A Match Made in Hell? The Rise of Autonomous Weapons Use in Non-State Armed Groups

About the author(s):

Insook Yoon is a Public International Law graduate from Utrecht University where she specialised in conflict and security. Her interests lie in the use of autonomous weapon systems in compliance with international humanitarian law.

“Hasta la vista, baby”

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

The Terminator was maybe the true visionary of our time, as the fear of ‘killer robots’, a recurring theme in fictional pop culture, actually came to life. Known as autonomous weapons systems (AWS) in the legal sphere, their rapid development and spread, especially with the recent increasing popularity of open-source AI, has become an increasingly hot issue for the international community. These weapons systems, which work with different levels of human control, have the ability to change the way armed conflicts are waged and raise serious concerns under international humanitarian law (IHL). One huge risk of autonomous weapons is that they can fall into the hands of non-state armed groups, since AWS are “simple enough to be made as a classroom project”.

In this blog post, I will further demonstrate the reasons why the employment of autonomous weapons by non-state armed groups is dangerous under IHL. Furthermore, I acknowledge and respond to Jonathan Kwik’s 2022 article, “Mitigating the Risk of Autonomous Weapon Misuse by Insurgent Groups,” in which he asserts that the spread of autonomous weapons in the hands of insurgent groups poses a substantial risk to global security. Kwik recognises that autonomous weapons can bring military benefits, but he underlines that their usage by non-state actors presents distinct issues that must be addressed. Kwik’s claims will be evaluated, and my own perspectives offered regarding the risks and problems faced by non-state armed groups’ use of autonomous weapons systems. 

A new player enters the arena

While completely autonomous weapons allegedly do not exist yet, numerous countries are developing or deploying systems that are close to it. So far, there have been allegations that Israel, Russia, South Korea, and Turkey have deployed weapons systems with autonomous capabilities, however it is unclear whether this capacity has been used. Furthermore, numerous nations, like Australia, the United Kingdom, China, and the United States, are devoting significant resources to the creation of AWS, with a constantly expanding spectrum of sizes and powers. These developments will influence how countries approach armed conflict, influencing issues such as commerce and power balance. The use of AWS is expected to radically alter the nature of combat and influence the interpretation of laws. And now the added factor of non-state armed groups into the equation results in another headache

Non-state armed groups, such as terrorist organisations or armed militias, pose substantial threats to world peace and security. They frequently operate beyond the bounds of IHL and have been responsible for some of the most severe human rights crimes and violations of IHL in recent years. The use of autonomous weapons by these parties results in a variety of risks, both in terms of armed conflicts and the protection of civilians. Recent examples of non-state armed groups using autonomous weapons in war zones highlight the substantial dangers and risks posed by the proliferation of such weapons. In Yemen, Houthi rebels, who have had the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in a chokehold since 2014, have employed drones to attack military and civilian targets, including oil infrastructure and airports. The most recent attack was on a convoy carrying several government officials including Yemen’s defence minister. These strikes caused severe damage and sparked concerns about the region’s development of autonomous weaponry. 

The employment of autonomous weapons by non-state armed groups in Yemen and other conflict zones poses considerable hazards to civilians, since these weapons can be deployed indiscriminately or disproportionately, resulting in the unintentional killing or injury of non-combatants. Non-state armed groups’ use of weaponised drones in SyriaAfghanistan, and other conflict zones has also prompted more discussion about the consequences for civilian protection and hostilities. In Syria, numerous non-state armed groups, including ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (ISIS’ Syrian branch), have reportedly employed armed drones to carry out strikes on both military and civilian targets. These attacks have resulted in substantial civilian casualties. Because attribution of responsibility for such strikes carried out by autonomous weapons can be complicated to pin down, the use of autonomous weapons by non-state armed groups further hinders efforts to hold those responsible for violations of international law accountable.

The need for in-depth research and regulation 

Discussions regarding the legality and regulation of autonomous weapons systems generally occur within the framework of IHL. However the danger of such weapons being obtained by illicit or non-state armed groups is a concerning topic that is currently rather under-researched and needs further investigation. Furthermore, the existing scholarship tends to focus primarily on the threat of artificial intelligence being easily accessed by non-state actors such as drug cartels and hackers. This is a slightly different concept than armed groups, although this distinction in typology is yet another debate in IHL! 

Considering a perceived a lack of scholarship on the issue, Kwik’s article is a crucial contribution to the emergence of more exhaustive literature specifically surrounding the use of autonomous weapons by non-state armed groups under international humanitarian law. Kwik not only highlights the risk of indiscriminate attacks on civilians through the use of AWS by non-state armed groups, but also touches upon the potential undermining of state monopoly on the use of force. His article explains, in section 4 from page 10, the risks and challenges associated with the use of AWS by non-state armed groups and from page 17 makes proposals for mitigating these risks; the article helps to promote a more informed and constructive discussion about how best to regulate the use of autonomous weapons under international humanitarian law. 

Is it possible to stop time and technology?

Kwik shows that the deployment of autonomous weapons by non-state armed groups holds potential to breach international law and undermine the international legal order’s foundations. All sides to a war, including non-state armed groups, are subject to international humanitarian law, which governs the conduct of armed conflict and in essence limits harm to and protects civilians and civilian objects. These groups’ employment of autonomous weapons is potentially incompatible with the norms of IHL and can result in significant violations. Kwik’s article emphasises the need for greater transparency and accountability on the use of autonomous weapons by non-state armed groups. 

It also shows that while there is general consensus that the employment of these weapons must adhere to IHL, numerous concerns remain unsolved regarding how this should be accomplished in reality. Kwik suggests in his recommendations that states must remain the protagonists in solving this issue. This would not only uphold the state’s monopoly on the use of force but also maintain the power of the state when dealing with non-state armed groups, in other words denying armed groups as legal entities. Kwik labels the state’s power as “centres of influence” which lead to three ways in which states can remain the main players in this issue: firstly, their ability to directly influence the supply of AWS as the primary or sole source of the technology; secondly, their ability to influence the way in which non-state armed groups can use the AWS via a number of ways explained on page 18; and thirdly, even states who do not supply such technology and cannot directly influence non-state armed groups can still remain the main actors by encouraging supplying states to exercise their influence. 

Kwik further makes a number of proposals for avoiding these threats, including the possibility of creating more restrictions not necessarily in the form of outright prohibition but rather via regulation. Kwik considers the example of the Arms Trade Treaty which aims at reducing IHL violations as a “good demonstration that restrictions can be used to reduce the risk of [IHL] violations related to arms transfers.” He also shortly mentions the possibility of the development and application of new legal frameworks in the future for autonomous weapons that contain requirements for states supplying AWS to thoroughly train recipients of the technology.

And so it goes on…

It is not difficult to agree with Kwik’s main argument that the use of autonomous weapons by non-state armed groups poses a significant risk to international security. However, I believe that the challenges associated with regulating autonomous weapons are even greater than Kwik suggests. 

Firstly, I believe there is a need to pay more attention to the technical advances and the ominous obstacles that are linked to minimising their use by armed groups. Technology evolves extremely fast and very recent developments have brought additional concerns to light. There has been a rise in commercial off-the-shelf AWS, such as drones, which are relatively easy to access and purchase. It has become more straightforward for non-state armed groups to acquire such weapons, even without state supply. As a result of these advances, the solutions that Kwik suggestions for mitigating the threat of AWS abuse by armed groups may be less relevant and effective. We must also question whether the power balance between states and non-state armed groups will remain as prescribed by Kwik, now that our age of technology has seemed to have suddenly sped up. Moreover, considerations for a new legal framework concerning AWS will not adequately only be supplemented by the inclusion of training requirements. Instead, specific guidelines are needed for AWS’ human control and decision-making to guarantee that these weapons are employed in compliance with IHL

Secondly, I believe that regulating autonomous weapons will require not only coordination among states but also requires a step outside of the IHL framework to encourage cooperation between states and the private sector, including the tech industry, and a push for better corporate responsibility under domestic law. The development and production of autonomous weapons can be carried out by private companies, making it difficult for states to regulate their activities effectively. States can also work with the private sector to develop guidelines and best practices for responsible development and deployment of autonomous weapons that align with IHL and ethical standards. This could include establishing standards for transparency and accountability in the development and deployment of autonomous weapons, as well as measures to prevent their misuse by non-state actors. 

Thirdly, the use of autonomous weapons raises fundamental ethical questions that were briefly mentioned in Kwik’s article. The development and use of autonomous weapons raise questions about the nature of warfare and the role of humans in conflict. It also emphasises accountability and responsibility in the use of lethal force. While autonomous weapons can provide military advantages, they also pose unique risks that require careful consideration and ethical reflection. However, Kwik concedes himself that his article is “primarily exploratory” due to the lack of extensive literature concerning the use of AWS by armed groups. Therefore only core concepts and their challenges are addressed by Kwik in order to provoke more debate.


It is clear that it is a very dangerous situation for autonomous weapons to fall into the hands of non-state armed groups. It can lead to indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks on civilians and civilian objects and contribute to the erosion of the state monopoly on the use of force. Recent examples of the use of autonomous weapons by non-state armed groups in conflict zones highlight the urgent need for global action to prevent the proliferation of these weapons and to hold accountable those who use them. Rather than focusing solely on creating new treaties in the future concerning the development and use of autonomous weapon systems, it is more important to ensure that the existing international humanitarian legal regime is fully applicable to autonomous weapons and are enforced rigorously in every case. 

It is also crucial to strengthen international efforts to prevent the diversion of autonomous weapons to non-state armed groups or other illicit actors. This can be achieved through enhanced cooperation among states, the adoption of comprehensive and effective export controls, and the development of measures to ensure the secure storage and transport of these weapons. The risks posed by autonomous weapons to civilians cannot be ignored any longer. It is the responsibility of all actors in the international community to work towards preventing misuse of these weapons, and to ensure that they are developed, deployed, and used in a manner that upholds the principles of international humanitarian law. After all, as said in The Terminator: “The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”

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