UAS & Robotics

Al-Qaeda reportedly targeting U.S. drones

Al-Qaeda is reportedly attempting to develop electronic and other countermeasures to disrupt or bring down U.S. attack drones.

The Washington Post reported on Sept. 3 that leaked NSA documents include a classified report, titled “Threats to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” that summarizes the terrorist group’s efforts since 2006 to counter U.S. drone strikes that have killed an estimated 3,000 people over the last decade.

According to the Post, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reported in July 2010 that al-Qaeda was sponsoring research to develop jammers that could be used to disrupt both GPS signals and infrared tags used by drone operators to guide missiles. Another tactic mentioned in an unclassified Air Force report is pointing lasers at a drone to blind its sensors. Other jamming techniques could interfere with navigation and communications.

Radio frequency communication links are known to be vulnerable on commercial drones. Military drones use encrypted satellite and other communications links that are difficult to hack. Still, the Post report noted, “lost” satellite data links have resulted in at least one known U.S. drone crash after remote operators lost contact.

Video feeds from Predator and Shadow drones were reportedly hacked by Iraqi insurgents in 2009. The Air Force plans to encrypt all Predator video feeds.

The Post reported that in January 2011 U.S. intelligence detected what DIA described as “the first observed test of a new terrorist GPS jamming capability” transmitted from North Waziristan, Pakistan. Meanwhile, Army intelligence analysts reportedly uncovered insurgent attempts to develop laser detectors to provide advance warning when U.S. Predator drones were about to fire laser-guided Hellfire missiles, the newspaper report said.

Al-Qaeda is also thought to be developing portable shoulder-fired missiles to shoot down U.S. drones.

Whether al-Qaeda possesses the capability to deploy effective countermeasures again U.S. drones remains an open question. The leaked documents revealed that insurgents are recruiting engineers to work on the anti-drone effort, including hacking techniques and other tactics designed to take control of or destroy American drones, the Post reported.

The newspaper also said it was withholding some details of the classified report that might reveal specific weaknesses of certain unmanned aircraft. The report is part of a large number of secret documents leaked in recent months by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden. 

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