Spy Chips Guiding CIA Drone Strikes, Locals Say
(Wired) – It sounds like a tinfoil hat nightmare, come to life: tiny electronic homing beacons, guiding CIA killer drones to their targets. But local residents and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s tribal wildlands say that’s exactly what’s happening. Tribesman in Waziristan are being paid to “plant the electronic devices” near militant safehouses, they tell the Guardian. “Hours or days later, a drone, guided by the signal from the chip, destroys the building with a salvo of missiles.”
It sounds like a tinfoil hat nightmare, come to life: tiny electronic homing beacons, guiding CIA killer drones to their targets. But local residents and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s tribal wildlands say that’s exactly what’s happening. Tribesman in Waziristan are being paid to “plant the electronic devices” near militant safehouses, they tell the Guardian. “Hours or days later, a drone, guided by the signal from the chip, destroys the building with a salvo of missiles.”
Ever since 9/11, locals in Central Asia and the Middle East have spread tall tales about American super-technology: soldiers with x-ray glasses, satellites that can see into homes, tanks with magnetic, grenade-repelling armor. But small radio frequency or GPS emitters have been commercially available for years. A veteran spy tells Danger Room that the use of these Taliban-tracking devices entirely plausible.
“Transmitters make a lot of sense to me. It is simply not possible to train a Pashtun from Waziristan to go to a targeted site, case it, and come back to Peshawar or Islamabad with anything like an accurate report. The best you can hope for is they’re putting the transmitter on the right house,” says former CIA case officer Robert Baer.
Herndon, Virginia-based defense contractor EWA Government Systems, Inc. is one of several firms that boasts of making tiny devices to help manhunters locate their prey. The company’s “Bigfoot Remote Tagging System” is a “very small, battery-operated device used to emit an RF [radio frequency] transmission [so] that the target can be located and/or tracked.”
The tag has sophisticated power management features to allow use over a long period of time (months)… Each tag can be installed on a witting or unwitting person, material, vehicle, ship, etc. Power is supplied by installed battery or host power source. The tag can be augmented with GPS to allow data logging for later exfiltration or geo-fencing functions (on/off when inside defined geographic boundaries). Bigfoot provides the warfighter with real-time tracking intelligence on potential adversaries conducting threat activities.
Word of these tiny transmitters has been circulating in militant circles for months. In early April, the Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Nazir said he had caught “spies” who were inserting into militants’ phones “location-tracking SIMs” — Subscriber Identity Module cards, used to identify mobile devices on a cellular network.
Ten days later, 19 year-old Habibur Rehman made a videotaped “confession” of planting such devices, just before he was executed by the Taliban as an American spy. “I was given $122 to drop chips wrapped in cigarette paper at Al Qaeda and Taliban houses,” he said. If I was successful, I was told, I would be given thousands of dollars.”
But Rehman says he didn’t just tag jihadists with the devices. “The money was good so I started throwing the chips all over. I knew people were dying because of what I was doing, but I needed the money,” he added. Which raises the possibility that the unmanned aircraft — America’s key weapons in its covert war on Pakistan’s jihadists and insurgents — may have been lead to the wrong targets.
One much-disputed Pakistani media report claimed that the drones have killed hundreds of civilians, just to take out a few militants. That’s unlikely. But what’s indisputable is that the robotic planes (and the innocent deaths they’re alleged to cause) have become increasingly controversial, both in Pakistan and in America.
“Anti-U.S. sentiment has already been increasing in Pakistan… especially in regard to cross-border and reported drone strikes, which Pakistanis perceive to cause unacceptable civilian casualties,” Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, wrote in a secret assessment, obtained by the Washington Post. “Thirty-five percent say they do not support U.S. strikes into Pakistan, even if they are coordinated with the GOP [government of Pakistan] and the Pakistan Military ahead of time.”
But Pakistani and American intelligence officials swear the drones are getting more accurate. “There are better targets and better intelligence on the ground,” on Pakistani official tells the Post. “It’s less of a crapshoot.”