Friday, July 31, 2015

Emerging Technologies: Lowering the threshold for ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) Mass Casualty Terrorism

Emerging technologies are those technologies that are innovative and competitive both in terms of function and accessibility. When we consider emerging technologies, one of the primary novel technologies is 3D printing and its application to weapon and weapon systems development. What sets 3D printing apart however, from other emerging technologies is the lowering of a technical threshold which makes it user friendly to a much wider population. In so doing, it lowers the technical and economic threshold of weapon production.

3D printing has already been used in drone construction and the potential that terrorist organizations either supported by states (Hezbollah/Iran) or with vast financial resources such as the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, could acquire the means to mass produce disposable weapons at a low cost point is a counter-terror concern. Not only would 3D printing of weapons increase the potential for mass casualty terrorism but standoff weapon systems could well increase this threat replacing the need to even arm terrorist surrogates.  3D printed disposable drones could deliver conventional and unconventional payloads. The ability to swiftly replace captured or destroyed drones would significantly impact methods we currently use in counter-terrorism and warfare.  In an article by Yochi Dreazen entitled: The Next Israeli-Arab War will be Fought with Drones, Mr. Dreazen contends, “In October, near the West Bank city of Hebron, Palestinian  security personnel arrested a team of operatives preparing to launch a drone packed with explosives. The events have set off alarms within the Israeli Defence Forces, which last April released a statement declaring unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) to be a serious threat to the country. Hezbollah’s drones represent the next evolution of warfare by remote control, when weaponized robotic planes give terrorist groups de facto air forces.” See:

As if this were not concerning enough, the 3D printing of drone technology will likely rapidly increase the ability of terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS specifically, to deploy disposable drones, reprint them and rapidly replace lost drones or even program them to destruct after the mission. Moreover suicide drones could easily be employed to take out infrastructures and used in mass casualty attacks against civilians. 3D mass production disposable drones would be a game changer for weapons of mass destruction and future terrorist methods and tactics allowing incredible versatility. Smaller 3D produced drones and those designed with swarming technology are likely to evade current counter measures. In a scenario where mixed drones are used, some with conventional payloads, some with un-conventional payloads, multiple strikes would be possible and while the conventional attack would be considered immediate, there could well be long term casualties either from loading the payloads with low level radiological material (small aerial dirty bombs) or biological and chemical weaponized agents.  Such agents could well create multiple rolling outbreaks of pandemic disease or be used as stealthy force reducers/force multipliers. 4D technology, developed at MIT, could mean that printed payloads using biological agents could be weaponized based on target specific data. This would obscure identification and remove some of the barriers which previously served to make this type of weaponization process the domain of state military labs. Essentially making it user friendly to terrorists.

While Israel is one of the best placed nation, both technically and in terms of experience, in countering potential future terrorist weapons, the use of 3D printed technology in a European scenario, would offer ISIS real advantages. With the possible exception of France, most European governments are not quite as well prepared to counter this threat, nor do they believe it is remotely on the horizon. This gap in assessment and experience, combined with general arrogance, greatly advantages ISIS and other terrorists, even lone terrorists who might access 3D printing technology within Europe. To understand how real and how close this technology is and it's accessibility to terrorists, we need only look at a recent article by Adam Clark Estes wherein he notes: “A team from the Advanced Manufacturing Research Center at the University of Sheffield, built their disposable drone, a five foot wide guy made of just nine parts that looks like a tiny stealth bomber, using a technique called fused deposition modeling. This additive manufacturing technique has been around since the 1980’s but has recently become faster and cheaper thanks to improved design processes. The ultimate vision, as UAS describes it, is for ‘cheap and potentially disposable UAV’s that could be built and deployed in remote situations potentially within as little as 24 hours. Forward operating teams equipped with 3D printers could thus generate their own semi-autonomous micro air force squadrons or airborne surveillance swarms, a kind of first strike desktop printing team hurling disposable drones into the sky.” (

Hezbollah and Hamas both have sophisticated intelligence collection capabilities, what we will likely see with 3D printable drones is the ability to drop disposable surveillance equipment into theaters where previously they would not have access. If the surveillance equipment can be mass produced, and cost effective (disposable) we are likely to see its use by terrorist organizations; a risk assessment of this emerging technology and terrorist applications, could not be undertaken too soon. 

Turning our attention to ISIS, recent reports note that ISIS has increased its use of chemical weapons (see: Several biological agents which are within the purview of ISIS could be well suited for drone deployment. ISIS taking of Palmyra, an area known for its phosphates, is worrying but more so because ISIS possess the technical sophistication to arms drones with CW and BW. Lacking effective in threatre counter measures advantages them in ways which are probably best left to the imagination.  

As breathtaking as this seems it is now reality and one few European governments are planning effectively to counter. Unfortunately there is a technological gap between disposable 3D printed drones and counter technologies to identify, evade and destroy such technology in civilian situations. An advantage our enemies are likely to exploit and in the very near term, not two years or five years down the road.  

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