Terror and toy planes - not so remote
A remote controlled model of the US Navy's 1950s Sabre jet fighter that allegedly belonged to Rezwan Ferdaus.
August 7th, 2012
09:36 PM ET

Terror and toy planes - not so remote

By Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister

The video recovered by Spanish security services shows a man guiding a large remote-controlled plane in the skies of southern Spain. The plane banks and begins a controlled descent. Two packets drop - one from either wing - to the delight of the "pilot."

According to Fernando Reinares, senior terrorism analyst at Madrid's Elcano Royal Institute, Spanish security services believe the video was made not by an enthusiastic hobbyist, but by a committed terrorist trying to convert a toy plane into a potentially deadly bomber.

The home video was recovered last week, along with explosives, in what Spanish authorities called one of the most significant operations against al Qaeda in the country.

Three men were arrested, including the man seen flying the remote-controlled aircraft. He is Cengiz Yalcin, a Turkish national who lived near Gibraltar, and Spanish authorities allege he was an al Qaeda's cell's facilitator. Two Chechen associates - alleged to have significant expertise in bomb-making - were also arrested.

According to Reinares, Spanish security services suspect the purported cell planned to launch attacks using model aircraft to coincide with the London Olympics, and that one of their targets was a shopping center near Gibraltar.

The notion that terrorists could use their own crude versions of pilotless drones might seem fantastical - a scenario dreamed up and posted on blogs by radio-controlled aircraft hobbyists in their darker moments. But this is not the first time that model planes have featured in a terrorist investigation.

Last month Rezwan Ferdaus, a Massachusetts resident inspired by al Qaeda's ideology, pleaded guilty to a plot to fly a remote-controlled plane with high explosives into the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol. He had been arrested in September 2011. According to court documents, Rezwan, a Northeastern University graduate with a degree in physics, planned to use a model of the F-86 Sabre, a fighter jet in the Korean War, packed with C4 explosives.

Miniature versions of the plane - between 5 feet and 6 feet, 6 inches long - can be acquired for less than $200 from websites serving model plane enthusiasts. "Provides authoritative rudder control so you can execute point rolls and knife-edge flight with precision," reads the promotion material for the model on one website.

According to court documents, one of these F-86 models was delivered in August 2011 to a storage facility in Framingham, Massachusetts, that Ferdaus had rented under a false name to build his attack planes and maintain his equipment. He was arrested the following month in an FBI sting operation, after undercover agents handed him the explosives.

Authorities said Ferdaus had planed to fill three remote-controlled aircraft - which he referred to as "small drone airplanes" - with explosives, launch them from an east Potomac park, and guide them by GPS into their targets.

And before Ferdaus, Christopher Paul, a Columbus, Ohio, resident pleaded guilty in 2008 to planning terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe. According to the indictment in that case, Paul conducted research in 2006 on a variety of remote-controlled models, including a boat and a 5-foot-long helicopter. Paul was accused of joining al Qaeda in the early 1990s.

According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report published last month, Ferdaus' plot "highlighted the potential for model aircraft to be used for non-approved or unintended purposes." But the report stated that "apart from FAA's voluntary safety standards for model aircraft operators, FAA (the Fedeal Aviation Administration) has no regulations relating to model aircraft." According to the report, new rules set to be introduced in late 2012 may require certain model aircraft to be registered.

Advances in remote-control technology mean that there are now a wide variety of easily purchased machines that terrorists might contemplate using. And dozens of videos uploaded to social media sites show models as long as 12 feet and as sophisticated as the C-17 - some capable of flying at speeds of more than 100 mph.

One remote-controlled helicopter that retails online for $10,000 in the U.S. is described as capable of lifting a payload of at least 20 pounds (9 kilograms) It can be accessorized with a built-in camera providing real-time video transmitted back to the controller, a feature that would be of obvious help to terrorists seeking to home in on a target - and record a propaganda video of the attack at the same time.

In some ways, the idea echoes - albeit in primitive fashion - the growing use by the United States and other governments of unmanned drones for surveillance and missile strikes against terrorist targets. The use of drones has had a dramatic impact in the campaign against al Qaeda and other terror groups in Pakistan - and is now being expanded to the Horn of Africa and Yemen.

Hezbollah, the Shiite militia in Lebanon, reportedly carried out an armed drone attack on an Israeli naval vessel during the 2006 Lebanon war. The Haaretz newspaper reported at the time that the ship was attacked by an explosives-laden drone, which would have been undetected by radar. Four Israeli sailors were killed. And a raid on a camp of the FARC terrorist group in Colombia in 2002 uncovered nine remote-controlled planes, one of which had already been packed with plastic explosive.

In 2006, a Maryland teacher, Ali Asad Chandia, was convicted of trying to acquire an electronic automatic pilot system for a model aircraft on behalf of the Pakistani terror group Lashkar e Tayiba. The system contains a stability and control computer that can be programmed to fly a plane with a 10- to 12-foot wingspan using GPS co-ordinates and can be programmed to turn a video camera on and off when the plane reaches certain locations.

As long ago as 2004, the Department of Homeland Security sent out an information bulletin asking trainers and hobby shop owners to report suspicious purchases. Another bulletin in 2008 said the DHS and FBI "assess that terrorists could use explosives-laden RCMA (radio-controlled model aircraft) singly or in groups to circumvent ground-based defenses at targeted infrastructure." And a study by the Institute for Defense Analyses a few years back concluded: "There would be little danger of detection in transportation, launch, or escape assuming that everything was planned in advance."

Such advances, combined with precise mapping services like Google Earth, may also provide terrorist operatives with opportunities to strike targets several miles away. However, most standard model aircraft can only stay aloft for about 30 minutes and the operator must maintain a constant line of sight.

And detonating C4, a very stable explosive insensitive to most physical shocks, on a model plane would be a challenge. Even 20 pounds of high explosive would be unlikely to inflict devastating structural damage on a building - especially if it were reinforced like the Pentagon.

That said, the explosive impact of a few pounds of C4 in a confined and crowded space such as a sports stadium or concert venue could produce mass casualties. Some studies have suggested that spraying chemical payloads, while not as lethal, could have a greater psychological effect. Unmanned helicopters for crop-spraying - though often costing six figures - are commercially available and can carry a payload of up to 40 pounds.

And technology - miniaturization, GPS guidance, wireless video - will enhance the capabilities of model planes.

"Terrorists innovate and adapt to security measures, we have to always keep this in mind," Reinares told CNN.

soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. Brett Rogers

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  3. helen

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    September 12, 2012 at 6:53 am | Reply
  4. dork missle

    You know like the politicians and the media they'd just have to learn to blow it out there ass real good like them.

    September 4, 2012 at 11:39 pm | Reply
  5. Minfang

    The artical claims that RC aircraft can only fly for 30 mins this is false because I am a rc flyer and my longest flying plane can fly for 10 mins at best

    September 3, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Reply
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    August 17, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Reply
  7. saira khan singh

    moron terrorist losers are everywhere in america , europe and pakistan ..

    August 9, 2012 at 9:39 am | Reply
  8. Derrick

    This article is obviously written by a journalist that wants to instill fear in the general populous... talk to anyone that has taken an entry level aerodynamics class. These so called drone planes are barely capable of lifting themselves into the air with the camera and video equipment on-board. There really isn't any payload margin left.

    August 8, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
    • Brian

      Thats what i was thinking. that would have to be a seriously powerful remote plane to carry any payload. I doubt you could even cause significant damage, as you would have to also carry the heavy bomb casing. won't plain old c4 just make a big bang if not stuffed into whatever its supposed to be exploding?

      August 16, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Reply
  9. Islam4fools

    Islam, where creativity goes wrong.

    August 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Reply
    • quarkk

      Judaism, where killing your son is cool.....

      August 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
      • Reasonable1

        Jews do not kill their kids. Jews are not Muslims.
        Muslims do not even let their kids get vaccinated against polio – That is even worse than killing.

        August 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
      • quarkk

        Abraham and Isaac.

        Moron.

        August 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • OurDogPakistan

      not entirely true; they are creatives at making personal bombs like turban bombs, underwear bombs!

      August 8, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  10. ncgh

    Actually if you search on youtube you can see many videos taken from benign hobbyist planes. It's fantastic, real time video cameras with remote control, flying over mountain passes, around cliffs, and other places far to dangerous for a manned flight. Some videos also include the instrumentation readouts.

    Alas, these guys too ar probably going to feel the results of the government's paranoia.

    August 8, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  11. EVN

    The ingenuity of the human mind to come up with weapons and ways to destroy or harm fellow humans is boundless.
    How is someone really going to stop the use of RC "toys" that are widely available being used like this without making the products illegal? Even then the component parts are widely available, so making the planes illegal really doesn't provide that much of a safety mechanism. Based on the article the most difficult part of weaponizing RC toys is the limit on payload capacity, but even there the article suggests chemicals and use as a toll to terrorize the population is a viable adoptation to the payload limits.

    The likely reaction to the potential threat is going to take away even more freedoms. Every time that happens those looking to harm others have made a gain even if they don't succeed in inflicting physical harm.

    August 8, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Reply
    • quarkk

      When will it end?

      When we run out of freedoms to have stolen??

      August 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
      • https://www.ddpp.com

        it will end when muslims denounce terrorism........which is highly unlikely.

        August 8, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  12. Jim

    These Islamists are such losers.
    – Shoe bomber – failed and jailed.
    – Printer cartridge bomber – failed and smoked by a drone.
    – Underwear bomber – failed and jailed with a burned d*ck, ouch!
    – Toy plane bomber, Rezwan Ferdaus - failed and jailed.
    – These Pakistan trained morons in Spain trying to use a toy plane – failed and jailed.
    Dumb and dumber.
    It is good that we are defanging and caging these venomous animals.

    August 8, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  13. Alexander Argentina

    DAMASCUS, (SANA) – President al-Assad stresses the Syrian people and government stand united in their determination to fight terrorism

    President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday was adamant that the people of Syria alongside their government are united in a common purpose that will clear the country of terrorists and fight terrorism without tolerance.

    President al-Assad was speaking during a meeting with Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council when the pair discussed the close knit strategic alliance that Syria and Iran have historically enjoyed as the tense situation engulfing the Middle East begins to gradually unfold.

    These talks focused on devising and introducing effective long term mechanisms to combat enemy covert operations, such as the current illegal terrorist proxy war being openly financed and backed by Western countries and their allies.

    "From within the context of both a legal and military framework, as a state we are totally justified and are prepared to defend ourselves. Meanwhile, the goal of our enemy in the region is obviously underhanded, namely as state sponsors of terrorism who are attempting to sow sedition and undermine the axis of resistance by isolating Syria and inciting insurrection. The thinking is this will disrupt our security and stability. Such a tactic is at once illegal and we are prepared to bring this matter up at the UN world body in how so it violates international law... But the effort is also ill advised and in keeping with an axiom that states – the exact same thing that makes you laugh, may also make you cry," President al-Assad made infinitely clear.

    The Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council concurred that what is taking place inside Syria is not an internal issue, but rather a conflict between the resistance axis on the one hand and the enemies of that resistance whose sole goal is to exploit the current situation and abrogate the stance of resistance Syria has similarly adopted.

    Jalili pledged that Iran would never allow any bloc of nations to break up the axis of resistance and that Syria is an integral cog forever aligned to the resistance and will be defended and safeguarded since Syria has a unique and significant role to play in the future.

    President al-Assad confirmed that Syria continues to move forward with its national dialogue project and alongside patriotic citizens, a strong military and unwavering support from international partners, Syria is more than capable of foiling illegal foreign plots aimed at weakening its prominent position in the region.

    Later, Jalili and the Iranian delegation accompanying him were received by Foreign and Expatriates Minister Walid al-Moallem, at which time both men assured that a continuum of coordination is ongoing between Syria and Iran at the highest levels of both governments to confront and defeat every attempt their mutual foes have enlisted in a misguided foreign policy which entails utilizing subversive aggression tactics in a bid to terrorize a sovereign nation and interfere in its internal affairs.

    Al-Moallem and Jalili also touched upon the Syrian government's initiative that would resolve the 18-month old stand-off and a means of activating and consolidating "the appropriate unilateral Syrian solution" to the crisis which will establish stability throughout the country in conformity with many elements of the six-point plan offered up by former UN special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan.

    August 8, 2012 at 11:01 am | Reply
    • Jack

      @Alexander or whatever your name may be, Do you have severe reading disability? This article is not about Syria, it is about Islamic terror. If you are trying to get sympathy for Islamic people in Syria, you will not get it here because Islamists are trying to use toy planes to bomb innocent people.

      August 8, 2012 at 11:49 am | Reply
      • quarkk

        You should learn to create a double account, before you actually try.

        Pathetic creep.

        August 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
      • quarkk

        correction – you should act like an Islamic pathetic creep.

        August 8, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  14. quarkk

    So.....here comes the big brother state.......

    August 8, 2012 at 6:28 am | Reply
    • Reasonable1

      Thank you big brother. Thank you for watching out for our security. Thank you for catching these Islamist morons before they could carry out the wishes of their terrorist "god" called Alla.

      August 8, 2012 at 7:02 am | Reply
      • quarkk

        Thank you for keeping us safe in theaters and places of worship.....

        NOT!

        you phucking idiot....

        August 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
      • Nation of Sheep

        All the terrorist organizations in the world combined cannot match the depravity and villainy of our beloved CIA.

        August 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
      • Reasonable1

        @quarkk or Sheep - Some people are so delusional that they think Mohammed was good. Such people would always hate CIA as much as you do. Your hatred and delusion are pathetic but are quite understandable. The rest of us thank the CIA for doing a great job of preventing another 9/11 so far.

        August 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
      • Nation of Sheep

        And some people are so delusional, they actually think that the CIA is a force for good. What with installing despotic puppets, dictators and strong men who subjigate their own people to a life of oppression, or by facillitating the flow of narcotics through southeast Asia or Latin America. As for "thanking" them for "preventing" another 9/11 from happening, why not ask them how they were so thouroughly outwitted by a handful of Saudis in the first place.

        August 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm |

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