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.
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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 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-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 officials.
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.”