Recently revealed NSA documents show details of how terrorist leaders have reacted to the threat from American UAVs. Not all of these revelations were surprises. Earlier this year Islamic terrorists issued a public appeal, via an Internet based pro-terrorist magazine called Azan, asking for help in developing methods (electronic or otherwise) to deal with the American UAVs that constantly patrol terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan (Waziristan), Afghanistan (the Pakistani border area), and anywhere else Islamic terrorists are operating. U.S. intelligence officials were not surprised at this public plea for help, since the U.S. had been tracking al Qaeda efforts over the last three years to develop countermeasures for the UAVs. These unmanned aircraft (with some assists from manned aircraft and satellites) are constantly finding and killing Islamic terrorist leaders with missiles. This has led to the deaths of some 3,000 people since 2011, including hundreds of key terrorist personnel and several thousand lower ranking terrorists. This has happened despite the heavy use of civilians as human shields. This has led to many aborted attacks but few civilian deaths. After three years of effort by a team of pro-terrorist technical experts and expert tacticians, al Qaeda has not come up with any real remedy for the UAVs. The U.S. media outlets that were given the leaked NSA report agreed to keep certain details of U.S. UAV vulnerabilities secret, as this material could have some obvious use to terrorist efforts to cripple the UAVs pursuing and killing them. Earlier this year journalists in Mali found a document in an abandoned al Qaeda headquarters providing useful tips on how to avoid detection by UAVs. This confirmed, as we now know, that the terrorist leadership is increasingly frustrated at their inability to deal with this. But the NSA report indicated that the al Qaeda team of engineers had come close to actually interfering with the operation of some UAVs.
This confirmed that for all this effort terrorists have come up with many techniques that reduce their vulnerability, but this has also reduced the mobility of terrorist leaders and limited the ability of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to plan and carry out operations. But al Qaeda was generally unaware that their anti-UAV work was being so closely monitored. The U.S. noted some of the solutions the terrorists were looking into, like trying to interfere with the radio or satellite connection needed to remotely control the UAVs or jamming the GPS signals UAVs also use and worked on countermeasures. So far, the U.S. has managed to stay ahead of any potentially workable ideas the terrorists come up with. The leaked NSA documents make this more difficult for now the terrorists may make an effective effort to keep their anti-UAV work secret. Even if they do come up with an effective technique, it won’t work long, if at all, should the enemy be monitoring these efforts. But with the element of surprise, the terrorists would have a period of weeks, months, or longer before UAV operations could be modified to overcome the new terrorist counter-measures.
Many counter-terror operations are shrouded in secrecy, mainly because intelligence gathering is so important and revealing what you know puts your agents, methods, and informants at risk. For a long time the U.S. either denied these UAV missile attacks were going on or refused to comment. The impact of these attacks on terrorist operations and the morale of terrorist leadership eventually led to the United States openly admitting the attacks and confirming that they would continue. They work and are a weapon unique in military history.
Wars have always included attempts to gain victory, or at least an edge, by going after the enemy leaders and other key people. This has always been difficult because the enemy leaders know they are targets and take extensive precautions to protect themselves (the “royal guard”, food tasters, and all that). This no longer works and terrorist leaders are scrambling to find ways to avoid this lethal retribution for their wickedness.
Some people agree with the Islamic terrorists that UAV operations are somehow wrong. The increased use of UAVs to find, identify, and kill terrorists (or enemies in general) has led many people in the West and in the Moslem world to assert that this is not effective, fair, or whatever. Some call it murder. But war is murder, and for centuries those involved have recognized that going to war is a messy business, especially once you are in the midst of it. In war the survivors quickly learn two things. Those who kill first are less likely to be killed later and those who can kill more of the opponent's leaders will most likely win. Current terrorist leaders may be homicidal fanatics but they know how to count. If the Americans come after them, especially because their organization carried out an attack in the United States that generated a widespread demand from Americans for revenge, the terrorist leaders are dead men walking. The belief is that the Americans will eventually get you, and most terrorist leaders don’t want to be killed. Suicide attacks are for the little people, not the leaders or their children. So the effort to counter the UAV threat continues.
In the last two decades UAVs, and before that space satellites and high-flying, long endurance recon aircraft (like the U-2 and SR-71), made it possible to find and identify key enemy personnel. But until armed UAVs came along just before September 11, 2001 there was no way to quickly act on that information. Many opportunities to kill key enemy personnel were missed. The CIA actually took the lead in arming UAVs, especially the then (in 2001) new Predator. After September 11, 2001, the CIA had permission to use armed Predators and their success forced the air force to follow suit. Now, with Hellfire missiles (and several other similar weapons) on these UAVs, the value of promptly killing who you find is recognized. Some pundits find this unsporting, morally indefensible, or otherwise wrong. For military personnel, who are risking their lives fighting a determined enemy, it's just another way to kill the enemy leadership before the enemy gets you. Captured terrorist documents and interrogations of captives indicate that this is seen as the major threat to terrorist organizations and has paralyzed many terrorist leaders with fear.
That civilians are also killed is nothing new. During the allied invasion of France in 1944, the several months of fighting required to destroy the German armies in France also left 15,000 French civilians dead in the invasion area and more than that in the rest of France. The Germans did not normally try and hide among French civilians, while Islamic terrorists do. The Germans knew they would be attacked no matter where they were. Islamic terrorists do sometimes get away because of the successful use of human shields (and because the order to fire is not given). This attitude ignores the civilians who die because terrorists escape to keep killing. Thus, in war, you can avoid killing civilians but you do so at the cost of giving enemy personnel immunity that just gets more people killed down the road.
The U.S. CIA UAV campaign against Islamic terrorists in Pakistan (mainly North Waziristan) has led to al Qaeda being rendered impotent by all the losses to leadership and technical personnel (especially bomb builders). Because of this, in the last two years most of the UAV missile attacks were against Taliban and Haqqani Network leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan and al Qaeda personnel in Yemen. The targets were located through various means, one of the most important being a network of informants on the ground, as well as the UAVs and satellites.
This “decapitation” tactic was successful in Iraq and earlier in Israel (where it was developed to deal with the Palestinian terror campaign that began in 2000). The Israelis were very successful with their decapitation program, which reduced Israeli civilian terrorist deaths from over 400 a year to less than ten. American troops have used similar tactics many times in the past (in World War II, 1960s Vietnam, the Philippines over a century ago, and in 18th century colonial America) but tend to forget after a generation or so. That is changing because the Internet provides an extensive repository of the past and an easy way to access it.