PARIS — It’s been raining in the city of lights for the last couple of days. The guards at the U.S. embassy next to Place de la Concorde are sheltering under canopies. For most of the day Thursday low clouds made the Eiffel Tower look as if it had been decapitated. And probably the inclement weather is one reason the mysterious drones that buzzed the embassy, the tower, and other monuments and transportation hubs on Monday and Tuesday night have not been seen or heard from since. This isn’t flying weather.
But the drones certainly will be back in one form or another sometime soon, and even if they prove to be souped-up toys controlled by pimply adolescents out for geek thrills (or drunk government employees like the idiot who crashed a drone into the White House grounds last month), they’re the humming, buzzing harbingers of serious dangers to come.
(And, no, if you saw reports that three Al Jazeera journalists were arrested for flying a drone in the parklands on the western edge of the city, that was not the end of this story. The journalists apparently were filming their own drone for the report they wanted to broadcast about the mysterious ones, with which it seems they had no connection.)
In the near term, little civilian drones aren’t blowing things up the way big American Predators and Reapers do when they launch Hellfire missiles to vaporize suspected enemies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.
But some analysts warn that day may come. “The main issue,” says French criminologist and security consultant Alain Bauer, “is that we constructed drones thinking they will be used by us and not against us. And we did not think about countermeasures.”
Indeed, French authorities were not able to identify the drones or the people flying them on two consecutive nights, any more than they have been able to stop drone flights over French nuclear plants.
If the things had been big enough to carry significant explosive payloads (which no hobbyist drones are able to do), they might have sown real terror. But the problem posed right now is not one of payloads but of propaganda. And all along that has been the most potent weapon of al Qaeda, its franchises, and, especially, of the so-called Islamic State.
In fact, ISIS has been using drones for a combination of video surveillance and propaganda at least since August 2014, when it posted aerial footage of the Syrian base it eventually overran in Raqqa. In October it posted drone video of the besieged Kurdish Syrian city of Kobani in a slick bit of propaganda “hosted” by captive British journalist John Cantlie. What appeared to be the same or very similar drone footage was used again in a December production by ISIS that emulated scenes from the popular video game “Call of Duty.” The drone video was intercut with shots of supposed suicide bombings and animated inserts that showed where they supposedly took place.
It is not hard to imagine a similar video being produced after attacks or attempted attacks on the ground in Paris, Rome, London, or other cities. The seemingly omniscient eye of the drone hovers above the urban landscape and animated inserts show where, say, police were gunned down, or journalists and Jews were murdered, as happened in Paris in January.
Al Qaeda and ISIS have made the idea of an “eye for an eye” a critical part of their ideology and their preaching: They claim they have the right to kill civilians, including innocent children in their mothers’ arms, because that is what the West is blamed for doing in the Muslim world. To rationalize the barbaric burning alive of a Jordanian pilot, ISIS precedes the gruesome spectacle with footage of men, women, and children ostensibly burned by the bombs of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition.
Since the Reapers and Predators and Hellfire missiles have been the weapons of choice for killing al Qaeda and ISIS leaders, the eye-for-eye symbolism of the terrorists flying drones over Western capitals is obvious—especially at a time when ISIS is in Libya beheading Christians and pointing its knife at “Rome,” which really means all of the West.
Indeed, even if the those maneuvering their little birds over the U.S. embassy in Paris and several of the city’s most famous monuments had nothing whatsoever to do with al Qaeda or ISIS, it’s a good bet that someday soon, somehow, they will post their footage on the Web, at which point the terrorists will appropriate it as they do any other imagery they find useful.
So, no, the mystery drones over Paris are no joke.
But there is some consolation to be had. For all the propaganda that ISIS put out, including footage from its drone, to convince the world it was about to take Kobani, it did not. The Kurdish fighters, the coalition air force, and the kinds of drones that terrorists do not have (yet) finally defeated ISIS there.
The bad news: There are many more battles to come.