September 29th, 2011
08:06 AM ET

Analysis: Model planes as weapons of terror

By Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, CNN

The F-86 Sabre was a fighter jet that played a pivotal role in the Korean War. And it was a model of that plane – packed with high explosive – that Rezwan Ferdaus allegedly planned to use to launch his own war against iconic targets in Washington D.C.

Miniature versions of the plane – 5 feet 6 inches long – can easily 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 the affidavit in the case against Ferdaus, one of these F-86 models was delivered in August to a storage facility in Framingham, Massachusetts that he had rented under a false name to build his attack planes and maintain all his equipment.

Ferdaus was arrested Wednesday in Ashland, a small town just to the west of Boston "in connection with his plot to damage or destroy the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol, using large remote controlled aircraft filled with C-4 plastic explosives," according to a press statement from the Massachusetts U.S. District Attorney's Office.

The idea of using model planes and similar devices in terror attacks is unusual but not unprecedented.

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 from 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.

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

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.

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.

The notion that terrorists could use their own crude versions of pilotless drones might seem fantastical to some – a scenario dreamt up and posted on blogs by radio-controlled aircraft hobbyists in their darker moments.

But advances in remote-control technology mean that there are now a wide variety of easily purchased machines that terrorists might contemplate using for strikes in the United States.

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 lbs. (9 kg.) It can be accessorized with a built-in camera providing real-time video transmitted back to the controller, a feature which 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 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 10-12 foot wingspan using GPS co-ordinates and can be programmed to turn a video camera on and off when the plane reaches certain locations.

Such advances, combined with precise mapping services like Google Earth, may also provide terrorist operatives with opportunities to strike targets several miles away. However, remote detonation of C4, a very stable explosive insensitive to most physical shocks, carried on a model plane would be a challenge.

As long ago as 2007, Senator Charles Schumer D-New York said of model planes: "They present a real danger. The difficulty is figuring out how to regulate them."

Rep. John Mica R -Florida has also expressed concern in the past, saying in 2006: "They can carry explosives...even of more concern would be carrying small amounts of chemical or biological material."

Ferdaus, a Northeastern University graduate with a degree in physics, is alleged to have planned a simultaneous ground assault involving six gunmen. Unbeknown to him as he developed the plan was that "accomplices" he was in touch with were FBI undercover agents.

"I just can't stop; there is no other choice for me," he confided to one of them as he prepared the attack, according to the press statement. The agents handed over explosives and weapons just before they arrested him.

The threat from remote-controlled aircraft needs to be put in some perspective. Even 20 pounds of high explosive might not inflict devastating structural damage on a building – especially if it were reinforced like the Pentagon. By comparison, the devastating 1995 Oklahoma City bomb involved 2.5 tons of explosive packed into the back of a truck – although much of that was a more basic form of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.

Even so, the force of a few pounds of C4 in a confined and crowded space such as a sports stadium or outdoor concert venue could produce mass casualties.

There is also the psychological impact of using remote-controlled aircraft against high-profile targets.

According to U.S. authorities, Ferdaus anticipated that the model planes would have a large "psychological" impact by killing Americans, including women and children, whom he referred to as "enemies of Allah."

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