FBI Warns Drones ‘Will Be Used’ by ISIS, MS-13 to Attack U.S.

The FBI has warned that militant groups abroad could use their wartime knowledge to transform commercially available drones into deadly weapons in the United States.

In a written testimony submitted Wednesday to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that the "threat from Unmanned Aircraft Systems [UAS] in the U.S. is steadily escalating." He highlighted the tendencies of jihadi organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), as well as criminal groups like MS-13 and Mexican drug cartels to utilize such technology, something that "may encourage use of this technique in the U.S. to conduct attacks."

"While there has been no successful malicious use of UAS by terrorists in the United States to date, terrorist groups could easily export their battlefield experiences to use weaponized UAS outside the conflict zone," Wray wrote to lawmakers.

"The FBI assesses that, given their retail availability, lack of verified identification requirement to procure, general ease of use, and prior use overseas, UAS will be used to facilitate an attack in the United States against a vulnerable target, such as a mass gathering," he added. 

GettyImages-1048868534 FBI Director Christopher A. Wray listens to comments during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on October 10. Wray also warned about the dangers of drones in last year’s testimony to the committee. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Wray further cautioned that "this risk has only increased in light of the publicity associated with the apparent attempted assassination of Venezuelan President [Nicolás] Maduro using explosives-laden UAS." Maduro has blamed neighboring Colombia and the U.S. for orchestrating what appeared to be an attempt to kill him using exploding drones at a military parade in August.

Though President Donald Trump mocked Venezuela's reaction to the suspected attempt on the left-wing leader's life, experts have warned that the threat of such an attack being conducted in the U.S. was very real—and that authorities may not be adequately prepared. Wray discussed how the U.S. dealt with one plot to attack high-risk targets with drones as far back as in 2011.

U.S. Al-Qaeda sympathizer Rezwan Ferdaus was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison in 2012 over his plan to attack the Pentagon and the Capitol building with a remote-controlled plane the previous year. He sought to use his physics degree to equip the device with explosives but was caught when he unknowingly reached out to undercover FBI agents for supplies.

A year later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was confronted at a rally by a drone that proved to be harmless but landed only feet away. In August, French authorities said they "neutralized" a drone flying over French President Emmanuel Macron's summer residence in the Côte d'Azur, the coastal region in southeastern France.

GettyImages-1037275854 An Israeli army drone is seen dropping tear gas grenades during clashes with Palestinian protesters following a demonstration along the Israeli border fence east of Gaza City, in the Gaza Strip, on September 21. Even commercially available drones could be equipped with a harmful or even lethal payload with relative ease. SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

Wray previously informed legislators about the dangers of drones during his 2017 testimony to the same committee, saying, "I think we do know that terrorist organizations have an interest in using drones. We have seen that overseas already with some frequency. I think that the expectation is that it is coming here, imminently."

The need to address drones as an emerging technology has not gone completely unnoticed by lawmakers, however. Last week, the Federal Aviation Authority Reauthorization Act of 2018 was passed. It contained extensive legislation regarding unmanned aerial vehicles. The document lays out new rules for drones and gives federal authorities the power to disrupt, confiscate and destroy drones deemed to be in violation of them.

Wray welcomed the new law in Wednesday's statement, saying it "enables the FBI to counter UAS threats while safeguarding privacy and promoting the safety and efficiency of the national airspace system. The FBI is grateful to the Chairman, the Ranking Member, and other members of this Committee for championing this critical authority."

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