Miniature Drones And The New Terror Frontier

No science fiction
No science fiction
Etienne Dubuis

GENEVA — Drones are increasingly hovering over our heads. In the past six months, dozens of them were seen flying in France over sensitive Parisian sites, military installations and nuclear power plants. And with the threat of terrorist attacks, these machines are a real source of concern for the military and the police, and not just in France.

"Drones sold in shops for between a few hundred and a few thousand Swiss francs are made to transport cameras that weigh between 800 grams and 4 kilos," says Alexandre Vautravers, editor in chief of the Revue Militaire Suisse. "It's easy to attach a 500-gram hand grenade and to add a mechanism allowing it to be triggered remotely with a cellphone. It's not much different from the system that triggers camera shutters, and it can be cobbled together without in-depth know-how. It is commonly used in Afghanistan and in Iraq by rebels who've never set foot in an engineering school."

This assessment is all the more alarming because a hand grenade is a powerful weapon. Thrown into a crowd, it can kill dozens of people. In a confined space, its destructive power is much bigger.

Charlie Hebdo caricature of French President Hollande, asking "Who's afraid of drones?" — Source: dronyair via Instagram

"Non-weaponized drones, equipped just with a camera, can also be used for terrorist attacks," Vautravers explains. "They can collect specific information about sensitive sites. Aerial pictures can show wall thickness and thus indicate building strength."

These devices also make attacks with bazookas or mortars easier. They can communicate in real time the exact location of targets to shooters hundreds of meters, or even several kilometers, away. And after a failed first salvo, they can even "put things right."

A very real threat

This isn't science fiction. An attack with a miniature drone could happen at anytime. And in security circles, nobody doubts that this possibility is being seriously considered by criminal organizations. It's become urgent to establish a series of defensive measures.

The first type is "kinetic," meaning a defense mechanism that relies on hitting the flying device with another moving body. In more practical terms, this consists of detecting the drone with a radar or an optical device and then hitting it with a projectile. "A sharpshooter is one good way to do it," Vautravers says. "There's a very good chance he'll hit his target from a distance of 1,000 meters. It doesn't cost a lot, and it represents no danger for third parties. We can also use automated systems connected to cannons or missiles, but their heavier ammunition risk causing significant collateral damage."

Photo: Doctor Popular

Another type of defense is "electromagnetic," consisting of scrambling the signals between the drone and its pilot to render the device uncontrollable and to therefore scuttle a planned attack. But this necessitates that the areas and frequencies used are properly defined so as to limit unwanted damage.

Finally, the third type of defense is the law. "A certain number of countries, including the United States, are already working on it," Vautravers explains. "Lawmakers can, for example, force makers to install GPS chips on their drones so as to limit their access to certain areas."

It's still uncertain how big a danger these small flying devices represent for our societies. "In any such analysis, two factors need to be taken into account: the seriousness and the probability of the feared event," Vautravers notes. "About the first point, if an attack carried out with a miniature drone had a massive media impact, it wouldn't necessarily victimize a large number of people. About the second point, however, there's no doubt about it: We're already there."

So what should we do? Because it would be way too expensive to protect everything at all times, it seems wiser to defend in priority the most symbolic targets, like nuclear power plants, military installations and large rallies. And not just because of their own importance. Preventing attacks with an important media impact also means making attacks less attractive for terrorists, and thus, in principle, drastically limit their number.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!