TIMBUKTU, Mali — One of the last things the bearded fighters did before leaving Timbuktu 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 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 the mat seller, Leitny Cisse al-Djoumat. “They didn’t explain why they wanted so many.”
Military officials know why: The fighters are stretching the mats across the tops of their vehicles on poles to form natural carports, so that drones cannot detect them from the air.
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The instruction to camouflage vehicles 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 from a French military intervention last month. A Xeroxed copy of the document, first published on a jihadist forum two years ago, was found in a manila envelope on the floor of a Timbuktu building 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 use drones. The presence of the document in Mali, first authored by a Yemeni, also shows the coordination between al-Qaida chapters, something 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 Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA, now the director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution.
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.) The use of the mats appears to be a West African twist on No. 3, which advises camouflaging the tops of cars and the roofs of buildings, possibly by spreading reflective glass.
While some tips are outdated or far-fetched, taken together, they suggest the Islamists in Mali are responding to the threat of drones with common-sense advice that may help them to melt into the desert in between attacks.
“These are not dumb techniques. It shows that they are acting pretty astutely,” said Col. Cedric Leighton, a 26-year-veteran of the U.S. Air Force, 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.”
The success of some of the tips will depend on the circumstances and the model of drones used, Leighton said. For example, from the air, where perceptions of depth become obfuscated, an imagery sensor would interpret a mat stretched over the top of a vehicle as a mat lying on the ground, thus concealing the vehicle.
New models of drones, such as the Harfung used by the French or the MQ-9 “Reaper,” sometimes have infrared sensors that can pick up the heat signature of a vehicle whose engine has just been shut off. However, even an infrared sensor would have trouble detecting a vehicle left under a mat tent overnight, so that its temperature is the same as on the surrounding ground, Leighton said.
Unarmed drones are being used by the French in Mali to collect intelligence on al-Qaida groups, and U.S. officials have said plans are under way to establish a new drone base in northwestern Africa. The U.S. recently signed a “status of forces agreement” with Niger, one of the nations bordering Mali, suggesting the drone base may be there and would be primarily used to gather intelligence to help the French.
Along with the grass mats, the al-Qaida men in Mali made creative use of another natural resource to hide their vehicles: mud.
Asse Ag Imahalit, a gardener at a building in Timbuktu, said he was at first puzzled to see that the fighters sleeping inside the compound sent for large bags of sugar every day. Then, he said, he observed them mixing the sugar with dirt, adding water and using the sticky mixture to “paint” their vehicles.