Since at least 2010, Al Qaeda has recruited engineers and technicians with knowledge of drones and missiles in an effort to develop a "counterdrone" strategy against U.S. attacks. That's according to intelligence documents obtained by the Washington Post from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
America's drone policy has long been a contradictory, controversial beast with, among other things, a disturbing tendency to kill innocent and misidentified people. But it is also effective at killing Al Qaeda leaders. And the terrorist organization knows this, as evidenced by their substantial efforts to figure out a way to stop, or hijack, the attacks. The CIA learned about their counterdrone ambitions in 2010, and have apparently been tracking it ever since.
In that year, the Post explains, Al Qaeda made a huge push to recruit members who might have some specialist drone knowledge. Then Al Qaeda operations chief Atiyah Abd al-Rahman told a jihadist site that year that the group wasn't really looking for "ordinary fighters" at the moment. It was focusing on specialists. Later that year, Turkey arrested an Al Qaeda member — a mathematics student — who was researching methods to shoot down small NATO drones. The program isn't even secret. The Post quotes a jihadist magazine, Azan, which called in March for those with "abilities" to stop drones:
In 2011, the U.S. detected the test of a GPS jamming device. But it was doomed to failure. The Post explains that "whoever was beaming the mysterious signal mistakenly believed that jamming ground-based GPS receivers would interfere with drones’ ability to aim missiles or munitions at fixed targets." U.S. intelligence officials also discovered plans to shoot down drones with shoulder-held rockets, to develop ways to detect lasers from laser-guided strikes. As far as the Post's documents are concerned, al Qaeda is still waiting for the technological know-how to hack or down American drones, even though the weaknesses of the devices are widely known. The Post explains:
U.S. 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, U.S. 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.
The government outlined those weaknesses in a report two years ago. Because the necessary parts to implement a drone sabotage are relatively inexpensive, the report explains, the expertise needed to actually do it is really the only obstacle.
The Post's piece has an interesting coda of sorts: as the U.S. intelligence officials assessed the threat to drones from insurgents in the Middle East, they were increasingly aware of a publicity war back home:
Analysts also questioned whether they were losing the rhetorical battle in the media, the courts and even among “citizens with legitimate social agendas.” One 2010 report predicted that drone operations “could be brought under increased scrutiny, perceived to be illegitimate, openly resisted or undermined.” In response, intelligence agencies floated their own ideas to influence public perceptions. One unclassified report said the phrase “drone strike” should never be uttered, calling it “a loaded term.”
Instead, officials recommended the use of "lethal UAV operations" as a replacement term. But it's not the term "drone strike" that's been at the center of criticism of the program — its how the targets are actually chosen, and at what cost.