The Threat from Above: Terrorist Use of UAVs

Tristan Sashaw, M.A. Candidate at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs

At the end of 2016, the Canadian Press obtained a report from Transport Canada expressing concerns surrounding terrorists using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The variety of benefits commercial UAVs provide terrorist actors represents an evolving threat landscape in both the domestic setting and the operational setting with deployed forces.

Growing technological trickle-down of UAVs can provide terrorist groups with sophisticated tactical technology previously limited to nation-states. In recent years, terrorist groups have jumped onto the ‘drone bandwagon’ and incorporated commercial UAV technology into operations—with a significant increase in use.

UAV technology provides terrorist groups, and the individuals they inspire, enhanced capabilities that offer new methods of carrying out objectives. As technology progresses, so will advancements in UAV development. They will become smaller, faster, more autonomous, and able to operate in increasingly complex ways, including enhanced lethal options.

Current Use

Despite the surge in media coverage on terrorist UAV use, the phenomenon is hardly new. The first attempt was in 1994 by the Japanese apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo, who sought to use remote-controlled helicopters with aerial spray systems to disperse nerve gas. Since then, several terrorist actors have developed drone programs, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and ISIS.

Hezbollah has the longest history of UAV use by a terrorist group. Their UAV fleet, however, is believed to consist of modified military UAVs provided by Iran, rather than repurposed commercial models. Hezbollah has used UAVs for surveillance, external communications, and weaponization. Much of the UAV technology that allows these uses, however, is not commercially available.

ISIS, on the other hand, has been the largest user of commercially available UAV technology and has successfully employed UAVs on several occasions. ISIS’s exclusive use of commercial UAV technology and the variety of ways in which they have employed UAVs is widely reported on. Their use indicates the capabilities that commercial UAVs can provide terrorists.  

What benefits do UAVs provide terrorists?

Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance Objectives (ISTAR)

UAVs provide enhanced capabilities for terrorist groups to carry out ISTAR objectives. UAVs outfitted with a camera can provide imagery intelligence (IMINT) in both photographic and video formats. Some UAVs offer the ability to provide IMINT in both day and night conditions with thermal imagery capabilities that capture heat signatures of people and equipment. Conducting surveillance and reconnaissance missions allow terrorists to collect intelligence from a bird’s eye view that can be used to plan attacks and objectives.

UAVs also enable terrorists to carry out target acquisition to identify specific locations with sufficient detail to effectively employ weapons. UAVs can be employed for ISTAR to support artillery through acting as an aerial artillery observer, providing real-time information to allow artillery crews to adjust their fire. The use of UAVs for ISTAR provides terrorist groups with a previously unavailable tactical advantage. As commercial UAV technology improves, terrorist actors can expand their ISTAR capabilities.

Strategic Communication Objectives

UAVs allow terrorists to film and document operations which can be used to demonstrate various capabilities and then exploit them for propaganda purposes. Given the success of groups like ISIS at disseminating recruitment propaganda, the ability to film operations in high-definition from a bird’s eye view may offer new techniques to provide professional-looking recruitment propaganda for attracting new members. In addition, the ability of terrorist groups to employ UAV technology sends a strategic message that they are no longer the victims of UAVs, but are now able to utilize the technology too.

Offensive Operations

Commercial UAVs can be weaponized by attaching an explosive device, effectively turning it into a flying IED (improvised explosive device). This can be done by either piloting the UAV to a target with an IED so that it detonates on impact or by dropping an explosive from above. ISIS has successfully demonstrated their ability to weaponize commercial UAVs to lethal effect. Iraqi officials say that ISIS drones have killed a dozen government soldiers and injured more than 50.

The use of flying IEDs, or aerial-borne IEDs (ABIED), could be most effective against ground forces in an urban area who have little time or room to react or to search out a specific target such as a political figure.

As technology advances, the scope and sophistication of commercial UAV weaponization will continue to improve. UAV hobbyists have demonstrated their ingenuity and ability to weaponize commercial UAVs with the attachment of firearms. One video shows a UAV with a flamethrower attached. Another shows a handgun attached to a UAV. This type of jury-rigged weaponization allows UAVs to conduct close-range attacks. However, thus far these efforts are crude and less effective than an individual using a firearm. Nonetheless, the ability to mount firearms to UAVs signifies a new capability and demonstrates the realm of possibility.

Another offensive capability that makes UAVs attractive to terrorists is their potential to deliver a weapon of mass destruction (WMD). With some modification, UAVs could be used as a vector to deliver chemical or biological agents via attached aerosol and spray devices. UAVs are currently used in the agriculture industry to spray crops with pesticide. As technology improves, terrorists could use similar UAVs to distribute a chemical or biological agent without needing to modify the UAV. That being said, intent to use a UAV for these purposes does not translate to capability. Jury-rigging a UAV with a spray device is one thing, developing and disseminating a WMD agent is another and comes with significant technical barriers.


Despite the immediate and future benefits that commercial UAVs provide terrorist actors, they have yet to be used in large numbers for lethal purposes. Several reasons explain why.

The current level of technology commercially available is somewhat limited, specifically with regards to range, endurance, and payload. Technological limitations mean that the UAV operator must be within proximity of the UAV, limiting the flight distance. As technology advances, so will the ability of terrorist actors to employ UAVs for lethal purposes and advanced ISTAR.

Another reason is that traditional terrorist attack methods, such as the use of small arms, other forms of explosive devices, and even driving a vehicle into a crowd are easier and have been employed more effectively. These attack methods are more likely to cause significant damage and a higher number of causalities.

Finally, counter-UAV defences and systems, in addition to UAV regulations, can hinder their use. UAV technological advancements work both ways. Improvements will also occur within counter-UAV defences that can disable or defeat UAVs. A variety of counter-UAV measures exist, and the defence and security industry will continue to develop radar, signal jamming, and air-defence systems, along with government regulations, to limit UAV threats.

While these limitations will hinder terrorists, it does not mean it will be impossible for terrorist actors to use a UAV to cause significant damage and casualties. Terrorists have a knack for turning mundane items into weapons that can have lethal consequences. Ultimately, while the threat posed by commercial UAVs should not be overemphasized or discredited, it will create challenges in both the domestic and operational setting.

Rebuilt FPV quadcopter” (CC BY 2.0) by steve lodefink

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