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Al Qaeda drone attacks on US? Soon it won't be so far-fetched.

An Al Qaeda sympathizer was arrested who allegedly planned drone attacks in Washington. An expanding market and improved technology could make small drones more available to anti-US terrorists.

By Staff writer / September 30, 2011

The Justice Department says that US citizen Rezwan Ferdaus plotted to fill a remote-controlled model plane with plastic explosives and fly it into the Pentagon and Capitol.

US Department of Justice/Handout/Reuters

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A terrorist attack on the nation’s capital using remote-control model airplanes to deliver bombs, as an American Al Qaeda sympathizer arrested in Massachusetts this week is alleged to have planned, may seem far-fetched or silly.

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Federal agents have arrested a Massachusetts man who planned to fly explosives-laden remote controlled airplanes into the Pentagon and Capitol building.

But perhaps not for long. The US, after all, has already been using unmanned planes to attack Al Qaeda targets with deadly accuracy for years.

And now the emerging international market for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, is exploding, bringing down the cost and expanding the availability of highly capable drone aircraft that could be rigged to deliver explosives, biological or chemical weapons with extreme accuracy – and be difficult or impossible to stop, experts on the subject say.

Groups could smuggle drones into the country or launch them from a ship offshore. Thanks to the development of highly accurate GPS flight systems, even kit-built airplanes could be rigged with explosives and sent hundreds of miles at low altitude, below radar, and crashed into a target, several UAV threat studies have found.

At present, however, the UAV is still America's friend – a potent weapon in the war on terrorism now being deployed to monitor and fight Al Qaeda affiliates from secret drone bases in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the Washington Post recently reported.

“There's been so much awareness of the way drones are changing warfare that it’s inevitable that terrorist groups are also keenly aware of drones’ potential,” says John Villasenor, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Technology Innovation.

“We're familiar with the Predator drone being used against Al Qaeda,” he says. “But it is the much smaller [drone] systems that will be first to proliferate.”

Examples of such systems, though they may not be of immediate use to terrorists, include the Wasp III , a US Air Force-developed micro-drone. It weighs less than a pound and is less than a foot long, but carries two onboard cameras, a GPS receiver and is able to climb to 1,000 feet. In February, a California company demonstrated a prototype called the “Nano Hummingbird,” a video-capable drone weighing two-thirds of an ounce developed with Pentagon funding, according to a study published by Dr. Villasenor this summer.

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