CBRN / HazMat Training Blog

Why Commercial UAVs Could Change Our Thinking on the Chemical Terrorism Threat

Written by Steven Pike on 14 February 2024

agricultural-drone (1)

In September 2023, a UK court convicted Mohammad Al-Bared from Coventry of committing acts of terrorism. In December of that year, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 20 years. His crime? Using 3D printer technology to produce an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV); he prepared the single-use weapon in a bedroom and planned to export the UAV for use by the Islamic State terror group (ISIL). Chillingly, he hoped that the weapon would be used to deliver a chemical weapon payload.

The Threat of UAVs

While the design was rudimentary, it highlights the potential for such systems, whether home-made or adapted from commercial design, to deliver a devastating attack by a state or non-state actor with relative ease. The judge’s sentence probably reflected the seriousness which the threat presents, and while the intended use for this weapon was not the UK, it could have been.

UAVs are a cost-effective tool of warfare and now the mainstay of conflicts, from the war in Ukraine to the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza. Their cheapness and lack of complexity move them from the armouries of sophisticated militaries and into the hands of militias and terrorists. UAVs can be equipped with sprayers, which could deliver chemical weapons, or they could be used in a direct attack on an industrial target to create an indiscriminate hazard. Their potential use in such scenarios is frighteningly large.

Technological and Operational Challenges

Many commercially available UAVs are capable of waypoint navigation and autonomous flight control, while agricultural variants are perfectly suited for a chemical agent delivery. True, they have small payloads, but with low-altitude flight patterns, if used to target dense populations, they still pose a significant threat. They are agile, difficult to track, able to navigate ground obstacles including security infrastructure, and they place beneficial stand-off between the delivery system and the perpetrator.

Of course, there’s an important challenge any terrorist would face before delivering a chemical weapon via drone: acquisition of a chemical weapon. It would not be a trivial process for a terrorist group to acquire a weapons agent like sarin, VX, or mustard gas. The terrorists would require specialized equipment, chemicals, and facilities, not to mention the know-how to use them. But we know that there are state actors who would not baulk at putting such knowledge at the disposal of a proxy terrorist group. Such an unholy alliance combined with a cheap simple delivery system presents a frightening prospect that must keep intelligence and security agencies guessing. While a threat arising from hybrid or grey zone warfare is most likely, it is interesting to conjecture whether the Sarin attacks in Tokyo in 1995 might have proved even deadlier if the cult movement Aum Shinrikyo had had access to UAV technology.

The Evolving Nature of Warfare

Warfare, conventional or hybrid, operates on a pendulum. As a threat arises, counter-measures are prepared which in turn are overcome with new threats. Currently, the UAV threat is in the ascendancy with few counter-measures outside of a battlefield environment available. While the threat and the response are often a matter for careful judgements, the necessity for vigilance and the ability to turn to meet the unexpected is always critical to national CBRN response.

New call-to-action

Topics: Chemical warfare

Steven Pike

Written by Steven Pike

Steven Pike is the Founder and Managing Director of Argon Electronics (UK) Ltd. A graduate of the University of Hertfordshire, Steven has been awarded a number of international patents relating to the field of hazardous material training systems and technology.