Death from Above
Newsweek|November 26, 2021
Drones are cheap, accessible and potentially lethal. Could they cause the next 9/11?
By Tom O’Connor, Naveed Jamali and Fred Guterl

TWENTY YEARS AFTER THE WORST ATTACK ever to occur on U.S. soil, it’s not just large passenger planes that are keeping defense officials and experts up at night. They are just as worried about the threat from smaller, readily available unmanned aerial systems capable of carrying deadly payloads.

Drones are not tomorrow’s weapons of mass destruction. The arsenals of the world’s armies are already full of them. Meanwhile, it is getting easier and cheaper to outfit commercially available models with a range of weapons, making them increasingly tempting options for terrorists and other violent non-government groups.

One U.S. military official who requested anonymity paints a potential nightmare picture involving small drones, referred to as “unmanned aerial systems,” “unmanned aircraft systems” or simply, UAS. “I kind of wonder what could you do if you had a couple of small UAS and you flew into a crowded stadium,” the U.S. military official tells Newsweek. While “no specific knowledge” of an active threat was discussed, the official says “there is concern given the proliferation of small, portable drones, that explosive drones could cause a mass casualty event.”

It wouldn’t be the first time the nation had been caught off guard by a threat looming right in front of authorities. “It’s just like I had no specific knowledge before 9/11 that people could hijack planes and crash into buildings, but Tom Clancy wrote a book about it,” the U.S. military official says.

When the political thriller Debt of Honor was released in 1994 depicting a hijacked airliner targeting the U.S. Capitol, the concept of an aerial suicide raid had largely been confined in the national consciousness to Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II. When nearly 3,000 were killed on September 11, 2001, that memory again became a reality.

Shortly after 9/11, the United States became the first country to truly weaponize drones, fitting them with precision missiles that became a staple of the “War on Terror.” In the years since, drones have evolved from high-end military technology to commercial devices for a variety of industries as well as hobby items flown by enthusiasts across the globe and sold by a multitude of companies on the civilian market. With the explosion of this seemingly innocent innovation has come a rise in nefarious usage that the U.S. military official with whom Newsweek spoke describes as “an emergent threat” already demonstrated in several high-profile events.

One such event came on November 7 when three explosive-laden UAS, believed to be simple commercially available quadcopter models, targeted the residence of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in an assassination attempt. Kadhimi lived, but photos of his home revealed the destructive capabilities of such devices. Kadhimi was not the first world leader to be preyed upon by bomb rigged UAS. In August 2018, two drones carrying explosives detonated in an apparent attempt to take out Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro during a military parade in Caracas. Maduro escaped with his life.

Loitering With Intent

PRIOR TO THESE INCIDENTS, MILITANTS AND MILITIAS had already managed to utilize commercial drones, giving non-state actors a sort of rudimentary yet deadly air force to take on better-equipped foes. In Iraq and Syria, U.S. troops have been targeted from above by both the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and Iran-aligned paramilitary forces.

Highly destructive UAS have seen action on the battlefield in the form of loitering munitions—so-called because they “loiter” around the target area waiting for their victim. They are also widely referred to as “kamikaze” drones or “suicide” drones, evoking their self-destructive, single-use nature Last year, Azerbaijani forces used them to gain a deadly edge over Armenian rivals during a brief but bloody war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory. “They’re relatively small, inexpensive drones, but they kind of cross that boundary between a drone and guided missile,” the U.S. military official says.

That point is echoed by a security official from Israel, a country that produced some of the loitering munitions employed by Azerbaijani forces and which are now a potential concern for Iran as tensions simmer between the neighbors. “This tool today is so easy, and small drones, you just really order them in and you’ve got yourself like a guided precision missile,” the Israeli security official tells Newsweek. The Israeli official says that even with their current destructive potential, the munitions attached to UAS today are in their relative infancy. No single drone could yet replicate a 9/11-style attack. Their potential, however, is already rapidly growing.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM NEWSWEEKView All

Cynthia Nixon – Parting Shot

The excitement building for And Just Like That (HBO, december 9), the new chapter of Sex And The City, is palpable; its announcement during the pandemic was almost therapeutic.

2 mins read
Newsweek
December 03, 2021

A Maximum Memorial

How Boeing’s missteps continued well past the Ethiopian Airlines flight that killed all 157 on board

8 mins read
Newsweek
December 03, 2021

God Save The Queen

It will be a mess when she’s gone

8 mins read
Newsweek
December 03, 2021

France Is Zemmour the French Trump?

The pundit has gone from peddling far-right rhetoric on the French version of Fox News to serious political contender

6 mins read
Newsweek
November 05, 2021

CAN THE OTHER WOMAN BECOME QUEEN?

Charles wants the highest title for his wife, Camilla

3 mins read
Newsweek
December 03, 2021

Queen's Golden Jubilee

On the 50th anniversary of the iconic band’s founding, members Brian May and Roger Taylor talk about luck, legacy and Freddie Mercury.

10 mins read
Newsweek
November 12, 2021

Death from Above

Drones are cheap, accessible and potentially lethal. Could they cause the next 9/11?

10+ mins read
Newsweek
November 26, 2021

Sinema and Manchin Know What They Are Doing

Business-friendly Democrats don’t need to worry about reelection when they can have lucrative second careers as lobbyists

8 mins read
Newsweek
November 26, 2021

We're Not Getting Free Community College

Here’s how to support workers equitably

3 mins read
Newsweek
November 26, 2021

How I Became One of 37,000 Homeless Veterans

Service in the Navy was supposed to guarantee a good civilian job later and access to needed medical care. It didn’t

7 mins read
Newsweek
November 26, 2021