Secret documents reveal Qaeda's efforts to fight drones
05 September, 2013
WASHINGTON: Al Qaeda's leaders have set up cells of engineers to try to shoot down, disable or hijack US drones, The Washington Post reported late on Tuesday citing top-secret US intelligence documents.
The al Qaeda leadership is "hoping to exploit the technological vulnerabilities of a weapons system that has inflicted huge losses against the terrorist network," The Post said online. "Although there is no evidence that al Qaeda has forced a drone crash or successfully interfered with flight operations, US intelligence officials have closely tracked the group's persistent efforts to develop a counterdrone strategy since 2010," the report said, citing the secret documents.
The al Qaeda commanders are keen to achieve "a technological breakthrough (that) could curb the US drone campaign, which has killed an estimated 3,000 people over the past decade," The Post reported. Drone strikes have forced al Qaeda operatives to limit their movements in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and other places. They have also taken a toll among civilians in those countries, something that has fueled anti-US sentiment.
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 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.
US 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 revolutionised warfare and become a pillar of the US 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.
US 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, 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 Qaeda leaders had distributed a "strategy guide" to operatives around the world advising them how "to anticipate and defeat" unmanned aircraft. The Defence 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 US 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."