In the ongoing struggle between governments and insurgents, the world’s most powerful government has enjoyed a decade-long winning streak against the world’s most powerful terrorist organization. Al-Qaida got the better of us on 9/11, but since then, U.S. drones have emerged to rule the skies. They have proliferated and destroyed much of al-Qaida’s human infrastructure. The terrorists are desperate for countermeasures.
In today’s Washington Post, Craig Whitlock and Bart Gellman update us on al-Qaida’s efforts. Thanks to National Security Agency leaker Ed Snowden, Whitlock and Gellman have a copy of “Threats to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” a classified report that distills “dozens of intelligence assessments” over the last seven years. How are the terrorists doing? Here’s a look at four of their strategies.
1. Spot the drones. To escape a drone strike, you need advance warning. Our drones fly high, above 20,000 feet, so they’re hard to see. Al-Qaida’s projects reportedly include balloons and radio-controlled miniplanes to track the drones’ flight patterns. There’s no sign of any progress here, and no reason to expect any, given the technology al-Qaida is working with.
2. Confuse the sensors. One al-Qaida project aims to detect laser signals that guide drone missiles to their targets. That’s just a warning system. The more serious threat, according to a U.S. Air Force report, is countertargeting of drones by “lasers and dazzlers.” This could disrupt the drone’s cameras and other instruments, blinding its human sensor operator. The Defense Intelligence Agency says al-Qaida has also funded a project to jam infrared tagging of missile targets.
3. Break the links. The advantage of drones—remote operation—is also their weakness. The satellite transmissions that connect them to their pilots and sensor operators can be broken or hacked. The Post says satellites often move out of range or lose contact with drones. Four years ago, Iraqi insurgents used cheap software to intercept video feeds from U.S. drones. Two years ago, a drone crashed in Iran, supposedly due to malfunction, though Iran took credit and called it an “electronic ambush.” Another drone crashed on the border between Iraq and Turkey last year after losing its satellite links. U.S. researchers proved last year that a drone could be hijacked by “spoofing” its GPS signal. This is a logical target for al-Qaida’s research. But nearly all U.S. drone links are now encrypted, and there’s no sign of a hacking breakthrough.
4. Sour the public. This, not the satellites, is the drones’ immediate weakness. If the U.S. public turns against them, the government might have to stop or limit their use. Both sides recognize this vulnerability. Two years ago, according to the Post, U.S. intelligence issued a report titled “Al-Qa’ida Explores Manipulating Public Opinion to Curb CT Pressure.” Another report warned that drone strikes “could be brought under increased scrutiny, perceived to be illegitimate, openly resisted or undermined.”
Thanks to the perils of more aggressive options—nobody wants to repeat Iraq or Afghanistan—public support for the drones has held steady. But isolationism is becoming a popular alternative. In a CBS News/New York Times poll taken three months ago, 47 percent of Americans said they were very concerned about drones “killing or harming innocent civilians.” Another 37 percent said they were somewhat concerned. Sixty-six percent said they were concerned “that there is not enough oversight” of drone strikes, and 50 percent said they were concerned that the strikes were “damaging the image of the United States.” Libertarians on the left and right are rallying their supporters against drone warfare. If voters turn against the drones, politicians will follow, and the strikes will end. That’s the power of remote control.
William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: