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Analysts warn terrorists could use drones in chemical or biological attacks

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WASHINGTON (Circa) -- The growing popularity of commercial drones has opened up countless recreational and commercial opportunities for the public, but like many emerging technologies, these unmanned vehicles can be abused by terrorist organizations.

The Islamic State has been weaponizing off-the-shelf drones for use on the battlefield for some time, however, there are now concerns that the threat will continue to evolve as other terrorist groups begin to adopt, and improve upon, the tactic. Don Rassler of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point believes the threat could eventually make its way to other theaters.

"One obvious shift would be for the Islamic State to use its armed drones to target civilian or mixed targets in the West and other locales," wrote Rassler, in a recently released report.

As an example, Rassler considers what might have happened if the ISIS terrorists responsible for the November 2015 attacks in Paris had used drones in addition to their more traditional weapons. These drones could have served the double purpose of filming the events, which could be used in propaganda to add a "shock factor," noted Rassler.

"While Islamic State or individuals inspired by the organization have not used a drone as a weapon in the West, the group has already released propaganda material that visually shows drone attacks being conducted against symbolic targets in the United States," wrote Rassler.

There is already evidence that other terrorist organizations have learned from ISIS' use of drones. Taliban forces recorded a suicide bombing with a drone in late October 2017, and released the footage in an apparent propaganda effort thereafter. This was an apparent copy-cat of a video ISIS produced in January of that year showing ISIS drones dropping munitions on its enemies, a tactic it first employed in October 2016, according to the report. While ISIS forces have been significantly rolled back since then, the group has origins as an insurgency group capable of engaging in attacks with limited resources. Additionally, it is important to note ISIS conducted and inspired several attacks abroad while it was being attacked by U.S.-led coalition forces.

"With the active battlefield that they have, it's a little bit of a laboratory," said former intelligence official Klon Kitchen, who currently serves as a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, in an interview. "They have exercised a type of an agility to use commercial off the shelf technologies, to blend new and old technologies to counter relative strengths of their opponents."

Kitchen noted that the current use of commercial drones against troops on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria are a serious issue, but that he is also confident in the countermeasures currently in development.

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"Terrorists' use of drones won't be a strategic challenge until they are able to use them to disperse chemical or biological agents," said Kitchen. "That's when the threat itself will change ... where it not becomes a mass, or strategic weapon."

"That's kind of the future of where this threat goes."

Both Kitchen and Rassler explained there's more than a few steps a terrorist group would need to take before that can happen, but the report also noted ISIS is believed to have used chemical weapons "more than 50 times" in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, the report detailed a case in Australia where two ISIS-affiliated brothers were arrested for engaging in a plot to build an "improvised chemical dispersion device" in order to spread poisonous hydrogen sulfide in urban areas. Even an attack that fails to kill a large group could provide propaganda and shock value that "might make the effort worth it," according to Rassler.

U.S. lawmakers and officials are already working toward updating national policy in an effort to prevent a worst case scenario. The Federal Aviation Administration required everyday drone operators to register back in December 2015. So far, more than 1 million have done so. Kitchen also explained there are military countermeasures in development that use laser and jamming technology to protect U.S. forces from the types of attacks witnessed in Iraq and Syria.

"The key stake is preventing them from being able to weaponize [drones] with chemical or biological weapons," said Kitchen.

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