Al-Qaeda’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 upon the
terrorist network, according to top-secret U.S. intelligence documents.
Although there is no evidence that al-Qaeda has forced a drone crash or
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-Qaeda commanders are hoping a technological breakthrough can curb the U.S.
drone campaign, which has killed an estimated 3,000 people over the past decade.
The airstrikes have forced al-Qaeda operatives and other militants to take
extreme measures to limit their movements in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen,
Somalia and other places. But the drone attacks have also taken a heavy toll on
civilians, generating a bitter popular backlash against U.S. policies toward
Details of al-Qaeda’s attempts to fight back against the drone campaign are
contained in a classified intelligence report provided to The Washington Post
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
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 Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, drones have
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. Drone strikes have left al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan
scrambling to survive.
U.S. spy agencies have concluded that al-Qaeda 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
In July 2010, a U.S. spy agency intercepted electronic communications
indicating that senior al-Qaeda leaders had distributed a “strategy guide” to
operatives around the world advising them how “to anticipate and defeat”
unmanned aircraft. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reported that
al-Qaeda 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.
Al-Qaeda 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 that
they believed al-Qaeda “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 that 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-Qaeda has a long history of attracting trained engineers and others with a
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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda operations chief, told a jihadist Web site
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-Qaeda 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
Al-Qaeda 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 had been working on “various technologies” to hack, manipulate
and destroy unmanned aircraft.
At the same time, the magazine indicated that those efforts needed a boost,
and it issued an emergency plea for scientific help: “Any opinions, thoughts,
ideas and practical implementations to defeat this drone technology must be
communicated to us as early as possible because these would aid greatly . . .
against the crusader- zionist enemy.”
In the absence of a high-tech silver
bullet, al-Qaeda affiliates around the world have taken to sharing hard-earned
lessons about the importance of basic defensive measures.
Islamist extremists in North Africa this year distributed a photocopied
tipsheet with 22 recommendations for avoiding drone strikes. Among the
suggestions are several ideas for camouflage as well as dubious advice on
using radio or microwave transmitters to “confuse the frequencies used to
control the drone.”
The Associated Press in February
found a copy of the tipsheet in Mali, left behind by Islamist fighters
fleeing the city of Timbuktu. It was written by a jihadist in Yemen two years
earlier and has circulated among al-Qaeda franchises since then.
‘GPS jamming capability’
In January 2011, U.S. intelligence agencies detected an unusual electronic
signal emanating from near Miran Shah, a jihadist haven in North Waziristan,
Pakistan. The DIA called the signal “the first observed test of a new
terrorist GPS jamming capability.”
The test apparently did not pose a threat to military GPS frequencies or
encrypted communications links. In addition, whoever was beaming the mysterious
signal mistakenly thought that jamming ground-based GPS receivers would
interfere with drones’ ability to aim missiles or munitions at fixed targets,
according to the DIA report.
Despite such missteps, al-Qaeda has been undeterred. In a separate 2011
report, the DIA stated that affiliates in Miran Shah and the Pakistani city of
Karachi were pursuing other “R&D projects,” including one effort to shoot down
drones with portable shoulder-fired missiles, known as manpads.
Army intelligence analysts uncovered similar projects, including attempts to
develop laser detectors that could give warning whenever a U.S. Predator drone
was about to fire a laser-guided Hellfire missile, according to a summary of a
classified Army report.
In 2011, the DIA concluded that an “al-Qaeda-affiliated research and
development cell currently lacks the technical knowledge to successfully
integrate and deploy a counterdrone strike system.” DIA analysts added, however,
that if al-Qaeda engineers were to “overcome these substantial design
challenges, we believe such a system probably would be highly disruptive for
U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
The Air Force and CIA rely heavily on Predator and Reaper drones to hunt for
al-Qaeda targets and other insurgents in several countries. Both aircraft can
stay aloft for more than 20 hours to conduct surveillance missions and can be
armed with Hellfire missiles.
The drones are flown by remote control via satellite data links, usually by
pilots and sensor operators stationed thousands of miles away at bases in the
United States. Those satellite links are encrypted, which makes the connections
extremely difficult to hack.
It is only slightly less of a challenge for al-Qaeda fighters to spot a
high-flying drone with the naked eye. Predators and Reapers loiter at altitudes
above 20,000 feet, and their powerful cameras focus on objects several miles
over the horizon, so their presence is hard to detect.
The satellite links, however, are the Achilles’ heel of drone operations.
“Lost link” incidents — triggered when a satellite moves out of range or a drone
drops a signal — are relatively common. The connections are usually
reestablished within seconds or minutes. The aircraft are programmed to fly in a
loop pattern or return to their launching spot during prolonged disruptions.
On several occasions, however, lost links have led to crashes. In September,
an Air Force Predator
slammed into mountainous terrain along the Iraq-Turkey border after the
satellite data links were lost and the drone crew could no longer communicate
with the aircraft.
In December 2011, a stealth U.S. spy drone operated by the CIA crashed in
Iranian territory. Iran said it downed the advanced RQ-170 drone in an
“electronic ambush.” U.S. officials said they did not believe that the drone had
been hacked or jammed. They said a technical malfunction was probably to blame.
Although the navigational satellite links are encrypted, other drone
transmissions are sometimes left unprotected.
In 2009, the U.S. military
discovered that Iraqi insurgents
had hacked into video feeds from Predator and Shadow drones using
off-the-shelf software. The drones had been transmitting full-motion video to
U.S. troops on the ground, but the Air Force had not encrypted those data
links, leaving them vulnerable.
Air Force officials acknowledged the flaw and said they would work to
encrypt all video feeds from its fleet of Predator drones by 2014. In their
classified assessments, U.S. intelligence agencies sought to play down the
insurgents’ hacking handiwork. Although analysts were concerned about the
interceptions of the video feeds, they said there was no sign that insurgents
had been able to seize control of the drone itself.
“While the ability of insurgent forces to view unencrypted or to break into
encrypted data streams has been a concern for some time, indications to date
are that insurgents have not been able to wrest [drone] control from its
mission control ground station,” a 2010 report concluded.
The report went on to suggest that allowing insurgents to intercept video
feeds might actually have “a deterrent effect” by demonstrating the extent to
which U.S. forces were able to watch their movements.
Still, summaries of the classified reports indicate a growing unease among
U.S. agencies about al-Qaeda’s determination to find a way to neutralize drones.
“Al-Qaida Engineers in Pakistan Continue Development of Laser-Warning Systems
in Effort To Counter UAV Strikes,” read the headline of one report in 2011,
using the military acronym for unmanned aerial vehicles.
Beyond the threat that al-Qaeda might figure out how to hack or shoot down a
drone, however, U.S. spy agencies worried that their drone campaign was becoming
increasingly vulnerable to public opposition.
Intelligence analysts took careful note of al-Qaeda’s efforts to portray
drone strikes as cowardly or immoral, beginning in January 2011 with a report
titled “Al-Qa’ida Explores Manipulating Public Opinion to Curb CT Pressure.”
Analysts also questioned whether they were losing the rhetorical battle in
the media, the courts and even among “citizens with legitimate social agendas.”
One 2010 report predicted that drone operations “could be brought under
increased scrutiny, perceived to be illegitimate, openly resisted or
In response, intelligence agencies floated their own ideas to influence
public perceptions. One unclassified report said the phrase “drone strike”
should never be uttered, calling it “a loaded term.”
“Drones connote mindless automatons with no capability for independent
thought or action,” the report said. “Strikes connote a first attack, which
leaves the victim unable to respond. Other phrases employed to evoke an
emotional response include ‘Kill List,’ ‘Hit Squads,’ ‘Robot Warfare,’ or
‘Aerial Assassins.’ ”
Instead, the report advised referring to “lethal UAV operations.” It also
suggested “elevating the conversation” to more-abstract issues, such as the
“Inherent Right of Self-Defense” and “Pre-emptive and Preventive Military
Greg Miller contributed to this report.