The use of explosives-laden drones in an assassination attempt against Venezuela’s president over the weekend has sent concern soaring among security officials over the growing threat that even consumer-level drones rigged with rudimentary bombs now pose to heads of state around the world.
The failed attempt on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro — and the video of panicked security officers breaking ranks to escape the threat — appeared to mark the dawn of an era in the battle between security and technology.
The U.S. has led the world in deploying missile-equipped and military-grade Predator and Reaper drones against terrorist suspects over the past decade, but the Venezuelan incident Saturday featured a Chinese-made bicycle-sized propeller craft available for purchase via the internet in dozens of countries.
“This is a very worrisome development because it’s relatively easy to weaponize an off-the-shelf drone, but rather more complicated to defend against it,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap, executive director of Duke University Law School’s Center of Law, Ethics and National Security.
“An assassin doesn’t need to be able to get particularly close to his target, and he doesn’t need to be an expert marksman,” Mr. Dunlap said in an interview Monday.
He said it seems inevitable that terrorists and criminals will increasingly seek to exploit the technology.
The incident in Caracas was unique, said Dan Gettinger, a co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York. “I believe it’s the first time a drone has been used to target a head of state.”
“I’m surprised that this hasn’t been done more,” Sarah Kreps, associate professor of government at Cornell University, told the Boston Herald. “I’ve always thought that it was only a matter of time before something like this was attempted.”
Mr. Maduro’s shaken government called it a brazen assassination attempt by rogue actors — potentially in collusion with foreign spy agencies — whose bomb-loaded drone exploded prematurely while flying near a political rally in downtown Caracas.
Grainy cellphone video showed a propeller-topped drone exploding in midflight near an apartment building in the Venezuelan capital. The video’s veracity could not be confirmed, but other footage from Venezuelan news outlets showed a panicked crowd dispersing from the political rally as Mr. Maduro’s security guards scrambled to cover him with bulletproof shields.
The interior minister said one of the drones was clearly intended to explode above Mr. Maduro and the other was to detonate directly in front of him. He said the military managed to knock one off course electronically, while the other crashed into an apartment building two blocks away. Seven Venezuelan soldiers were injured.
Beyond the brazenness of the attack, analysts were more unnerved by its primitive simplicity.
The drones were small and relatively basic. At a news conference, Venezuelan Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said the devices used were Drone M600 models. The M600 is manufactured by Chinese company DJI and is available for about $4,500 via the websites of various international retailers, including several in the United States.
There are many U.S.-based consumer-grade drone makers, but industry insiders for years have cited China as an emerging powerhouse in the expanding global market for the remote-controlled craft, some of which are as small as mobile phones and others as big as bicycles.
The potential weaponization of such drones has drawn international attention since the Islamic State terrorist group used them in recent years to drop grenades on targets in Syria and Iraq.
There have been no such incidents inside the U.S., but Mexican police in October said they captured four men carrying a small drone — a “3DR Solo Quadcopter,” which retails for about $250 — outfitted with an improvised explosive device. The men, identified by Mexican authorities as members of a drug cartel, had crudely taped the IED to the drone and were carrying a remote detonator that could activate the explosives.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen lamented last month that her department “does not currently have the authority” necessary for rigorous monitoring of consumer-grade drones. But threats posed by them are “real now,” Ms. Nielsen told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum.
“We see them dropping drugs over the border, we see them surveilling sensitive locations, we see them disrupting the communications of law enforcement,” she said. “What we need to do is become much more nimble, flexible, dare I say, work with Congress to have a better organization so that we don’t have to go to 80, 90 committees to get the authorities that we need.”
But the use of drones in assassinations has received little mainstream attention. “It’s certainly something that’s been a possibility, much discussed in the drone community and in the security professionals community for a number of years,” Mr. Gettinger told The Washington Times.
“If a drone is to be used in this way, I think a lot of the impact is psychological,” he said. “If you’re just aiming for flying a sort of kamikaze drone attack, which appears to have been the goal of this incident … I would guess there wasn’t any sophisticated engineering involved with that.”
Mr. Dunlap stressed the difficulty of defending against such attacks.
“There are anti-drone technologies that can and will be deployed by countries with the resources to do so to protect major figures and events, but they won’t be available everywhere for everyone,” he said. “We need to help local police departments acquire the systems that are available today since they seem to be effective against at least some commercially available drones.
“But there is no silver bullet. What we need to do now is to very rapidly acquire and deploy a variety of technologies in a coordinated manner, as well as enact the right legal authorities to counter this threat,” Mr. Dunlap said. “Otherwise, we’ll have to brace ourselves for some terrible events.”