WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda’s leadership has assigned cells of engineers to find 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 against the terrorist network, according to top-secret US intelligence documents.
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 counter-drone strategy since 2010, the documents show.
Al Qaeda commanders are hoping a technological breakthrough could curb the US 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 to US policy toward those countries.
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 revolutionized 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. Drones 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 Defense Intelligence Agency, or 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.