WASHINGTON — Al-Qaida's leadership has assigned cells of engineers to find ways to shoot down, jam or remotely hijack U.S. drones, hoping to exploit the technological vulnerabilities of a weapons system that has inflicted huge losses against the terrorist network, the Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing top-secret U.S. intelligence documents.
Although there is no evidence that al-Qaida has forced a drone crash or successfully interfered with flight operations, U.S. intelligence officials have closely tracked the group's persistent efforts to develop a counterdrone strategy since 2010, the documents show.
Al-Qaida commanders are hoping a technological breakthrough could curb the U.S. drone campaign, which has killed an estimated 3,000 people over the past decade. The airstrikes have forced al-Qaida 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 U.S. policy toward those countries.
Details of al-Qaida'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 U.S. spy agencies since 2006.
U.S. intelligence analysts noted in their assessments that information about drone operational systems is available in the public realm. But the Washington Post is withholding some detailed portions of the classified material that could shed light on specific weaknesses of certain aircraft.
Under President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, drones have revolutionized warfare and become a pillar of the U.S. 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-Qaida's core leadership in Pakistan scrambling to survive.
U.S. spy agencies have concluded that al-Qaida faces "substantial" challenges in devising an effective way to attack drones, according to the report. Still, the report indicates a growing unease among U.S. agencies about al-Qaida's determination to find a way to neutralize drones.