Operators with Criminal or Terrorist Motivation

Basic information for the user:

  • Are (not) aware of rules and regulations, and are willing to disrupt activities or to perform illegal activities​
  • They usually show no regard for human lives and property having the intent to harm people and cause damages ​
  • High risk for LEAs, as these operators cause disturbance, damages or even casualties having criminal or even terrorist motivation.

Relevant Case Studies

South American drug cartels (2020)

  • During April 2015, 28 pounds of heroin strapped to a drone made it across the U.S.-Mexico border near Calexico, making it the first cross-border seizure by U.S. law enforcement involving the new smuggle-by-air tactic.​
  • During January 2015 a drone hauling meth crashed in a parking lot of a Tijuana shopping centre in Mexico, located two miles from the U.S. border. Mexican law enforcement revealed that the drone was loaded with seven pounds of drugs and was likely being ferried from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.​
  • During August 2017, border patrol agents intercepted a drone-borne drug shipment when an agent in San Diego County heard the buzzing of a remotely-controlled aircraft coming over the border fence and contacted his fellow agents, who then found and arrested a 25-year-old man carrying 13 pounds of methamphetamine he had removed from the drone​
  • The use of drones to smuggle drugs did not come as a strategic surprise to US law enforcement authorities as Mexican cartels have used this tactic to transport narcotics to other South American nations since 2010​
  • Authorities indicated that the use of drones to traffic narcotics was likely developed by the Clan del Golfo, the largest criminal gang in Colombia dedicated to drug trafficking, representing a significant shift in tactics for TCOs operating in Colombia

Theatres of conflict (2019):

  • In the aftermath of 9/11 a group of friends residing in Virginia, United States, conspired to provide material support to the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during 2003, the “Virginia Jihad Network” were charged with several terrorism-related offences for activities that included the acquisition of sensitive technology to assist and enhance the performance of UAS on behalf of LeT.​
  • To support LeT terrorist missions, during December 2002, one of the members purchased an MP-1000SYS airplane control module from Vesta Technologies, which was a stability and control computer that can be programmed to fly an airplane with a 10-12 foot wingspan using Global Positioning System (“GPS”) coordinates.​
  • The investigation also illustrated that LeT had been interested in acquiring drones and technology designed to boost their performance since at least early 2002, and that the group leveraged a network of U.S. residents to acquire this type of advanced technology directly from U.S. companies.​
  • Throughout the summer of 2016, American troops in Iraq and Syria reported seeing small drones hovering near their bases and around the front lines in northern Iraq.​
  • The commercially available drones were being deployed for surveillance and reconnaissance by IS who also called on their followers to implant small store-bought drones with grenades or other explosives, directing recruits to use them to launch attacks on crowded places at the Rio Olympic Games.​
  • When Kurdish forces fighting IS in northern Iraq shot down a small drone the size of a model airplane during 2016, Seizing the drone and transporting it back to their outpost for further examination. A small Improvised Explosive Device (IED) contained inside detonated, killed two Kurdish fighters in what is believed to be the first time IS has successfully used a drone with explosives to kill troops on the battlefield.

Organised crime group prison smuggling (2019):

  • During 2016, Daniel Kelly, aged 27, formerly of Lewisham, south-east London, used a drone to fly contraband into prisons, becoming the first person in the UK to be jailed for the crime. ​
  • Police officers from Kent Constabulary revealed Kelly had used the remote-control drone to smuggle items, including tobacco and the psychoactive drug Spice, into two prisons in Kent and one in Hertfordshire.​
  • The drone used in crime was discovered in the car parked near Her Majesty’s Prison and seized by police officers which was originally white but had been spray-painted black with its lights taped over​
  • During 2017, eight members of a criminal gang that used drones to airlift £500,000 worth of drugs into prisons were given jail terms ranging from three to ten years​
  • Over a two year period, drone pilots, drivers and lookouts had conspired with prisoners to smuggle drugs into seven jails, including HMP Birmingham and HMP Liverpool

Smuggling contraband into prisons (2020)

  1. Judicial prison of Larissa (2016): Three drone incidents were reported on the news, two of them being also verified from police sources. Among the others, one of them -the major one-took place on the 1st of September of 2016 when a six-member criminal group introduced drugs and mobile phones in the prisons of Larissa, using a drone, was uncovered by the Hellenic Police. During the police investigation, Police confiscated drugs, 16 mobiles, SIM cards, cash and a commercial drone​
  2. Trikala prison (2019): Shortly after midnight, a flying drone approached the prison without lights and left in the courtyard of the prison ward a mobile phone, watch batteries and other accessories. Another similar incident happened also in 2020, as drone flying above the prison dropped parcels of mobile phones and drugs in the courtyard and the roof terrace.​
  3. Korydallos prison (2020): ​
    • Prison’s outdoor guards saw a small drone flying around Korydallos prison, with a flying path leading towards the ground and then leaving.​
    • A drone was found at the courtyard of the prison from the external guards. The drone operator reached the prison’s gate guards searching for his drone. The findings led to the conclusion that the operator accidentally crashed his drone at the prison’s courtyard when he lost control.

Possible Blast Effects on Humans



IED mass


Primary blast


(fatality) [m]

Primary blast


(eardrum rupture)


Primary effects

structures, failure of glass at 1 m distance


radius of lethal


(pipe bomb)


Number of casualties for 0.5

pers/m(case study)

C0 ​

0.05 ​

0.10 ​

0.85 ​

Annealed glass ​

29 ​

– ​

C1 ​

0.2 ​

0.36 ​

1.84 ​

Tempered glass ​

44 ​

24 ​

C2 ​

1 ​

0.8 ​

3.1 ​

Thin laminated glass ​

72 ​

78 ​

C3/C4 ​

15 ​

3.2 ​

7.8 ​

Protective laminated glass ​

164 ​

266 ​

Possible blast effects on humans for a detonation at 4 m altitude, if IED fragmentation is considered:

IED mass 

[kg] ​

Affected area 


Potential casualties 


Affected area 


Potential casualties 



0.5 pers/m2 ​

1 pers/m2 ​

0.2 ​

2.1 ​

24 ​

2.2 ​

52 ​

1 ​

6.8 ​

78 ​

6.7 ​

154 ​

4 ​

13.7 ​

157 ​

13.5 ​

310 ​

8 ​

16.8 ​

193 ​

16.9 ​

389 ​

15 ​

23.1 ​

266 ​

22.9 ​

527 ​

Criminal/Terrorist Use of Drones – Examples​