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Eyes in the Sky: The Innovation Dilemma of Drone Proliferation among Violent Non-State Actors in the Sahel

Eyes in the Sky: The Innovation Dilemma of Drone Proliferation among Violent Non-State Actors in the Sahel
10th April 2024 Francis Okpaleke
In Insights


The Sahel, with its vast geographical expanse and porous borders, has become a hub for violent non-state actors (VNSAs), including armed bandits, extremist groups, and criminal enterprises. In recent years, there has been a notable increase in drone utilisation by these groups, such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), employing drones for intelligence gathering, surveillance, and propaganda purposes. The current widespread adoption of drones suggests they are poised to become a fundamental tool for VNSAs, posing significant challenges for security forces and policymakers.

The innovation dilemma arises from the paradoxical relationship between military technological advancement and its potential security risks when weapons, particularly drones, fall into the wrong hands.  This poses a complex challenge of harnessing drone technology for constructive purposes while mitigating the threats posed by their misuse for terrorism and illicit activities in the Sahel. It involves analysing the proliferation of drones, their integration into VNSA operations, and the resulting asymmetrical warfare dynamics for counterterrorism and security in the Sahel. 

While direct evidence of VNSAs acquiring long-range armed drones remains limited, incidents involving modified commercial drones for surveillance and propaganda dissemination underscore the increasing technological capabilities of these groups in the Sahel. The growing concerns revolve around the broader implications of further drone proliferation and integration into VNSA arsenals, extending beyond intelligence gathering and surveillance to lethal attacks with long-range drones. Without robust international regulations to curb sales and spread, coupled with the relative affordability and accessibility of commercial off-the-shelf drones, the widespread adoption of lethal drones by VNSAs could become widespread with greater lethality and impact, as seen in recent attacks by the Iran-backed Houthi faction on US Naval vessels in the Red Sea.

This Insight delves into the innovation dilemma posed by the unchecked proliferation of drones among VNSAs in the Sahel, examining the factors behind this proliferation, how VNSAs are incorporating drones into their operations, and the resulting security implications for the region.

Eyes in the Sky and Terror from Below

VNSAs are a range of groups and organisations operating outside government control, employing violence to achieve their objectives. These entities, including rebel groups, insurgents, terrorists, militias, and criminal gangs, operate autonomously and often engage in armed conflict, terrorism, and organised crime. In sub-Saharan Africa, various VNSAs such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and Boko Haram are active alongside other rebellion groups in countries like Nigeria, Chad, Mali, and Niger. These groups have reportedly used hobbyist or modified drones in their operational activities in the Sahel. 

Drones possess diverse capabilities, including rapid decision-making, manoeuvrability, combat readiness, situational awareness, remote sensing, and intelligence gathering. Their ability to track, monitor, and engage targets in remote or inaccessible areas further amplifies their effectiveness. In the Sahel, the proliferation of drones among VNSAs is fueled by several factors, including commercial accessibility, cost, porous borders, technical utility, and propaganda. State and foreign actors have used drones for counterterrorism missions as an instrument for power projection, an ‘eye in the sky’ to support combat troops, and for targeted strikes. The current use of drones by VNSAs in the Sahel to gather intel to perpetrate terrorist attacks underscores how VNSAs are adapting the technical and tactical utility of drones to boost their operations. A 2022 ISWAP attack in Gubio Town in July 2022 resulted in the death of five members of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), a government-backed military. It was claimed that the attack occurred following the observation of a drone over the position of counter-insurgency forces. Beyond the Sahel, other VNSAs have demonstrated the potential of drone adaptation, enhancing lethality and operational efficiency. Between 1994 and 2018, over 14 terrorist attacks utilised aerial drones. Examples include Aum Shinrikyo’s failed 1994 attempt to deploy a remote-controlled helicopter with sarin gas in Toyko and the Islamic State’s widespread use of commercial and homemade drones in Iraq and Syria since 2014. These incidents highlight the diverse applications of drones by terrorist groups, from intelligence gathering to chemical weapon dissemination.

How are VNSAs using Drones in the Sahel?

Several factors influence the diffusion of drones among VNSAs in the Sahel. Firstly, the availability of commercial off-the-shelf drones that can be easily weaponised contributes to their widespread adoption. Additionally, their affordability, especially compared to more advanced drone technologies, makes them an attractive option for VNSAs. These factors are compounded by the accessibility of commercial drones, with prices of some Chinese drones, for instance, ranging from $3000 – $20,000, offering varying payloads, endurance, and aerial capabilities. Moreover, porous borders, weak governance, and ungoverned spaces provide fertile ground for VNSAs to operate freely. The fragile security climate resulting from prolonged conflicts and the unregulated smuggling of weapons further exacerbate the situation, facilitating the unchecked proliferation of drones in the Sahel.

The current utilisation patterns of drones by VNSAs in the Sahel predominantly manifest in two main methods – adaptation (information vectors) and configuration (attack vectors). Adaptation involves integrating drones into VNSA operations by adjusting their tactical and technical functionalities, extending beyond mere intelligence gathering and surveillance. Typically, repurposed off-the-shelf commercial drones are employed primarily for information gathering for passive defence, pre-attack reconnaissance, and propaganda production. Propaganda videos disseminated through drones serve not only as a tool for recruitment but also to demonstrate technological prowess, enhancing the groups’ perceived legitimacy and power. They also serve symbolic purposes, projecting airpower, status and technological progress, potentially aiding fundraising efforts.

Configuration is the repurposing and outfitting of hobbyist drones with explosives of different payloads to serve as attack vectors. This method transforms drones into lethal instruments capable of carrying out explosive terrorist attacks. Drones also provide standoff capabilities, enabling multiple attacks simultaneously and giving them an offensive edge against security forces.

Beyond these two modes, drones could evolve as an innovation vector, influencing the modification of VNSA operations. For instance, drones like the Turkish-made STM Kargu-2 leverage AI and machine learning algorithms for autonomous target identification and engagement, hinting at the future integration of AI advancements into drone weaponry. Although current drone capabilities lack widespread AI-driven autonomy, the next generation is expected to be more cost-effective and incorporate advanced technologies like AI-assisted ‘swarming’ to enhance their resilience to countermeasures. Despite limited evidence of VNSAs possessing long-range drones with AI capabilities, the inexorable progression of technology suggests that such advancements are not a question of if but when these will be reported, particularly as it is difficult to track how VNSAs are using drones except when the attacks have occurred and been taken responsibility for. 

‘Dronification’ among VNSAs in the Sahel

The implications of further unchecked drone spread (‘dronification’) among VNSAs in the Sahel region pose significant security challenges. The Sahel is already grappling with security crises stemming from terrorist activities, armed banditry, and conflicts, exacerbating the displacement of communities and the breakdown of governance structures. The proliferation of drones among VNSAs introduces a new dimension to counterterrorism efforts, potentially shifting the balance of power in favour of these groups, particularly as multiple suppliers like Iran, China, and Turkey flood the Sahel with relatively cheap drones. The laissez-faire access to these drones means all actors, including rebel groups, can purchase these technologies.

The aftermath of 9/11 demonstrated the strategic advantages of drones as they demonstrated the technical and tactical utility of their weaponry against targeted entities and for minimizing soldier footprint in battlespaces, leading to their widespread adoption by both state and non-state actors. However, this accessibility is not a silver bullet – it poses a significant security dilemma.  Actions taken by entities to increase their security/capabilities elicit reactions from other entities that decrease security/capabilities due to reversal action as VNSAs seek to bolster their capabilities through drone acquisition. Moreover, the affiliation of certain drone manufacturers with rebel groups, such as Iran-backed Houthi factions, exacerbates concerns about the proliferation of these technologies.

The risk of a ‘copycat syndrome’ is ever-present, as seen in conflict zones like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, where extremist groups have adopted drone tactics from one another. Recent events, such as Kataib Hezbollah’s drone attack on US troops in Jordan, underscore the escalating threat posed by VNSAs’ utilisation of drone technology. The adaptation of hobbyist drones in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen has been reported in recent events, including its use by Hamas in attacking Israel’s Defense Observation Tower and deploying swarms of drones to target naval vessels. Boko Haram, ISWAP, and al-Shabaab are likely to take a cue from the increased use of drones by these groups to add to their operational repertoire. While there is currently no discernible pattern linking ISIS and its affiliates in the Sahel, the increasing adoption of drones by VNSAs signals a growing security challenge that must be addressed urgently. As these groups continue to observe and learn from each other’s tactics, the risk of drone-enabled attacks in the region is on the rise, necessitating proactive measures to mitigate this evolving threat.


As drones become increasingly prevalent and the Sahel grapples with the complex interplay of security challenges, proactive measures are needed to address evolving security threats posed by drones, emphasising the saliency of staying ahead of evolving technological adaptation. Addressing the innovation dilemma posed by unchecked drone proliferation among VNSAs demands a multifaceted approach. Regulatory frameworks must be bolstered to curb the illicit acquisition and use of drones by VNSAs. Additionally, intelligence gathering and surveillance capabilities must be enhanced to detect and disrupt VNSA drone operations effectively, including investments in counter-drone technologies and tactics are imperative to mitigate the asymmetric advantage conferred by drones to these actors.

Dr Francis Okpaleke is a Senior Research and Policy Analyst in Canada. His domain expertise cuts across drone technology, terrorism and security studies and Defense studies.