WASHINGTON — Al-Qaida’s leadership has assigned cells of engineers to find ways to shoot down, jam or remotely hijack U.S. drones, hoping to exploit the technological vulnerabilities of a weapons system that has inflicted huge losses against the terrorist network, according to top-secret U.S. intelligence documents.
Although there is no evidence that al-Qaida forced a drone crash or successfully interfered with flight operations, U.S. intelligence officials have closely tracked the group’s persistent efforts to develop a counterdrone strategy since 2010, the documents show.
Al-Qaida commanders are hoping a technological breakthrough could curb the U.S. drone campaign, which has killed an estimated 3,000 people over the past decade. The airstrikes forced al-Qaida operatives and other militants to take extreme measures to limit their movements in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and other places. But the drone attacks also have taken a heavy toll on civilians, generating a bitter popular backlash to U.S. policy toward those countries.
Details of al-Qaida’s attempts to fight back against the drone campaign are contained in a classified intelligence report provided to The Washington Post by Edward Snowden, the fugitive former National Security Agency contractor. The top-secret report, titled “Threats to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” is a summary of dozens of intelligence assessments posted by U.S. spy agencies since 2006.
U.S. intelligence analysts noted in their assessments that information about drone operational systems is available in the public realm. But The Post is withholding some detailed portions of the classified material that could shed light on specific weaknesses of certain aircraft.
Under President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, drones revolutionized warfare and become a pillar of the U.S. government’s counterterrorism strategy, enabling the CIA and the military to track down enemies in some of the remotest parts of the planet. Drones strikes have left al-Qaida’s core leadership in Pakistan scrambling to survive.
U.S. spy agencies concluded that al-Qaida faces “substantial” challenges in devising an effective way to attack drones, according to the top-secret report disclosed by Snowden. Still, U.S. officials and aviation experts acknowledge that unmanned aircraft have a weak spot: the satellite links and remote controls that enable pilots to fly them from thousands of miles away.
In July 2010, a U.S. spy agency intercepted electronic communications indicating that senior al-Qaida leaders had distributed a “strategy guide” to operatives around the world advising them how “to anticipate and defeat” unmanned aircraft. The Defense Intelligence Agency reported that al-Qaida was sponsoring simultaneous research projects to develop jammers to interfere with GPS signals and infrared tags that drone operators rely on to pinpoint missile targets.
Other projects in the works included the development of observation balloons and small radio-controlled aircraft, or hobby planes, which insurgents apparently saw as having potential for monitoring the flight patterns of U.S. drones, according to the report.
Threat to operations
Al-Qaida cell leaders in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan were “determining the practical application of technologies being developed for battlefield applications,” analysts from the DIA wrote. The analysts added they believed al-Qaida “cell leadership is tracking the progress of each project and can redirect components from one project to another.”
The technological vulnerabilities of drones are no secret. The U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board issued an unclassified report two years ago warning that “increasingly capable adversaries” in countries such as Afghanistan could threaten drone operations by inventing inexpensive countermeasures.
The board said insurgents might try to use “lasers and dazzlers” to render a drone ineffective by blinding its cameras and sensors. It also predicted that insurgents might use rudimentary acoustic receivers to detect drones and “simple jammer techniques” to interfere with navigation and communications.
Researchers have since proved the threat is not just theoretical. Last year, a research team from the University of Texas at Austin demonstrated to the Department of Homeland Security that it was possible to commandeer a small civilian drone by “spoofing” its GPS signal with a ground transmitter and charting a different navigational course.
Al-Qaida has a long history of attracting trained engineers and others with a scientific background. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, holds a mechanical-engineering degree and is such an inveterate tinkerer that the CIA allowed him to fiddle around with new designs for a vacuum cleaner after he was captured a decade ago.
In 2010, the CIA noted in a secret report that al-Qaida was placing special emphasis on the recruitment of technicians and that “the skills most in demand” included expertise in drones and missile technology. In July of that year, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, an al-Qaida operations chief, told a jihadist website that the network did not need “ordinary fighters” and that it was looking instead for “specialist staff” to join the organization.
That same year, authorities in Turkey said they arrested an al-Qaida member who was developing plans to shoot down small NATO surveillance drones in Afghanistan. The suspect, a 23-year-old mathematics student, was using software to conduct ballistics research for drone attacks, according to Turkish officials.
Al-Qaida leaders have become increasingly open about their anti-drone efforts. In March, a new English-language online jihadist magazine called Azan published a story titled “The Drone Chain.” The article derided drone armaments as “evil missiles designed by the devils of the world” but reassured readers that jihadists were working on “various technologies” to hack, manipulate and destroy unmanned aircraft.