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Tech and Terror: Why Have Drones Not Penetrated the Afghanistan-Pakistan Militant Landscape? 

Tech and Terror: Why Have Drones Not Penetrated the Afghanistan-Pakistan Militant Landscape? 
29th April 2024 Abdul Basit
In Insights


The Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) region is one of the world’s most volatile and competitive militant landscapes. The region has lost imminence in the counterterrorism hierarchy after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the relocation of the epicentre of global jihadism to sub-Saharan Africa’s Central Sahel region. However, it still hosts the world’s deadliest terrorist groups like al-Qaeda (AQ), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK). 

Unlike other regional militant landscapes and conflict zones like the Middle East, Africa and Russia-Ukraine, the role of emerging (lethal) technologies such as drones in shaping the techniques, tactics and procedures of terrorist groups is less pronounced. A recent study noted that there were only 31 attacks using drones in South Asia between 2006-2023, compared to 1025 attacks in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Although the Taliban had used drones in their operations prior to returning to power in 2021, TTP and ISK, currently the most notorious terror groups in the region, have shied away from using this technology. Against this backdrop, this Insight aims to question why drones have not featured in the Af-Pak conflict theatre as effectively as in the Middle East and Africa and whether this trend will likely persist with the diffusion of emerging technologies and their growing lethality and affordability. 

History of Drone Use in the Af-Pak Region by Terrorist Groups

Between 2001 and 2005, there were at least five plots (of varying degrees) that involved the use/attempted use of drones by AQ-linked individuals. In July 2001, AQ had planned to use remote-controlled planes to attack the G8 Summit in Italy. In September 2005, the Pakistani Army recovered Chinese-made remote control planes from an AQ hideout in North Waziristan that was alleged to be used for reconnaissance and potential weaponisation. In the same month, an individual based in the US who was linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based group that had carried out several terrorist attacks in India, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was arrested for attempting to obtain a model aircraft to be sent back to the group in Pakistan. In 2013, AQ operatives in Pakistan, with the assistance of an avionics engineer, successfully built and tested small attack drones before the security services discovered them.

In 2012, a coalition raid on a Taliban hideout in Helmand resulted in the recovery of a small drone alongside Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and small arms. The Taliban, like the Islamic State (IS), started using commercially available drones for shooting propaganda videos, such as filming their suicide attacks, as early as 2016. However, they only began using drones offensively in 2020. Their first known drone attack was in November 2020 to drop explosives onto the compound of the governor of Kunduz’s residence, killing four and injuring eight others. Subsequently, the Taliban have used drones in the provinces of Baghlan, Balkh, Paktia, Logab and Faryab. 

Prior to the 2021 takeover, the Taliban also created a 12-member secret drone unit comprising engineers and tech experts to modify small, commercially available, over-the-counter drones into weapons. Though Hezbollah effectively used drones against Israel in 2006, it was IS’ use of drones that inspired the Taliban to follow suit. The Taliban’s drone unit successfully modified small drones into tools capable of dropping ammunition from the air and hitting targets on the ground. 

Between 2020 and 2021, the Taliban’s drone unit carried out six to seven attacks, primarily targeted assassinations and localised attacks against anti-Taliban warlords and security checkposts. However, the commercially available drones’ loud noise and the small payload capacity undermined their utility in advancing the Taliban’s asymmetric war objectives. It bears mention that the Taliban’s drone unit also smuggled an industrial drone from China through a front agriculture company to Afghanistan via Pakistan for 60,000 USD. The prohibitively high cost of commercial drones forced the Taliban to abandon their drone unit. Critically, the Taliban used drones as a tool in their insurgent or asymmetric warfare against the conventionally superior Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSFs). 

Ever since the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan in 2021, the group has refrained from using drones, as they are primarily an instrument of asymmetric warfare for insurgent groups. Since becoming a de-facto state, there is no incentive for the Taliban to continue using drones offensively. Other groups in the Af-Pak theatre, such as the TTP and ISK, have not adopted the technology. This is surprising given the history of use of this technology by both their parent/affiliate groups, i.e. the Afghan Taliban and IS.

On the India-Pakistan border, drones have been used slightly differently. Militant groups in Pakistan are alleged to be using drones to transport drugs and arms across the border into areas like Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, indicating a prominent crime-terror nexus in the region. The Indian Border Security Force (BSF) was reported to have intercepted 90 drones from Pakistan in 2023, some believed to be of Chinese origin. Bigger drones up to 8ft-wide and with high-resolution cameras have also been detected. India has only suffered one drone-related attack to date in 2021, where drones were used to drop two IEDs at an Indian Air Force station in Jammu. Yet, terrorist groups in the India-Pakistan region have not crossed the threshold of acquiring drones for attacks but have instead contented themselves with using them as a means of transporting weapons.

Reasons for the Lack of Drone Use in the Af-Pak Region


Considering the above, several possible reasons account for the absence of drone use by groups such as the TTP and ISK and the comparatively late adoption of drones by the Taliban.  First, drones are more useful and lethal in urban terrorism or close-quarter combat; the Af-Pak regions where terrorism is most prevalent are rural and open. Using drones in an urban environment can overwhelm security apparatuses and make them difficult to shoot down. Likewise, drones can manoeuvre through the narrow spaces of high rises to hit targets and evade detection and interdiction by security forces. 

IS successfully used drones in Iraq and Syria passively for filming propaganda, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and to aid in attacks and offensively to carry out attacks. The height of the offensive use of drones by IS was between 2016 and 2018, when there were 338 reported incidents of drone use, out of which 262 involved offensive use. Much of IS’ drone use during this time was in urban areas such as Mosul, Nineveh, Deir Ez-Zor and Raqqa. However, most terrorist groups in the Af-Pak region either operate in mountainous terrains or open space tribal lands where the efficacy of explosive-laden commercial drones is low. Unlike a built-up urban environment, shooting down a drone in open areas is easier. Hence, a drone showing up at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is easier to interdict than those hiding in an urban terrain like Mosul. 

High Costs

The second factor deterring terrorist groups in Af-Pak from experimenting with drones and incorporating them into their arsenal is the relatively high cost. Terrorist groups operating in the Af-Pak region, barring the Taliban, are less resourceful compared with their counterparts in the Middle East or Africa. For groups like TTP and ISK, IEDs, suicide bombings, and conventional weapons remain their weapons of choice. An average IED in the Af-Pak region costs approximately 350 USD, a commercial drone costs between 500 and 1000 USD, and an industrial drone costs 10,000 USD or above. IEDs are cheaper, more easily accessible and, critically, more effective. Furthermore, suicide bombers are abundant in the region and remain the more lethal option as opposed to other novel methods of attack. Drones, on the contrary, are expensive and less impactful. 

Strategic Objectives

The third point is the utility of technology in advancing the strategic and ideological objectives of terrorist groups. Whether or not a group adopts a certain weapon depends on the right combination of utilitarianism and publicity that the weapon offers. Beyond offering publicity, drones do not add much operational value to terrorist groups operating in the Af-Pak region. In terms of a cost-benefit analysis, conventional attack methods such as suicide bombings and IEDs remain the more attractive option, guaranteeing a significant lethality rate for a much lower price. These are also tried and tested methods that have worked well in advancing the goals of these groups. At the same time, premature induction of drones can induce counterterrorism efforts against the group. 


The absence of foreign fighters in the region may also contribute to the lack of adoption of this technology. In the late 1990s, AQ actively experimented with unconventional weapons such as chemical and biological agents when the region was awash with foreign fighters and talent. Likewise, IS was able to build and sustain multiple drone procurement and manufacturing networks as a result of foreign talents, such as Danish national Basil Hassan and Bangladeshi brothers Siful Sujan and Ataul Haque, who were key players in their drone activity. Another speculative explanation for the lack of drone use could be the lack of technical know-how among the current crop of fighters in the ISK and TTP ranks.

Return of the Taliban

The final factor that has prevented drones from becoming a technology of choice for terrorist groups in the Af-Pak region is the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. The Taliban discontinued their drone unit in 2021. Allowing other groups in Afghanistan to experiment with drones would create challenges for the Taliban concerning its counterterrorism obligations under the Doha Agreement 2020. The Taliban have struggled over two decades to regain power and will do anything in their capacity to retain it. Allowing terrorist groups such as TTP and ISK to experiment with drones in the region does not suit the Taliban’s strategic interests. 


The lack of drone adoption by terrorist groups in the Af-Pak region is mainly due to geographical, utilitarian and cost considerations. In other words, it is the access, affordability and efficacy that determine whether a technology is worth adopting or not. For now, drones are a less attractive weapon choice for groups like the TTP and ISK because conventional weapons and attack methods are more lethal and cost-effective in the terrain they operate in. Having said that, a recent United Nations Security Council report noted that the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which receives training from AQ, has developed specialised teams and drone manufacturing facilities in Afghanistan, producing multiple rotary-wing drones which have been successfully tested with M16 rifles. 

Given the evidence of residual drone activity in the region and considering developments within and beyond the Af-Pak region and the commercialisation of technology, regional and international governments must remain vigilant and adapt to counter these advancements. Regional and global cooperation remains crucial in this regard. While traditional attack methods may remain the more attractive option in the Af-Pak region, the strategic and tactical advantage of drone technology cannot be underestimated as the threat landscape continues to evolve. For example, ISK recently released a poster calling for drone attacks in the West, although it has not demonstrated much capability in using drones thus far. In the future, the diffusion of technology and the growing lethality and affordability of drones might change the strategic calculus of terrorist groups in the Af-Pak region, especially ISK, which harbours the intent and capability for overseas attacks to adopt it. 

Abdul Basit is a Senior Associate Fellow at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, a specialist unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Rueben Dass is a Senior Analyst at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, a specialist unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.