The New Terror Threat Is Remote-Controlled Planes

Science, technology, and life.
Sept. 29 2011 8:15 AM

The Model-Plane Bomber

So much for airport security. The new terror threat is remote-controlled planes.

A US military officer on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11. Could the Pentagon be attacked again?

Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four planes, flew two of them into the World Trade Centers, used a third to hit the Pentagon, and probably sent the fourth to hit the U.S. Capitol. But that can’t happen again. We have TSA screeners, scanning machines, and on-board marshals to prevent anyone from hijacking a passenger plane.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

If you want to hit the Pentagon and the Capitol, you’ll have to bypass all this security. And you can. Instead of boarding a passenger plane, you can use an unmanned, remote-controlled aerial vehicle.

That’s what Rezwan Ferdaus, a U.S. citizen, has been charged with plotting. The evidence against Ferdaus, spelled out in an FBI affidavit, shows how easy it is to acquire the ingredients for an aerial strike, and how vital it is to locate the plotters through social networks. We can’t control the technology. We will have to find the people.

Everything I’m going to tell you about Ferdaus comes from the affidavit, which cites his own recorded words. He majored in physics at Northeastern University. He hated the United States. He loved electronics. He learned robotics. He took apart cell phones and turned them into bomb detonators. One day he got a bigger idea: He would hit high-value U.S. targets from the air. He would use remote-controlled aircraft.

The planes would carry explosives. Ferdaus chose the Pentagon as his first target and the Capitol as his second. Using library and café computers to avoid being identified, he looked up Web sites that sold large remote-controlled model planes. He learned that they could carry 40 to 50 pounds of payload. These weren’t drones, but they were affordable—less than $3,000 per plane—and Ferdaus figured out how he could use them. He found a model that was nearly six feet long and four feet wide. It could be programmed to fly on autopilot, at a speed of up to 160 miles per hour, to a target defined by GPS coordinates.

The logistics were easy. Ferdaus used a fake name to get price quotes. He arranged the transactions through an alias PayPal account. He scouted a location—East Potomac Park—from which to launch the planes. He determined that he could get the coordinates from Google Earth. He bought spark plugs, batteries, and ammonia from various stores. He bought rocket motors from Toy ‘R’ Us.

Ferdaus was arrested yesterday after he accepted delivery of the planes’ intended payload: 25 pounds of C-4 plastic explosives. “Public Was Not in Danger from Explosive Devices, Which Were Controlled by Undercover FBI Employees,” says the FBI press release. But that’s misleading. In several meetings with FBI agents posing as al-Qaida operatives, Ferdaus advocated and requested plastic explosives. The only reason he didn’t try to obtain such explosives from an actual supplier is that the agents said they would get the goods for him. In the meantime, they told him not to try to make his own explosives.

That’s the real story of the Ferdaus bust: We know how easy it was for him to study and assemble the technology, because our agents were with him the whole time. The affidavit doesn’t specify how we found him. But it says he visited “jihadi websites,” met an ex-con “cooperating witness” in December 2010, and then met two undercover FBI employees in March 2011. Maybe our agents noticed him on a Web site. Maybe the ex-con smelled an opportunity. Either way, we didn’t find the plotter through his research and acquisitions. We tracked the research and acquisitions through the plotter.

And that’s the moral of the story: In a world where you can bypass TSA and launch a plane attack with ingredients from the Internet and Toys ‘R’ Us, the weak point in any terrorist plot is its social network. We can’t cut off access to every supplier. But by infiltrating jihadi Web sites and developing well-placed informants, we can find the next aspiring terrorist and become his supplier.

In its press release on Ferdaus, the FBI warns, “A committed individual, even one with no direct connections to, or formal training from, an international terrorist organization, can pose a serious danger to the community.” But isolated, home-grown miscreants like Ferdaus are often easy to catch precisely because they have no links to terrorist organizations. In their quest to connect with a network, they risk being discovered and deceived. The network they find is a fake network: ours.

By al-Qaida standards, Ferdaus was a doofus. He lived with his parents and needed help to buy equipment. His original plan was to load the planes with grenades. He wanted to mow down Pentagon evacuees with AK-47s. He thought his hits on the two buildings would decapitate our military and political systems.

But the next rogue plotter won’t be such a fool. And he’ll have access to the same technology or better. As the affidavit notes, “Remote controlled aircraft are capable of carrying a variety of payloads (including a lethal payload of explosives), can use a wide range of take-off and landing environments, and fly different flight patterns than commercial airlines, thus reducing detection.” Fifteen pounds of C4 can do this. Twenty pounds can do this. Forty pounds can do this.

We’d better find the next guy before he finds his planes.



Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Learns That Breaking Up a Country Is Hard to Do

Are You Attending the People’s Climate March? Nine Reasons You Should.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

Colorado Is Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters

Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 1:51 PM Meet the New Bosses How the Republicans would run the Senate.
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.