There was a loud explosion and people in the Caracas military parade started running. The Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro Moros continued speaking, until security guards hustled him away.
The official story is that two drones were used to attack the president, each allegedly carrying 1 kilogram of high explosives. One drone, according to official Venezuelan sources, flew over the grandstand where the president stood, but did not explode. The other one, allegedly a few blocks down the parade route, did explode – causing soldiers to run.
A cellphone video of an apartment block shows black burn marks, but photos also show that the metal grating covering the apartment windows was not damaged or distorted.
The incident raises curious and serious unanswered questions, the first of which is: Was it really a drone attack?
There have been no reports of people who actually saw the drones. Even so, the Venezuelan government quickly identified them as DJI Matrice 600 hexacopters. These are popular Chinese-made drones commonly used for camera photography. Each weighs 9.6 kilograms with batteries and has a maximum takeoff weight of 15kg. Such drones sell for a little less than $5,000 and can be bought from many outlets including Amazon and eBay.
The Venezuelan authorities also said electronic jammers kept one drone from exploding over the Presidential grandstand, but no reason was given why the other drone blew up two or three blocks down the road.
This type of drone with an alleged payload of explosives and a special controller for the explosives could fly for roughly 25 minutes, meaning it could cover quite a few kilometers before hitting its target.
Why use a hexacopter?
This produces the first curiosity – why the slow-moving hexacopter was chosen for the attack. The Matrice 600 has a speed of about 3 meters per second when it descends (or 6.7 mph). If the cellphone video is correct, it would have taken some seconds for the drone to drop down close enough to its target to get a kill.
The normal response to such an intrusion near a dignitary would be to try to neutralize it, and the logical thing would be to try to shoot it down. Yet there is no evidence that any of soldiers or security guards attempted to fire at either drone. What we see on the video is soldiers running away from the explosion at an apartment building and people in the grandstand trying to see where the explosion was along the parade route.
It may be that the soldier’s guns lacked ammunition (to protect Maduro). But the security guards certainly would have been armed, but they did not attempt to shoot at anything.
Another curiosity is that the Venezuelan government announced that the drones were each carrying 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of C-4 explosive – a very powerful “plastic” (meaning malleable) explosive that can only be set off with a detonator. Conveniently, it would not explode if hit by gunfire, perhaps letting soldiers or security guards off the hook for not responding to the imminent danger.
In any case, a conventional drone platform would have been a better choice to attack el Presidente, since they fly faster and are easier to pilot. There are plenty of them available on the open market, and they can even be home-built, as the Russians found out when their air base was hit by a drone “swarm” in Syria last month. Despite all the fancy electronic jammers the Russians have, the attack on the Khmeimim air base was successful. Why didn’t the Venezuelan attackers use one?
The cellphone video – allegedly the only video of the Caracas attack – shows a drone exploding but not near any buildings. But the next query that comes to mind is: At a noisy parade, with the President speaking, why would anyone be scanning the sky? An overhead drone would be very difficult to hear, and aiming a cellphone camera and capturing the precise seconds of the attack would be quite extraordinary, if that really happened.
The next curiosity is that the C-4 explosive – if that is what it was – is powerful, but even more destructive in bombs also stuffed with metal shards, nails or ball bearings, because those elements expand the kill zone. This is something that even low-end terrorists would have known for years. Meanwhile, the apartment apparently struck by the exploding drone shows no signs of any shrapnel, which would have ensured that those surrounding the president would be unable to help him.
Six arrested but doubts remain
The Venezuelans not only announced what the drones used were and the type of explosives they were carrying, but they immediately arrested at least six people including the two “pilots” allegedly operating from an automobile. Figuring all this out so quickly is quite amazing, and would put the American FBI or Britain’s MI-5 to shame. How did they do it?
Maduro also was able to say exactly who the perpetrators were – the Venezuelan opposition leader Julio Borgos, allegedly in cahoots with Columbia and unnamed “financial people” in Florida. This is also curious and raises questions, but Maduro, of course, says he has “proof.”
Show trials will follow, no doubt, to presumably answer all these questions and reconcile all the oddities.
But, for me, various explanations from Venezuelan authorities have failed to demonstrate in a conclusive manner that two drones were indeed used to try and kill President Maduro.