Weaponised drones — the latest tech threat to be employed by criminal and extremist groups in Africa
Drones have for some time been used by regular armed forces on Africa’s battlefields, such as in Ethiopia and Mali. But now they’re increasingly being deployed by terrorists — sparking a global sense of urgency.
At the end of October, the United Nations (UN) Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee will host a special meeting in India on countering the use of new technologies for terrorism. Drones or unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have been identified as one of the key terrorist threats by the meeting’s organisers. Other risks are disinformation, the misuse of social media, and new payment technologies used by violent extremists.
Drones are by and large a force for good, for example in delivering medicines to hard-to-reach parts of Africa. But their widespread availability, increased range and growing sophistication in terms of payload (what they can carry) have seen an expansion in their applications.
The hobbyist drone market has grown rapidly, with global sales increasing from $14-billion in 2018 to a projected $43-billion in 2024, according to Drone Industry Insights. South Africa represents the biggest market in Africa, particularly for aerial technology used in the mining and agricultural sectors. This democratisation of relatively affordable technology means that UAS can be used for nefarious ends both in wartime and peace.
The Ukraine-Russian war has underscored the significance of the new drone battlespace with an arms race in production and acquisition underway. But drones can also be bought, adapted and used to disrupt critical infrastructures such as airports, energy plants and communications networks.
As African governments assess the risks of cyber attacks on critical infrastructure such as on Transnet in South Africa in 2021, they should also consider the unintended consequences of drone proliferation.
The continent has yet to witness a major installation being targeted by a UAS. But there is growing evidence of drones being weaponised by violent extremists and transnational criminal networks, either as a surveillance tool or as part of their intelligence and reconnaissance operations. As ISS Today has previously reported, armed groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia and insurgents in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique are applying the technology in combat.
UN Security Council Resolution 2617 recognises the increasing misuse of UAS globally, including “the misuse of unmanned aerial systems by terrorists to conduct attacks against, and incursions into, restricted commercial and government infrastructure and ...