Learning and Adapting: al-Qaeda’s Attempts to Counter Drone Strikes

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 11

U.S. Predator drone (Source: U.S. Air Force)

Over the past 15 years, the use of drones and drone strikes has become an integral part of U.S. counter-terrorism operations against overseas militant groups. The tactic has several clear benefits over larger, costlier and less discreet military operations employing conventional military aircraft.

As the use of armed drones continues, however, their targets — terrorists and terrorist organizations, particularly al-Qaeda — have grown accustomed to the threat. The increased deployment of Predators and Reapers, which militants often refer to as spy planes (الطائرات الجاسوسية), has played a direct role in changing the tactical and operational character of organizations like al-Qaeda. The constant threat of drone strikes has forced them to change their tactics from simply attempting to evade drone attacks to developing and employing active anti-drone measures.

Early Avoidance Efforts

Nearly a decade ago, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was already experimenting with simple camouflage measures to conceal their fighters from drone strikes. These efforts were collected and disseminated through instructional videos on avoidance methods, such as how to assemble an individual “body wrap” — a blanket used to absorb body heat, reducing an individual’s infrared signature and as such making him more difficult for drones to target. These videos led to the creation of strategy guides that detailed procedures on how to evade drones, and later to guides on how best to defeat them.

The discovery in 2013 of counter-drone manuals in Timbuktu, Mali provided an insight into efforts by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), along with potentially other branches of the terror group, to adapt to the reality of drone usage. [1]

Journalists found the manuals, which detail 22 steps for evading drone attacks, in buildings abandoned by al-Qaeda fighters in the wake of a successful push by French and Malian troops to retake the city from Islamists and anti-government forces. The guides appear to have been used for training rank and file militants in anti-drone operations and illustrate how al-Qaeda’s strategies to evade drones have developed over time.

Early instructional efforts focused solely on camouflage and avoidance tactics, but this was a result of the failure of more ambitious efforts. In fact, prior to disseminating its guidance on camouflage, al-Qaeda had conducted unsuccessful research on how to jam the Global Positioning System (GPS) signals of Predators and Reapers as they passed overhead. [2]

Furthermore, al-Qaeda sought to understand how it could dupe the infrared chips used by drones to pinpoint the exact location for a strike. For all these efforts, however, the group lacked the technological know-how to develop effective counter-electronic warfare capabilities. [3] Instead, it moved on to experiment with other, more rudimentary, counter-drone tactics. A favorite was the use of weather balloons, small remote-controlled planes and (perhaps ironically) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which it used to monitor the flight paths of U.S. UAVs and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs).

Technical Failures

These early efforts were met with little success, but in 2009, groups affiliated with what was then al-Qaeda in Iraq managed to hack the feed of U.S. Predator and Shadow drones with off-the-shelf software called Skygrabber (al-Jazeera, December 18, 2009). Encouraged by this success, the group sought to spoof the signal sent to drones, but the U.S. military quickly updated and encrypted their feed, neutralizing the effort.

In online forums, al-Qaeda has opened discussion groups to large numbers of supporters, and even outsiders, with the aim of crowdsourcing methods and alternative strategies to counter drone attacks. Some focus groups examine specific technical details and capabilities of drones, while others discuss how best to spoof, alter or jam drone signals and how to counter homing beacons. Al-Qaeda has even gone as far as to support these efforts with financial rewards for the best suggestions. Yet, as Don Rassler in his report for the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) noted, these groups have hardly proved revolutionary, with their suggestions ranging from the plainly silly to the only somewhat effective. Al-Qaeda’s suspected former intelligence chief, Abu Ubayda Abdullah al-Adam, was the only one to provide a degree of coherent advice, and even that may have proved ineffective as he was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in early 2013 (The News, April 26, 2013).

Given the failure of its technical efforts, and faced with the success of drone strikes in decimating its network, al-Qaeda largely still relies on camouflage and avoidance tactics, combined with an “old-school” targeting of the crucial human intelligence network that the United States relies on to support its drone strike campaign. Al-Qaeda has established special units that hunt down spies. In Pakistan’s FATA tribal territories, the Lashkar-e-Khorasan (Khorasan Mujahideen) and Saif ul-Furqan units seek to kill spies within 24 hours after a strike. [4] Individuals suspected of sharing information about the location of militants are killed, and footage of their deaths is shared with others with the intention of discouraging other potential informants. This reliance on old-fashioned operational security has arguably been al-Qaeda’s most effective counter-drone measure.

Where al-Qaeda has also had a measure of success is in disguising its bases and training camps. Over the last decade, al-Qaeda operated a number of relatively open and well-known bases in remote areas, but the use of drones means such locations are not necessarily secure. In Pakistan, where al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban have been hardest hit by drones, the group has to an extent re-located bases from the tribal areas to urban locations such as Karachi where, amongst a teeming civilian population, its operatives are more protected. [5] Precise information is critical for a successful drone strike, particularly when operating in urban areas where the risk of collateral damage is significant.
Limitations to Drone Use

Drone strikes have arguably become the U.S. government’s first response to overseas terrorists and insurgent activity and an accepted instrument in the counter-terrorism policy toolkit. The discovery of the drone manuals in Mali can perhaps be read as an indication of just how successful drone strikes have been — they have unquestionably been effective at targeting individual terrorist commanders.

They do, however, have their drawbacks. It has been well documented how collateral damage from drone strikes serves as a strong recruitment and propaganda tool for al-Qaeda (al-Jazeera, March 20).

Similarly, in individual cases, the use of drones has proved problematic. A botched U.S. mission in Yemen in January, in which a U.S. Navy Seal was killed along with 25 civilians, among them nine children, serves as a constructive example (al-Monitor, March 3). Local AQAP fighters were on high alert as a result of a crashed drone, which went down while conducting onsite surveillance prior to the mission.

With a small drone crashing nearby, and with no strike conducted, local al-Qaeda members concluded that a ground strike was imminent. Accordingly, the drone proved to be something of rudimentary warning for the militants.

More generally, despite a 15-year-long campaign, al-Qaeda is still operational, albeit much weakened. Unsophisticated efforts at evading drones appear to be all that is needed where the aim is simply to continue militant operations in some form.

Al-Qaeda’s response to drone attacks shows how adaptable the group can be. Meanwhile, drones must be seen as only part of a potential solution in the fight against terrorism.



[1] The manuals were discovered by journalists with the Associated Press and can be viewed here.

[2] Sinai, J (2015) ‘Innovation in terrorist counter-surveillance’ in M Ranstorp & M Normark (Eds), Understanding terrorism innovation and learning: Al-Qaeda and beyond (pp. 196-210). Abingdon, UK: Routledge

[3] Rassler, Don, ‘Drone, counter drone: Observations on the contest between the United States and jihadis’ CTC Sentinel, January 2017, pp. 23-27; Williams, B (2013) Predators: The CIAs drone war on al Qaeda, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press

[4] Krech, H (2014) The organization of Al Qaeda’s drone countermeasures. Margalla Papers, National Defence University, Islamabad, Pakistan. (Available here).

[5] Ibid.