US investigates mysterious microwave attacks

Directed energy: The US microwave weapon THOR (above) can zap up to 50 drones at once. © US Air Force

Is the West under attack from an unknown enemy? Last week, the United States linked two attacks near the White House to an unexplained sickness that experts blame on a Russian secret weapon.

It was just an ordinary day. A White House official was walking her dog in a quiet Washington DC suburb when a man got out of a van and walked past her. Suddenly, her face tingled, a high-pitch noise rang in her ears, her head throbbed. The dog at her feet seized up in pain.

She later linked the attack to a similar experience months earlier in a London hotel. Now, the US government is treating this incident and a second outside the White House as cases of Havana Syndrome. An unexplained illness that has left dozens of people with long-term brain injuries.

Officials at the US embassy in Havana, Cuba, were the first to report symptoms. In 2016 they heard strange grating noises and believed they were under attack from some kind of sonic weapon. Sound is used in crowd control and some shops use a device called a Mosquito to repel teenagers.

Trump blamed the Cuban government and pulled diplomats out of Havana. Cuba denied responsibility, blaming pesticides for the headaches. But that didn’t explain the noise. Researchers studied recordings of the strange sounds and identified them. They were crickets.

The authorities suspected mass hysteria and an illusory illness. But similar cases were popping up around the world. In 2018, US officials evacuated from Guangzhou, China, reporting the same high-pitched sound, dizziness and nausea.

Some did not recover, suffering persistent concussion. Brain scans showed permanent nerve damage and a study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded the most likely cause was a directed energy device. A microwave weapon.

This technology is not new. During the Cold War, the US and Russia developed ways to target electromagnetic energy to damage equipment without harming people. In 2019, the US unveiled THOR, a defence system that uses high-power microwaves to disable drone attacks.

But what do microwaves do to people? Scientist Edl Schamiloglu says the human head acts like a receiving antenna and the pulses create the sensation of sound. When biologist Allan Frey stumbled across this phenomenon in 1961, Russia took notice. To his surprise, he was invited to Moscow and shown inside their military laboratories.

They were researching the effect of microwaves on the brain, Frey says. At the same time, the US embassy came under attack from a mysterious microwave signal. No one was harmed, but now experts wonder whether the Moscow Signal and Havana Syndrome may be linked.

One victim is convinced Russia is responsible. Former CIA operative Marc Polymeropoulos fell sick in 2017 after meeting Russian agents in Moscow. He woke up in the night, his room spinning around his head. His ears ringing. The Russians had told him: “You’re not welcome here.”

But Schamiloglu says this is “textbook physics” not rocket science. Other countries might have the technology too. Reports suggest China used microwave weapons on Indian troops last year. And a small device could easily fall into the hands of terrorists.

Is the West under attack from a hidden enemy?

Making waves

Some say no, there is no evidence. There have been a few dozen cases in four years, with no conclusive proof of sonic weapons or microwaves. People feel sick and get headaches all the time and we do not usually blame invisible rays and hidden enemies. Working in embassies, often in enemy territory, will make people fearful and suspicious. But we must consider the facts and not let fear control us.

Others say yes, the facts are clear. America’s intelligence services have used phone data to show that Russian spies were in the same cities when the attacks took place. Victims have been left wheelchair-bound and using hearing aids. They reported the same sound followed by sickness without knowing about other cases. Someone has a secret weapon and is using it without fear of retaliation.

You Decide

  1. Knowing the risks, would you work undercover as a spy?
  2. Is fear the most important weapon in war?


  1. In groups, design a gadget to use undercover. Draw and annotate your idea and present it to the class. Vote to decide the best spy gadget.
  2. In pairs, research an example of mass hysteria (use the link below). List the similarities and differences with Havana Syndrome and decide whether it is a convincing explanation for these attacks.

Some People Say...

“All warfare is based on deception. There is no place where espionage is not used.”

Sun Tzu (544BC – 496BC), Chinese general.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Russia has tried to intimidate their opponents. In 2018, Russian agents used the Novichok nerve agent to poison former military officer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. In 2019, the German government accused Russia of carrying out an assassination in broad daylight in Berlin. The intelligence community believes it has interfered in democratic elections and that attacks on diplomats would be in keeping with a strategy to spread fear and chaos in the West.
What do we not know?
One area of debate surrounds whether there is a psychological or social explanation behind Havana Syndrome. In these cases, no microwaves have been observed and the symptoms are similar to many examples of mass hysteria, often blamed on new technology like radios, phone masts and wind farms. Some scientists argue the stress of working in embassies or espionage, with the fear of an invisible weapon, would be enough to cause post-traumatic stress disorder.

Word Watch

Havana Syndrome
A syndrome is a set of related symptoms that have not yet been linked to a definite cause. When a syndrome is paired with its cause it becomes known as a disease.
Crowd control
The Long Range Acoustic Device, or sound cannon, is used by police to disperse protestors. Last year, China developed the first hand-held sonic gun to use on demonstrators.
As people age, their ability to hear high-frequencies deteriorates. These devices are designed to deter younger people by emitting unpleasant sounds at around 17.4 kHz.
Canadian research found neurotoxic pesticides used to kill mosquitos carrying the Zika virus. Neurotoxins attack the insect’s nervous system and can also harm humans.
Mass hysteria
Also known as mass psychogenic illness, mass hysteria causes real symptoms in its victims, but the underlying cause is a delusion. Two famous examples are the dancing plague of 1518 and the Salem Witch Trials.
Persistent concussion
Concussion is usually caused by a blow to the head and causes nausea, memory loss and sleep problems. Because there was no apparent cause for this long-term concussion, doctors referred to it as “immaculate concussion”.
Directed energy device
Any weapon that focuses microwave, laser or particle beams at its target. The first recorded weapon was used by Archimedes (287BC – 212BC) to reflect the sun-rays to burn the Roman invading fleet at Syracuse.
Cold War
Between 1947 and 1991, the global rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union led to an arms race in which both sides competed to be the most technologically advanced.
Moscow Signal
There are many theories as to why the Soviet Union directed a microwave beam at the US embassy between 1953 and 1976, including to jam electrical equipment, to trigger surveillance devices and to affect the minds of embassy staff.
Indian troops
According to reports, China side-stepped a “no-live-shots” agreement with India by turning a Himalayan hilltop “into a microwave oven”. The Indian troops were too sick to fight and were quickly defeated.

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