Privacy SOS

The drone-terrorism nexus

A few months ago, John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote an op ed in the LA Times headlined: “The drone threat – in the U.S.  Drone proliferation raises an issue that has received too little attention: the threat that they could be used to carry out terrorist attacks.”

According to Villasenor, “Although reasonable people can disagree on how long it would take terrorists to build or acquire weaponized drones that can be guided by video into a target, there’s really no dispute that it is a question of when and not if.  The day will come when such drones are available to almost anyone who wants them badly.”

To “reduce the risk” he recommended that the government “plug a critical gap” in the “model aircraft” provision of the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2012  and require that model plane enthusiasts obtain government-issued  licenses to operate drones weighing up to 55 pounds.

If adopted, a result of such a (potentially expensive) licensing procedure could be a restriction on the ability of ordinary citizens to use small drones to “watch the watchers.”

Given how “terrorism” fears drive public policy, such a restriction may soon be on the agenda, thanks to the federal plea bargain that was just accepted by a 26-year-old terrorist suspect from Ashland, Massachusetts. 

Rezwan Ferdaus, a Northeastern University graduate in physics, is no Tarek Mehanna, although both are looking at 17 years (and a half, in Mehanna’s case) in prison. 

Whereas Mehanna has a huge support group and was considered a respected leader in the Greater Boston Muslim community, Ferdaus, who had signed his Ashland High School yearbook entry with a peace symbol in 2003, was reportedly regarded as being “very disaffected, very disturbed. Just a bitter, angry guy.”  He was seen to have psychological problems and asked to leave the Roxbury mosque because of his extreme views. 

Whereas Mehanna was condemned for his First Amendment activity and involved in nothing that the prosecutors could call a “plot” beyond traveling to Yemen in 2004 in what they said was a (vain) search for a terrorist training camp, Ferdaus allegedly developed a complex plot involving mobile phones to be used as detonation devices and three “small drone airplanes” filled with explosives and guided by GPS systems.  Two were destined for the Pentagon, and one for the US Capitol Building.

According to the affidavit of Special Agent Gary Cacace, Ferdaus began planning an aerial attack in 2010. The FBI conducted physical surveillance and got his phone and email records. 

Two undercover FBI informants (one had been denounced as an addict and drug dealer) posed as al Qaeda members and befriended him. They and a cooperating witness recorded his conversations, gave him the funds to do a scouting trip to Washington DC, took him shopping for equipment (including to purchase a rocket at Toys ‘R’ Us), provided him with “C4 explosives” and $4,000 for an F86 Sabre Aircraft which was delivered on August 29, 2011.

The informants claimed that at various times they suggested he did not have to go ahead with the plot. But he insisted on carrying it out, because the US is “evil” and jihad is the solution.

Assuming the plot was as the government described, was there any chance that it would have worked? At least one expert said that it takes years to learn how to fly the machines and most likely they would have crashed. 

But just the fact that remotely controlled aircraft were featured in such a plot could well give the government the incentive to restrict how citizens use small drones and demand the kind of licensing recommended by the Brookings Institution’s John Villasenor. 

In the rush to fill the skies with drones we have heard little about what seems a potentially much greater terrorist threat – the ability to cause drones to crash or be diverted by confusing their GPS navigation systems, such as Iran reportedly did when it captured a drone in its airspace last year. 

And we have heard even less about what is a greater threat to all of us – the potential of “the watchers” to use drones to perfect the surveillance state. What’s it to be – drones for all, or just the police?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.