Weaponized Drones: The Next Terrorist Modus Operandi in Southeast Asia?

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Weaponized Drones: The Next Terrorist Modus Operandi in Southeast Asia?

There are good reasons for governments to anticipate the use of drones in future attacks by regional militant groups.

Weaponized Drones: The Next Terrorist Modus Operandi in Southeast Asia?
Credit: Flickr/TEDx SanDiego

In 2020, a series of arrests conducted by Indonesia’s anti-terror police Detachment 88 revealed the terrorists’ intention to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones. In October last year, a group of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militants based in Bekasi, a suburb of Jakarta, was found in the possession of a drone and its batteries. Two months later, research by PAKAR, an Indonesia-based NGO that studies terrorism, suggested that that an Indonesian cell that supports the Islamic State (IS), led by a long-time extremist Hanif Ali Bhasot alias Abu Dayyan, planned to conduct an attack using a weaponized drone in Jakarta, targeting police officers. But how significant is the threat of terrorist weaponization of drones in Southeast Asia?

In this region, non-government entities and individuals have used drones for non-military purposes such as to provide aerial views of political rallies, monitor illegal logging, spray fertilisers and pesticides on plantations, and conduct business advertisements, as well as for recreational usage. Despite commercial drone usage in Southeast Asia in 2019 only contributing to less than 3 percent of the $127.3 billion global drone market, it is predicted to grow in the coming years. In Indonesia, drone sales have grown by up to 25 percent annually since 2015. One of the reasons for this growth is the affordable price of drones, which ranges from about $30 up to $4000.

The jihadi rebel groups based in Syria – IS and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – have used consumer- grade drones extensively for various purposes, such as propaganda, surveillance, guiding Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED) attacks, and dropping munitions/bombs on targets. In Southeast Asia, Islamist militants have used drones for surveillance and propaganda, although plans to deliver bombs/munitions with drones have yet to materialize. For instance, the pro-IS Maute Group in the Philippines is known to have used drones for surveillance and propaganda in 2017. In 2016, the pro-IS Malaysian militant Mohammad Firdaus planned a bomb attack using a drone on the Bukit Aman Federal Police headquarters in Putrajaya and the Free Mason Temple in Bukit Jalil. Similarly, in Indonesia the following year, a court document of a pro-IS militant named Syam Ferry Anto (alias Abu Khafi) revealed that his cell intended to load a drone with a medium explosive bomb. None of the plans in Indonesia and Malaysia have materialized, however.

Thus far, militants in the region continue to favor traditional modus operandi, such as bombings and shootings, in addition to weaponizing everyday tools, such as knives and vehicles. However, the authorities should remain vigilant about the potential for terrorist cells to employ weaponized drones, for the following reasons.

First, as argued by terrorism expert Truls Hallberg Tønnessen, territorial control and operation in an armed conflict zone is one of the favorable conditions for militants to experiment with innovations in technology, including the DIY modification of commercially available drones to deliver bombs. In Southeast Asia, the Maute Group, which controlled the city of Marawi from May to October 2017, is the only jihadi group that has procured drones and used them for defense, to monitor and provide early warning of incoming military raids. Although thus far no Southeast Asian group has ventured into weaponizing drones for attacks, authorities in this region should anticipate militants resorting to such tactics should there be a repeat of the 2017 Marawi siege or the bloody religious communal conflicts that took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Indonesia’s Poso and Ambon, where armed militant groups had some degree of control over a territory.

Second, jihadi groups that have so far patiently withheld attacks until they are ready have had the intention to use drones, despite it being unclear if they really planned to use them for attacks. Such groups, particularly Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Jamaah Ansharul Khilafah (JAK), and an Indonesian pro-IS outfit, are committed to conducting long-term i’dad (preparation for jihad) that can include the manufacturing of weapons. It is thus not surprising that in Indonesia, JI is so far perhaps the only militant group that has procured a drone. Meanwhile, according to research by PAKAR, JAK had also discussed procurement of a drone in 2019.

Third, other Indonesian pro-IS groups may have the intention to obtain and weaponize drones. According to PAKAR’s research, in December 2020, the Abu Dayyan group considered using a modified drone that could carry homemade munitions – particularly, 5-10 centimeter-long iron “bullets” – to drop on their targets. The group did not proceed with the plan, citing concerns about the lengthy preparation needed and the lack of technical capability to conduct such an attack. Given such concerns, many pro-IS groups have opted for traditional tactics with which they are more familiar, such as bombings. Nonetheless, the recruitment of tech-savvy individuals sympathetic to the groups’ ideology could serve as a game changer in their attempts at weaponizing drones.

Fourth, there is a risk that the Indonesian fighters with IS and HTS could have been trained in the operation of drones, given that both Syrian rebel groups have known drone programs. One of the four JI personnel arrested in Bekasi in October 2020 in possession of a drone had been trained in Syria. This means that the returnees can potentially fill in the technical gap among Indonesian-based jihadists.

Fifth, criminal inmates, especially those with a drug trafficking background, have used drones in some penitentiaries in Indonesia in their attempts to deliver drugs and mobile phones as well as to boost internet signals in a bid to use illegally smuggled mobile phones inside the prisons. Whilst such attempts have not been observed among terrorist inmates, their similar usage of drones should not be discounted, given instances of the radicalization of narcotics inmates by some terrorist inmates, including in maximum security penitentiaries in Nusa Kambangan, off Central Java’s south coast.

The authorities in the region should continue to invest in mitigating the incursion of drones, for surveillance or attacks/directing attacks against vital facilities. As resource-constrained militant groups potentially deploy relatively cheap off-the-shelf drones as witnessed in Marawi, the authorities could also respond by procuring more anti-drone tools, starting with those with basic features such as a commercially available and inexpensive wi-fi jamming device, in order to protect more facilities that may be targeted by terrorists. Whilst such measures can mitigate the threat of certain commercial types of drones, the authorities in Southeast Asia also need to be more technologically prepared to locate the drone operators who can control them remotely.

Finally, the law enforcement agencies should identify militants who possess the technical skills to build weaponized drones and prevent them from transferring and using their skills to conduct attacks.

Guest Author

V. Arianti

V. Arianti is an Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Guest Author

Muh Taufiqurrohman

Muh Taufiqurrohman is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies (PAKAR), an NGO based in Indonesia.