Popular Mechanics April 8, 2016
Could ISIS Really Attack the West With a Dirty Drone?
David Cameron is worried about terrorist drones spraying radioactive material over Western cities. Should you be??
By David Hambling
ISIS is planning to kill thousands of people by sending drones delivering radioactive material over Western cities–or so British Prime Minister David Cameron warned last week at a summit on nuclear terrorism in Washington. Rather than carrying a "dirty bomb" to disperse material with explosives, the drones would work like toxic crop sprayers–"dirty drones" perhaps–and cause thousands of casualties. The British PM urged other world leaders to consider urgently how they would counter this new threat.
Could the terrorist organization actually launch such an attack? To appreciate the issue, you have to know a few things about drones and dirty bombs.
Saddam's Drone That Wasn't
The threat of unmanned aircraft from Iraq spraying weapons of mass destruction may sound familiar. That's because it's exactly what Colin Powell warned us Saddam Hussein was up to in 2003: "This effort has included attempts to modify for unmanned flight the MiG-21, and with greater success an aircraft called the L-29…. Iraq could use these small UAVs which have a wingspan of only a few meters to deliver biological agents to its neighbors, or if transported, to other countries including the United States." British PM Tony Blair made the same claim in the infamous "sexed-up dossier" on Iraq he delivered to support the case for going to war.
The L-29 is a jet trainer, made in the 1960s in what was then Czechoslovakia. The Iraqis had 70 of them in their fleet of aging Eastern Bloc aircraft and apparently converted several to be flown unmanned. According to an intelligence report of the time, these could "be fitted with chemical and biological warfare (CBW) spray tanks." After the U.S.-led invasion, the Iraq Survey Group was never able to establish whether the L-29s really could have been equipped with spray tanks; instead, they may have beenused for reconnaissance or simply as surface-to-air missile training targets. (The Iraqis knew their air defences needed improving).
In any case, GlobalSecurity.org reports the Iraqis did not have much success with their improvised drone conversion. On its third flight in 1997, the L-29 flew 45 miles before the controllers lost the signal and it crashed. Subsequent attempts to correct the problem using a stabilizer cannibalized from a Chinese cruise missile were "largely unsuccessful."
The Spray Drone Is the Easy Part
Fast-forward to the modern day, however, and it is vastly easier for anyone to get their hands on an unmanned crop sprayer. Agriculture has been tagged as the biggest growth area for drones, which offer low costs and high precision compared to typical spraying airplanes. Companies like HSE LLC already provide a full range of remote-control crop dusters, from the portable electric RHCD02 to the piston-engined Hercules-50 and its payload of more than 100 lbs. Spraying drones may seem exotic now, but with industry giant DJI (builders of all those obnoxious consumer drones) now making its own budget octocopter sprayer, the mantra that there will be more drones than tractors on American farms starts to looks plausible.
In addition, police forces have already adapted various drones to deliver tear gas. So in theory, spray drones with a range of several miles should be easy for terrorists to obtain.
But the spray drone is the easy part. Robert Bunker, a counterterrorism expert at TRENDS Research & Advisory, says that planning such attack is difficult because it involves several steps, all of which have to go right. "It's a more complex operation than is generally understood," Bunker tells Popular Mechanics.
To start with, ISIS would need to get its hands on highly radioactive material. In the scenario proposed by David Cameron, terrorists buy it over the Dark Web. In reality, any such WMD offer online is likely to be a sting by the authorities. ISIS has stolen some uranium from an Iraqi university, but it is the heavy kind and would not be effective if dispersed. "Putting it in a dirty bomb is a pretty silly idea," nuclear expert Bob Kelly told NBC News.
Let's says ISIS could get the right material. It would then need to contain the stuff safely to prevent prematurely martyring the team working on the dirty drone. Low-grade material would not be an effective weapon, but high-grade material is incredibly hazardous to work with, especially for amateurs.
Then the terrorists need to develop an effective dispersal system, one that would neither scatter the materail so widely it has no effect nor dump it all on one spot. This requires considerable expertise, plus someone who knows how to operate a crop-spraying drone.
Next ISIS would need to get in some spraying practice runs. Otherwise it would be going in blind without any idea how wind or other conditions might affect the attack. A test with inert material will only have limited value, but a live test would be far more difficult.
Finally, Bunker says, the terrorists need to carry out a surveillance of the target area and identify a suitable launch point before assembling the attack team, plus the drone and the radioactive material, and carrying out the attack. And they have to do all this without attracting the attention of the world's combined intelligence agencies, even after having acquired rare and easily-detected radioactive material. Even then, the attack would probably be disappointing for terrorists hoping to kill a lot of people.
"Terrorism dirty bomb scenarios are typically disruption as opposed to destruction attacks," Bunker tells PM. "It's about fear or panic generation, and area denial of a facility or part of a city–not about straight out killing."
Missing the Point
"A dirty bomb is not a 'Weapon of Mass Destruction' but a 'Weapon of Mass Disruption,'"–so says U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Committee's fact sheet on dirty bombs. Such an attack would force people to leave the area or stay inside, but "any additional risk [of cancer] will likely be extremely small."
Detlof von Winterfeldt, director of the Center of Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events, has suggested that a worst-case dirty bomb attack would cause perhaps 100 cancer deaths in the long run, but generally the number of victims would be "tens" rather than "hundreds." The Homeland Security Introduction to WMD states that "a dirty bomb containing one kilogram of plutonium in the center of Munich, Germany, could ultimately lead to 120 cancer cases attributable to the blast." A dirty drone, like a dirty bomb, would not be a terrorist spectacular. Even over the course of years, it might cause fewer cancers than the massive quantities of potentially harmful dust kicked up by the 9/11 attack.
To be sure, there are killer drones out there in terrorist hands. ISIS has drones packed with explosives in Syria, and some claim drones are the new IEDs. But radioactive material would be difficult and expensive to acquire, challenging to deliver effectively, and might have more of an effect on property prices than on people.
Hackers have already fitted consumer drones with flamethrowers, firearms and even chainsaws. Terrorism is increasingly a matter of multiple attacks by several individuals, and a terror attack involving a large number of simple drones to bypass security seems more of a threat than an elaborate radioactive plot. Security agencies might do well to focus on tackling the more immediate danger presented by drones.
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