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Fighting back against the drones

From al-Qaeda to fashion designers, people are developing tactics to defend against drone strikes and surveillance.

Last Modified: 11 Jul 2013 13:23
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US armed drone strikes have killed thousands of people since the first such attack in 2001 [AFP]

On July 3, 17 people were killed and many more wounded by a US drone strike in the badlands straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, an attack apparently targeting fighters of the Haqqani network.

The strike was the deadliest this year in the US' wide-ranging drone campaign to kill alleged members of hardline anti-American groups, from Pakistan's mountainous tribal areas to Yemen and Somalia.

Drones' effectiveness has left those in their crosshairs scrambling to find ways to defend themselves. Rudimentary drones have existed for almost as long as aircraft themselves, and were often used in the 20th century as targets to train fighter pilots. But in the 12 years since the first US armed drone strike in Afghanistan, unmanned aerial vehicles have become far more numerous and sophisticated, conferring overwhelming advantages on the attacker.

Acknowledging the deadly precision of drones, a new English-language magazine - apparently published by a Taliban-linked group - said neutralising UAVs was a priority for the Muslim community, or Ummah.  

"With the death of so many Muslim assets, this is one of the utmost important issues that the Ummah must unite and come up with an answer to," implored the first issue of Azan. "Any opinions, thoughts, ideas and practical implementations to defeat this drone technology must be communicated to us as early as possible."

Snipe it, hack it, jam it, flee it

It's unclear whether the ideas generated by Azan's clarion call will ever be made public - but a document found in northern Mali this February by The Associated Press revealed how some fighters plan to defend against drones.

Written in Arabic by one Abdullah bin Mohammed, a commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIM), the document spelled out 22 ways that AQIM members could counter drone attacks. The tactics included jamming the frequencies drones use for communication, using snipers to shoot drones down, and evading drones by using underground shelters, hiding in the shadows of buildings, or burning tyres to create plumes of black smoke.

A few of the tactics take a broader view of the drone war, recommending AQIM seek out and kill spies who may be helping to guide drones to their target, or kidnap Westerners to use as a bargaining chip to halt the strikes.

Items on the list, says Robert Densmore, editor of Defence Report, "make sense and are relatively easy to do. You don't need a lot of equipment or knowhow to do these kinds of things".

Inside Story Americas - How effective are US drone strikes?

More sophisticated tactics have been tried out on a few occasions, though, with some degree of success. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2009 that fighters in Iraq had hacked US drones with off-the-shelf software costing as little as $25.95, which gave them access to the aircrafts' video feeds - though not control over the drones themselves.

And in 2011, an RQ-170 Sentinel drone flown by the US crashed in northeastern Iran. Although the US government said the drone had simply malfunctioned, Iran claimed its cyberwarfare unit had commandeered its navigation system and landed it.

It's unclear what exactly happened, but Densmore speculates that Iran may have interrupted the drone's GPS signal, causing the aircraft to either crash, or revert to a crash landing.

"This is the weak link of non-automated technology: that there will always be a communications link and a GPS link" that can be disrupted, he said. "From a technology standpoint, all you need to do something like that is the right frequency and enough power and know where the target is … It's not super-high technology, that's just physics."

The US military's drone advantage won't last forever, says Densmore, who predicts those on the receiving end of the strikes will eventually devise more advanced and technologically savvy ways of thwarting the machines.

Yet it's not just armed fighters dodging drones. Unmanned US aircraft have likely killed hundreds of civilians, mostly in Pakistan, though the exact number is unknown. The attacks have permeated the culture of those who live in the dronelands: Pakistani balladeers write songs about drones, Yemeni mothers reportedly warn their kids that drones will get them if they don't behave, and mental trauma in areas where drones are active is said to be widespread.

Civilians in these areas have come up with their own ways of avoiding attacks. Baraa Shiban, a member of Yemen’s National Dialogue and a project coordinator with human rights group Reprieve, said Yemenis he has spoken to in Maarib and Abyan governorates avoid gathering in large groups, standing out in the open, and associating with people suspected of affiliation with hardline groups.

Shiban added he and others in the National Dialogue were drafting legislation to include a ban on drone strikes killing people "outside of law” in Yemen.

Homeland insecurity?

Despite the many civilian casualties abroad, Americans overwhelmingly support their country's drone war.

Yet US civilians have their own worries. Legislators such as Rand Paul have voiced concerns that the Obama administration may launch drone attacks on American citizens on US soil. In March, Paul blocked Obama's nomination of John Brennan to lead the CIA, demanding in a 13-hour-long speech that the administration clarify whether it claims the right to use armed drones within the US.

Though armed drone strikes in the US are unlikely, some worry about being watched from above by unmanned aerial vehicles. Legislation signed earlier this year directed the US Federal Aviation Administration to permit drones to fly in US airspace by September 2015. Police departments and other law enforcement agencies will likely be the biggest users of the unmanned aircraft - and about three dozen police departments already have obtained permission to use drones, says Benjamin.

This development has spurred some entrepreneurs to market defence mechanisms. New York-based fashion designer Adam Harvey said he has invented "anti-drone garments" that purportedly makes the wearer invisible from drones' thermal imaging systems.

What's so fascinating about [the opposition to drones] is that it is truly bipartisan - and if anything, it's the conservatives who are on the forefront of this.

- Medea Benjamin, anti-drone activist

One of the items for sale is based on the burqa and hijab worn by some Muslim women. "Conceptually, these garments align themselves with the rationale behind the traditional hijab and burqa: to act as 'the veil which separates man or the world from God,' replacing God with drone," reads a description of the clothing on Harvey's website.

Peter Singer, an expert on modern warfare at the Brookings Institution, isn't optimistic about this approach, however, explaining that "thermal imaging is not the only way you can be detected by a drone sensor. They also still use video cam and radar, plus you have coming shifts to multi-sensors that blend it all together," he told Al Jazeera.

And a start-up company in the US state of Oregon called Domestic Drone Countermeasures plans to sell devices that are "non-offensive, non-combative and not destructive" to stymie unmanned aerial vehicles.

"We understand the nature of the equipment drone manufacturers are using and understand how to counter their sensors," said Timothy Faucett, a lead engineer for the company. "We're not going to be countering Predator drones that are shooting cruise missiles, but we're talking about local law enforcement drones and commercial ones that people might be using for spying."

Medea Benjamin, an anti-drone activist and founder of the anti-war group Code Pink, says that because Americans "haven't really had to deal with [drones] concretely yet, there's all kinds of posturing about it. That posturing goes from: 'I'm gonna shoot one of them drones out of the sky,' to the hacking community saying, ‘Bring ‘em on: we'll just hack ‘em down'. But that's a bit of bravado."

The legislative path may be the most practical option to counter drone surveillance. Forty-one US states have already proposed laws limiting the use of drones for surveillance, says Benjamin, and five - Florida, Idaho, Montana, Tennessee, and Virginia - have already passed such legislation.

"We're actually in a very unique situation where since the airspace hasn't been opened up to drones yet, we're in a preventive mode," Benjamin told Al Jazeera. "What's so fascinating about [the opposition to drones] is that it is truly bipartisan - and if anything, it's the conservatives who are on the forefront of this, because of their concern about privacy issues."

Follow Sam on Twitter: @SamBollier

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