Terrorist Digitalis: Preventing Terrorists from Using Emerging Technologies

Global Terrorism Index

Terrorist Digitalis: Preventing Terrorists from Using Emerging Technologies

Dr Christina Schori Liang, Head of Terrorism and Preventing Violent Extremism at the GCSP, contributed to the Global Terrorism Index report on "Terrorist Digitalis: Preventing Terrorists from Using Emerging Technologies"


Terrorists are great believers in technology and have a historical track record of embracing it.1 Most recently, terror groups have begun employing drones and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Both can be harnessed to respond effectively to multiple security challenges,2 but they also hold the potential to unleash a dystopian future envisioned by apocalyptic books and films. This piece outlines the challenges posed by terrorists’ use of emerging technologies, in particular drones and AI, and will offer some policy measures to counter this threat.

Uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) have been identified as one of the key terrorist threats by the United Nations (UN) Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee. UAS are remotely piloted, pre-programmed, or controlled airborne vehicles. They are also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or more commonly drones. 

First used during World War I and further developed during the Cold War the terror attacks on 9/11 and the subsequent “Global War on Terror’” greatly increased their use. Within the military, drones are used for surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting support and direct or indirect attacks. From 2001-2002, strikes in Afghanistan3 and Yemen4 marked the start of increasingly drone-oriented military operations. Drones are currently the “weapon of choice” for tracking and striking insurgents and terrorists. The current Russia-Ukraine conflict has been described as the “first full-scale drone war”5.  

Today, state and non-state actors possess the ability to acquire drones and can assemble and operate commercial-off-the-shelf drone technology (COTS). There are 113 states with a military drone programme6 and conservative estimates maintain that 65 non-state actors are now able to deploy drones.7 The market for civilian mini and micro drones weighing between 200 g to 50 kg has multiplied, by 2024 the drone market could reach nearly USD 43 billion.8


UAS are attractive for terrorists because they are affordable and require minimal training. Terrorists have deployed drones to attack state military assets, diplomatic sites, international trade, energy infrastructure, and civilian centres. State sponsorship of terrorist groups has also helped increase the number of drone attacks.9 

Drone strikes are being deployed by armed non-state actors for reconnaissance, lethal attacks and targeted assassinations, within and outside zones of armed conflict, with devastating humanitarian consequences for affected civilian populations.10 While high-technology military armed drones still remain largely inaccessible to non-state actors (e.g. MQ-9 Reaper, RQ Global Hawk), the possibility to weaponize civilian drone technology provides terrorists with some limited-air-based military capacity.11  


Weaponized UAS are increasing in range and precision. Rogue actors can strike targets further away. Drones can travel up to 1,500 km, ideal for attacks on military targets deep within state territory. Also, civilian infrastructure, located far from conflict zones, is now increasingly vulnerable. Since 2020, energy infrastructure, international shipping, international airports, and capital cities have all been targeted by drones.12  

On the horizon is the growing issue of saturation drone strikes. Working in partnership with other unarmed UAVs, weaponised drones can be used to pin-point and destroy air defence systems, opening the gates for an incoming volley of rockets, missiles, and other armed drones. By combining downloadable software and online tutorials drone users can launch rudimentary ‘swarms’ -- between five and ten drones can be ‘hooked-up’ to a single device. 

>> You can read the full contribution of Dr Schori Liang on page 72 - 74

Disclaimer: This publication was originally published on Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP). The views, information and opinions expressed in this publication are the author’s/authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the GCSP or the members of its Foundation Council. The GCSP is not responsible for the accuracy of the information