Can model planes be terror tools?

  • Article by: JAY LINDSAY , Associated Press
  • Updated: September 30, 2011 - 9:37 AM

Hobbyists and explosives experts said an alleged plot to attack sensitive targets in Washington appeared to be far-fetched.

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The Justice Department said a large remote-controlled plane similar to this could have been used in a plot to hit strategic targets in Washington.

Photo: U.S. Department of Justice, Associated Press

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BOSTON -- Model airplanes are suddenly on the public's radar as potential terrorist weapons.

A 26-year-old man from a Boston suburb was arrested Wednesday and accused of plotting to attack the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol with remote-controlled model planes packed with explosives.

These are not balsa-wood-and-rubber-band toys investigators are talking about. The FBI said Rezwan Ferdaus hoped to use military-jet replicas, 5 to 7 1/2 feet long, guided by GPS devices and capable of speeds over 100 miles per hour.

Federal officials have long been aware of the possibility someone might try to use such planes as weapons, but there are no restrictions on their purchase -- Ferdaus is said to have bought his over the Internet.

Counterterrorism experts and model-aircraft hobbyists said it would be nearly impossible to inflict large-scale damage of the sort Ferdaus allegedly envisioned using model planes. The aircraft are too small, can't carry enough explosives and are too tricky to fly, they said.

"The idea of pushing a button and this thing diving into the Pentagon is kind of a joke, actually," said Greg Hahn, technical director of the Academy of Model Aeronautics.

Rick Nelson, a former Navy helicopter pilot who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Ferdaus would have had to hit a window or other vulnerable area to maximize damage, and that would have taken precision flying.

"Flying a remote-controlled plane isn't as easy as it actually looks, and then to put an explosive on it and have that explosive detonate at the time and place that you want it add to the difficulty of actually doing it," he said.

Degree in physics

Ferdaus, of Ashland, Mass., was arrested after federal agents posing as Al-Qaida members delivered what he believed was 24 pounds of C-4 explosive, authorities said. He was charged with attempting to damage or destroy a federal building with explosives. A federal affidavit claims he began planning "jihad" against the United States in early 2010 after becoming convinced through jihadi websites and videos that America was evil.

Ferdaus had a physics degree from Northeastern University and enjoyed "taking stuff apart," according to court papers.

The model planes Ferdaus eyed were the F-4 Phantom and the F-86 Sabre, small-scale versions of military jets, investigators said. The F-4 is the more expensive of the two, at up to $20,000, Hahn said. The F-86, one of which Ferdaus actually obtained, costs $6,000 to $10,000.

Ferdaus' plan, as alleged in court papers, was to launch three such planes from a park near the Pentagon and Capitol and use GPS to direct them toward the buildings, where they would detonate on impact and blow the Capitol dome to "smithereens." He planned to pack 5 pounds of plastic explosives on each plane, according to prosecutors.

James Crippin, an explosives and anti-terrorism expert, said that much C-4 could do serious damage -- a half-pound will obliterate a car. But he said getting a stable explosive like C-4 to blow up at the right time would have been hugely difficult.

And there were slim prospects of causing any serious damage to buildings like the Pentagon and Capitol, which are undoubtedly hardened to withstand explosions, according to Crippin, director of the Western Forensic Law Enforcement Training Center. "Basically, I think he's suffering from delusions of grandeur," he said.

'Almost impossible'

Hahn said the heavier of the two models Ferdaus was allegedly planning to use could carry a maximum of 2 pounds of plastic explosive before malfunctioning. That's not including the weight of any GPS system. "It's almost impossible for him to get this done," he said.

Remote-controlled aircraft have been considered by terrorists before. In 2008, Christopher Paul of Worthington, Ohio, pleaded guilty to plotting terrorist attacks using explosive devices and a remote-controlled boat and helicopter.

After Sept. 11, federal agents asked the Academy of Model Aeronautics' 143,000 members to watch for any enthusiasts who might be buying planes with bad intentions.

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