Al-Qaida tipsheet on drone avoidance is found
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TIMBUKTU, Mali -- One of the last things the bearded fighters did before leaving this city was to drive to the market where traders lay their carpets out in the sand. The al-Qaida extremists bypassed the brightly colored, high-end synthetic floor coverings and stopped their pickup truck in front of a man selling more modest mats woven from desert grass, priced at $1.40 apiece. There, they bought two bales of 25 mats each, and asked him to bundle them on top of the car, along with a stack of sticks.
"It's the first time someone has bought such a large amount," said mat seller Leitny Cisse al-Djoumat. "They didn't explain why they wanted so many."
Military officials can tell why: The fighters are stretching the mats across the tops of their cars on poles to form natural carports, so drones cannot detect them from the air.
The instruction to camouflage cars is one of 22 tips on how to avoid drones, listed on a document left behind by the Islamic extremists as they fled northern Mali ahead of the French military intervention last month. A reporter found a photocopy of the document, first published on a jihadist forum two years ago, in a manila envelope on the floor of a building in Timbuktu previously occupied by al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb.
The tipsheet reflects how al-Qaida's chapter in North Africa anticipated a military intervention that would make use of drones, as the battleground in the worldwide terror war shifts from boots on the ground to unmanned planes. The presence in Mali of the document, first authored by a Yemeni, also shows coordination between al-Qaida chapters, which security experts have called a source of increasing concern.
"This new document ... shows we are no longer dealing with an isolated local problem, but with an enemy which is reaching across continents to share advice," said 30-year CIA veteran Bruce Riedel, now director of the Brookings Institution's Intelligence Project.
The tips in the document range from the broad (No. 7, hide from being directly or indirectly spotted, especially at night) to the specific (No. 18, formation of fake gatherings, for example by using dolls and statues placed outside false ditches to mislead the enemy.) Use of the mats appears to be a West African twist on No. 3, which advises camouflaging car tops and building roofs, possibly by spreading reflective glass.
While some tips are outdated or far-fetched, taken together, they suggest that the Islamists in Mali are responding to the threat of drones with sound, common-sense advice that may help them to melt into the desert in between attacks, leaving barely a trace.
"These are not dumb techniques. It shows that they are acting pretty astutely," said Col. Cedric Leighton, a 26-year U.S. Air Force veteran, who helped set up the Predator drone program, which later tracked Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. "What it does is, it buys them a little bit more time -- and in this conflict, time is key. And they will use it to move away from an area, from a bombing raid, and do it very quickly."
First Published February 22, 2013 12:00 am