and multiply the losses incurred by a terrorist wearing an explosive belt, for instance.
• Terrorism can benefit from the large geographical scope provided by drones to carry out many land operations and target populated areas, especially if the drones were upgraded to contain chemical and biological weapons.
• Drones grant the terrorists with a better chance to evade security monitoring, and to hit the target accurately with the remote-control technique. Moreover, drones are likely to evade air defense systems when flying on a low altitude, beside being a means of psychological, societal, and political pressure (see pages 86/87 in Yahya’s book).
The world in general, and the region in particular have been shocked by the recent assassination attempt of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, which sends horrific indications of how drones can enable terrorists to target their opponents in new methods. Earlier, Hasan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of the terrorist Hezbollah organization, mentioned in a speech that opponents can be targeted even when on high mountains, which constitutes a threat to use drones against politicians who do not agree with his path.
The attempted assassination of Al-Kadhimi represents a shift to a more violent type of terrorism, thanks to this catastrophic technology that fell in the hands of terrorists who can further upgrade its use to include explosions and assassination attempts. Drones have moved the terrorists from the strategy of booby-trapped bodies to that of booby-trapped drones, which has been taking place over a couple of years.
On 21 June 2021, the Emirati Al-Mustaqbal Center published a review of a study release by the US Army War College’s quarterly in its second edition this year, titled “The Coercive Logic of Militant Drone Use” prepared by Austin C. Doctor and James I. Walsh, with an Arabic review conducted by Abd-al-Mun’im Muhammad. The points concluded by the study can be summed up in the following:
• There are many factors that lure terrorist groups to use drones, among which are their affordability, availability, and ease of manufacturing and production. Besides, the rising number of countries that produce and export drones facilitates the access of armed groups to them. Moreover, some countries can exploit the use of drones to achieve and enhance their foreign policies, as the case is with Iran, which has been providing Hezbollah and the Houthis with advanced types of drones.
• Drones provide a number of advantages to armed groups, including their ease of use compared to other more sophisticated systems such as Cruise missiles, and their cheap cost, as a drone like the ones used in the attacks on ARAMCO facilities in September 2019 costs less than $15.000, which is quite affordable for armed groups compared to the expense of a suicide-bombing with a booby-trapped car, which would cost between $13.000 to $20.000.
• The drone technology spares a lot of terrorist casualties, since no pilots are needed to fly a drone and carry out an operation with it. Besides. Drones enable gunmen to hit highly dangerous targets that are hard to deal with directly through ground forces.
• Drones may be applied to settle scores between the terrorist groups themselves, as when Hezbollah attacked ISIS in Syria with drones in August 2017, which is another indication of how these groups are expanding the scope of their strategic targets.
To sum up, drones have been abundantly available to terrorists, thanks to the Iranian sponsorship. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard owns its own drone factory, for it finds it a successful tool in targeting opponents.
The world ought to pay attention to this crucial shift in the nature of terrorist operations, as the booby-trapped and accurately steered drones are about to become the new trend in the world of terrorism. Hence, modern and accurate techniques must be generated, and alertness must be exerted to counter this crucial shift. It has been said before that terrorism will find new means to resurrect and renew itself, as in each era it has its battle, and with each novel technique its upgrade.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.
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