In the Crosshairs How al-Qaida & Co. Are Responding to Drone Warfare

Militant jihadists in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are becoming increasingly afraid of US drones. Despites their boasts of having shot down dozens of aircraft, they have yet to come up with effective countermeasures.

By Yassin Musharbash

Saad bin Laden (shown here in a 2001 frame grab from Al-Jazeera), one of the sons of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, was reportedly killed by a missile launched from an American drone in Pakistan in July 2009.

Saad bin Laden (shown here in a 2001 frame grab from Al-Jazeera), one of the sons of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, was reportedly killed by a missile launched from an American drone in Pakistan in July 2009.

An undisclosed location in Iraq, sometime in 2008. Lying on a wooden table in front of a tree is a drone. It is damaged. It is unclear whether it was shot down or merely crashed. Standing next to the table is the commander of a militant group, who is explaining the drone's propulsion system and camera.

The scene is taken from a propaganda video made by an Iraqi jihadist group. It is meant to convey that insurgents and terrorists being pinpointed and attacked by drones in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and possibly Somalia are coping with this novel threat. Al-Qaida, the Taliban, the so-called Islamic Army in Iraq and Shabab militants in Somalia all claim to have shot down American drones. "The mujahedeen have brought down dozens from the sky," al-Qaida in Iraq recently boasted, displaying photos meant to prove it.

But the boasts mask growing anxiety. The commander in the propaganda video warns his footsoldiers that the drones are completely silent, "can photograph us by day and by night," and "can follow our movements." He adds that the unmanned reconnaissance aircraft can intercept telephone calls, so they shouldn't use their cell phones.

Working on Countermeasures

Islamist terrorists around the globe -- particularly al-Qaida and the Taliban -- have learned to their horror that the drones of the US military and the CIA are an effective means for detecting their leaders and killing them. They are now feverishly working on developing countermeasures.

Al-Qaida and the Taliban have reacted in various ways to the intensifying drone war, which is concentrated in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. On Dec. 30, a Jordanian double agent blew himself up, killing seven CIA agents and a Jordanian military officer at a CIA base near Khost. One of the reasons the base was targeted was because it was involved in coordinating drone attacks.

The two groups had already been waging a propaganda war against the Pakistani government which allows the CIA to launch drones from Pakistani soil. Their main argument is the fact that civilians have been dying in drone attacks. "They might have succeeded in taking out a few targets," the Taliban recently wrote, "but, in doing so, they have killed twice as many innocents and destroyed … mosques ... and hundreds of homes."

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Their paranoia has been compounded by the fact that there is at least one informant behind every successful drone attack -- someone who identifies the target or marks it in some way. As a way of discouraging people from informing on them, the terror groups have decapitated suspected traitors on several occasions and circulated videos of their deaths.

Observers have also noticed that the militants have adapted their tactics to meet the new threat. They only cross the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in small groups. In addition, military and training sites are being disguised more carefully and decentralized so that they are less conspicuous to the analysts who evaluate images captured from the drones.

But they still haven't found an effective way to counter the drones' electronic eyes and ears -- or their deadly payloads. "Jihadists have talked extensively about the drones," says terrorism expert Jarret Brachman, who closely monitors discussions that terrorists and their sympathizers hold online. "There has been little sophisticated discussion, at least openly, about real countermeasures that jihadists can take in order to avoid being targeted by drones."

A few drones have reportedly been shot down, but the insurgents' only real coup against them so far came with the help of a $26 Russian computer program. It allowed Iraqi militants to temporarily capture image streams from drone cameras. US soldiers discovered the leak when they analyzed laptops confiscated in raids and found their own data. Since then, this security gap has reportedly been filled. In any case, the program only worked with US military drones. The transmissions from CIA drones are said to be encoded.


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