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.