When drones were first used to fight the War on Terror, they were advertised as a safe and effective way of taking out enemy combatants without putting the lives American soldiers at risk. It was warfare conducted with a joystick.
The legal, ethical, and constitutional arguments against drone warfare are well-documented. But now, there is a new issue. According to reports leaked to the Washington Post by Edward Snowden, U.S. intelligence assessments indicate that Al-Qaeda operatives have attempted to hack into drone software to fight back against drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. The reports also claim that the terrorist organization has reached out to tech-savvy "specialists" to help with its plans.
In the short-term, this isn't necessarily a big deal. Al-Qaeda lacks the advanced tools needed to disable a drone remotely. The Associated Press released a document found in Mali indicating rudimentary ways to avoid a drone attack, which include running from the targeted area, setting up decoys, and using Russian signal interception equipment in order to spy on a drone's movements.
However, in the longer-term, it could become a significant factor in how the United States fights its battles. First, as the technology becomes older and the militants become more familiar with it, the more likely they will be to be able to jam, disable, or even redirect drones. Additionally, instead of targeting specific individuals, American drones target certain areas where militants are known to congregate. According to the document, militants have already adapted to this strategy by using dummies and decoys to fool drone operators.
Second, and arguably more significantly, should Al-Qaeda become able to routinely down drones, its popularity would only increase in areas affected by drone bombings. Drones are already wildly unpopular in places like Yemen and Pakistan, countries that are the most frequently targeted. As a result, anti-U.S. sentiment has increased dramatically along with radicalization and recruitment drives. The ability to take down drones regularly will only make groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban even more popular in their respective areas of control.
Drone warfare is highly unpopular in the Middle East, and has raised questions at home as well. As militants become savvier at avoiding and taking down drones, it will certainly weaken one of the government's only arguments in its promotion of drone operations. In the long-term, the U.S. must change its approach in tackling terrorism and national security. Arresting, not killing, suspected militants is a good place to start.