Secret files lift lid on al-Qa’ida fightback against US drones

American Intelligence warns jihadists are recruiting engineers to examine vulnerabilities in unmanned aircraft

Al-Qai’da’s leadership has assigned cells of engineers the task of finding ways to shoot down, jam or remotely hijack US drones, hoping to exploit the technological vulnerabilities of a weapons system that has inflicted huge losses upon the terrorist network, according to top-secret US intelligence documents.

Although there is no evidence that al-Qa’ida has forced a drone crash or interfered with flight operations, US intelligence officials have closely tracked the group’s persistent efforts to develop a counter-drone strategy since 2010, the documents show.

Al-Qa’ida commanders are hoping a technological breakthrough can curb the US drone campaign, which has killed an estimated 3,000 people over the past decade. The strikes have forced al-Qa’ida 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 US policies toward those countries.

Details of al-Qa’ida’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 US spy agencies since 2006.

Under President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W Bush, drones have revolutionised warfare and become a pillar of the US government’s counter-terrorism 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-Qa’ida’s core leadership in Pakistan struggling to survive.

US spy agencies have concluded that al-Qa’ida faces “substantial” challenges in devising an effective way to attack drones, according to the report. Still, US 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 US spy agency intercepted electronic communications indicating that senior al-Qa’ida leaders had distributed a “strategy guide” advising on how “to anticipate and defeat” unmanned aircraft. The Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) reported that al-Qa’ida 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 which insurgents apparently saw as having potential for monitoring the flight patterns of US drones.

Al-Qa’ida cell leaders in the tribal areas of north-western 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-Qa’ida “cell leadership is tracking the progress of each project and can redirect components from one project to another”.

Buildings damaged by drone strikes in Yemen (EPA) Buildings damaged by drone strikes in Yemen (EPA)  

The technological vulnerabilities of drones are no secret. The US 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 counter-measures.

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  the use of rudimentary acoustic receivers to detect drones and “simple jammer techniques” to interfere with navigation and communications.

In 2010, the CIA noted in a secret report that al-Qa’ida was placing special emphasis on the recruitment of technicians and that “the skills most in demand” included expertise in drones and missile technology.

Al-Qa’ida 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 drones 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 them.

In the absence of a hi-tech silver bullet, al-Qa’ida 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 tip-sheet with 22 recommendations. Among the suggestions are ideas for camouflage as well as dubious advice on using radio or microwave transmitters to “confuse the frequencies used to control the drone”.

US spy agencies also worried about public opposition. Analysts 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 undermined”. 

In Numbers

3,584 Estimated number killed by the US drone campaign in the past decade

355 Drone strikes on Pakistan since 2004

400 Civilians killed by drones in Pakistan

News
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes