Nicolas Maduro, shortly before the explosions on Saturday.
Photo: Miraflores Presidential Palace (AP)

Venezuelan government officials say that two explosions at a military assemblage in Caracas on Saturday were in fact an attempt on President Nicolas Maduro’s life using bomb-carrying drones—and though the exact nature of just what happened is still being disputed, the idea that it indeed involved bomb drones isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.

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Here’s what happened. Per the Associated Press, at around 5:30pm ET, Maduro took the stage at a celebration of the National Guard’s 81st anniversay. Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said the president then witnessed a “flying device” that detonated, followed seconds later by a second explosion, resulting in the injury of several soldiers present.

While Maduro pointed the finger at conspirators in the “far right” working in coordination with expats in the U.S. and Colombia, specifically blaming Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the AP writes firefighters questioned whether there was really a drone attack or whether the incident was a gas explosion:

Venezuela’s government routinely accuses opposition activists of plotting to attack and overthrow Maduro, a deeply unpopular leader who was recently elected to a new term in office in a vote decried by dozens of nations. Maduro has steadily moved to concentrate power as the nation reels from a crippling economic crisis.

... Firefighters at the scene of the blast disputed the government’s version of events. Three local authorities said there had been a gas tank explosion inside an apartment near Maduro’s speech where smoke could be seen streaming out of a window. They provided no further details on how they had reached that conclusion.

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Maduro, who has held office since 2013 after taking over from predecessor Hugo Chávez, has increasingly turned to authoritarian tactics as his country grappled with a devastating economic crisis. He was re-elected earlier this year, though amid poor poll showings, widespread allegations of fraud, and a general lack of faith in the democratic process.

In other words, Maduro’s government has a credibility deficit, and it’s tough to gauge whether this was some sort of staged event designed to strengthen his position or someone really did get mad enough to jerry-rig some crude bomb drones and fly them at the president.

Signs of smoke on an apartment complex near the site of the explosions.
Photo: Ariana Cubillos (AP)

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According to the AP, another little-known group called Soldiers in T-shirts took responsibility, saying that they had flown two drones laden with C4 explosives at Maduro but government sharpshooters had taken the drones down. It’s not clear what that group is—beyond a purported organization of disgruntled soldiers and/or veterans—or whether the claim of responsibility was a hoax.

According to the Washington Post, one “military expert and former member of the armed ­forces” said that the event was real and not staged by the government. Control Ciudadano head Rocio San Miguel, another military expert, told the paper she believed it was probable that the government had simply lost control of one of their own drones and destroyed it before it could hit the presidential podium.

Washington Office on Latin America regional expert David Smilde told the AP initial signs were that the attack was not staged, because the images of Venezuelan soldiers running for cover and Maduro being swarmed by bodyguards made his already unpopular government look weak.

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If true, though, the attack would have ample precedent. The U.S. military has long used drones for targeted assassinations, and an increasing number of other militaries have begun to deploy their own drones of varying levels of sophistication. More similar to the Venezuelan government’s description of the incident are the drones used by terror group ISIS, which has infamously deployed off-the-shelf consumer drones strapped with explosives for years, as well as operated entire workshops dedicated to building or retrofitting unmanned vehicles capable of carrying deadly payloads in Iraq.

As Wired noted, a 2016 report by the nonprofit Open Briefing noted that drones were already widely used for surveillance and that their use in targeted killings—ISIS’ reported tactics were rather clumsy at that time—could be refined in the future to include coordinated “drone swarms.”

RAND Corporation international security policy analyst Colin Clarke told Wired that there would be nothing particularly technically challenging about pulling off the alleged Maduro incident: “The barriers to entry have been lowered so much that literally anyone with enough money to afford a drone and the technical competence of a 12-year-old can pull off an attempt like this.”

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Per Wired, virtually all of the methods for defending against drones come with some caveats. Radio frequency jammers that interfere with operator control also potentially interfere with other radio communications. Geofencing, or software restrictions on where drones can be flown, can be bypassed simply by installing modified firmware. A Dutch trial to train eagles to capture rogue drones failed when the birds did not always follow their training, and could have simply resulted in serious injuries to the eagles involved anyways. Just shooting the things is always a possibility—and the U.S. Navy has been testing lasers that do that—but does require someone with really good aim be on hand.

Whether or not the explosions involved a drone, Venezuelans have been preparing for further fallout as Maduro’s government may be preparing sweeping mass arrests and military purges, the Washington Post reported. The Miami Herald reported that activists in the U.S. are warning that Maduro is very likely to use the incident as a pretext to attack the opposition, and he has already threatened “maximum punishment” and “no forgiveness” over the incident.

Update, 2:30pm ET: From the Washington Post, residents in a nearby building gave brief descriptions of the alleged bomb drone and questioned the accounts of a gas leak:

“We saw the drone that looked like the size of half a bicycle. It came from the sky and we thought it was a boy playing with it,” said Pedro Peña, 62, who was in a seventh floor apartment with Gladys Miquelena, 56.

Seconds after they saw it, it exploded, he said. “We were scared. It sounded like a bomb.”

...“It is not true that it was a gas leak,” Peña, said. “Gas comes through tubes here. I think it was a drone with explosives inside of it.”

“It was not a gas leak. We have direct gas,” said Catherine Pita, 24, another neighbor. “It was a drone that hit the building and caused the fire. One girl was hit by flying glass on the head and was taken to the hospital.”

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[Wired]