June 18th, 2013
07:15 PM ET

NSA helped foil terror plot in Belgium, documents, officials say

By Paul Cruickshank

A potential al Qaeda plot targeting Belgium was thwarted in part by e-mail information provided by U.S. Internet providers, according to Belgian court documents and Western counterterrorism officials.

The case, which came to light in 2008, shows how U.S. intelligence capabilities can aid in disrupting plots.

On Tuesday, American counterterrorism officials revealed that more than 50 plots have been thwarted since September 11, 2001, using National Security Agency surveillance programs. Many of those plots were overseas.

The officials, testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, revealed only four of those plots and promised to provide details on the others to Congress in a classified setting. The Belgium plot, though not confirmed to be one of the 50 that relied on the recently revealed secretive NSA program to monitor online messages, appears to fit the bill.

On December 11, 2008, Belgian authorities arrested an al Qaeda cell in Brussels that they feared had been planning a suicide bombing attack.

An intercepted e-mail from one of the cell members to his ex-girlfriend indicated he was about to launch a suicide attack. A defense lawyer in the case told CNN that prosecutors at trial acknowledged that the United States intercepted the communication and passed it to the Belgians.

In addition, a Western counterterrorism official told CNN that an intelligence agency from a partner country had intercepted another communication from the cell, that further suggested they may be about to launch an attack and passed the information onto the Belgians. Court documents in the case suggest this intercept was also made by U.S. intelligence.

The cell had been recruited in late 2007 to travel to Pakistan by Malika El Aroud and Moez Garsallaoui, a husband-and-wife team championing al Qaeda's cause in Europe.

El Aroud and Garsallaoui had been on the radar of Belgian authorities for many years. El Aroud was the widow of the man who assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud two days before 9/11 on Osama bin Laden's orders.

Garsallaoui traveled with the cell to Pakistan and helped arrange for them to train in al Qaeda camps in Waziristan, according to court documents. In 2008 the NSA intercepted several e-mails sent by Garsallaoui to El Aroud in Belgium, according to two Western counterterrorism officials. Belgian officials needed the help of the Americans because the e-mails were sent via American Internet service providers, one of the officials said.

According to court documents in the subsequent trial, El Aroud and Garsallaoui had e-mail accounts administered by U.S. Internet access providers.

The documents stated that as early as December 2007, the FBI handed Belgian authorities a disc with information relating to these e-mail addresses that had been provided to the FBI by Microsoft and Yahoo.

According to court documents, e-mail information relating to the case was "provided voluntarily by the companies Microsoft and Yahoo, as authorized by the Patriot Act."

The documents stated that one of the reasons authorities grew alarmed that an attack was possibly about to be launched was that an electronic communication had been intercepted from a suspected cell member in Belgium to Garsallaoui in Pakistan on December 7, 2008.

When police moved in to make arrests four days later, they did not find evidence that a plot was imminent.

El Aroud and several others were subsequently convicted of being part of a terrorist cell. It is believed Garsallaoui was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan last October.

soundoff (23 Responses)
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    March 11, 2014 at 3:45 am | Reply
  2. RepealObama

    We must realize that spying on foreigners is well within the realm of the NSA. To spy on Americans requires probable cause. CNN, please do not give the false impression that this event in Belgium in any way justifies the bulk collection of all kinds of data on ordinary American citizens.

    January 18, 2014 at 11:25 am | Reply
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    August 7, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  4. Skorpio

    Islam is the root of all evil and the ONLY COMMON LINK among thousands of terrorist attacks around the world. Unless there is a massive conversion of Muslims to Christianity, nothing is going to change.

    June 22, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Reply
  5. clarese portofino

    This is a way the government is gaining our trust to trade away liberty for security. They "foil" as many attacks as they want, I will never trust any government that is willing to sacrifice liberty for security.

    June 19, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  6. Faras Khan

    I couldn't careless what the Feds say. The bottom line is my voice menas nothing. Let me be thankful for the daily bread I receive!

    June 19, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  7. Belgian fries

    It's stupid, because first everybody knows that america loves to sniff the underwear of the world and second, we don't need help from "the land of the free and the home of the brave". The only country to breed it's own terrorists (see Syria : you don't want to see Al-Nosra members in your streets) to keep the "world" at war. NSA or CIA stopping terrorists... that's a good joke.

    June 19, 2013 at 10:26 am | Reply
    • George Patton

      Well put, Belgian fries. Thank you. This is just more right-wing propaganda from the right-wing thugs in Washington to fool the public. Unfortunately, they're only too successful at this obscene endeavor!!!

      June 19, 2013 at 7:17 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      You blew it, Belgian fries. No Thanks for your meaningless post. This is just more propaganda from the windless thugs in Washington to fool the public. Fortunately, they never succeed at their obscene endeavor!!!

      June 19, 2013 at 11:05 pm | Reply
      • Belgian fries

        Meaningless... maybe not. I hate when someone says "Your freedom is mine now for the sake of the security of the world, and you, in the near future will thank me for this!". It's the same as "We put a pr0n filter to avoid visits on those websites !". At that moment I visit pr0n website and I use terms as bomb , Allahu Akbar, destroy america, etc... Just because these tools were purchased and must be used. To get back to the "Affaire Prism", fifty avoided attacks in 12 years! Either you're (dixit Abraham Lincoln) lying or you do not tell the whole truth or put a zero after the 5 attacks in Irak and Afghanistan.

        June 20, 2013 at 6:13 am |
      • George Patton

        Sorry Belgian fries, that was my troll above trying to make me look like a Tea Partying idiot as usual. I posted the original above and I approve of what you said.

        June 20, 2013 at 7:45 am |
  8. poltergiest

    Also, wouldn't it be also true that the Belgians could have found that out if they had decided to snoop in on their own citizens calls?

    June 19, 2013 at 5:35 am | Reply
  9. poltergiest

    Awesome. The security in Belgium is totally worth my freedom here.

    June 19, 2013 at 5:31 am | Reply
    • Marck Rolon

      Haha true that.

      June 19, 2013 at 11:47 am | Reply
  10. Sprt

    Im for this program to stop terrorism and yes its a trade off. If it was kept secret we would have never known. But on the other hand now that we do know maybe we can keep the trade off from becoming something that nobody wants. Nsa just cant put the info out there on what they have accomplished and are our Politicians over inflating the numbers. Our Government needs to work on getting the trust of the people back because here lately the track record is a little ruff.

    June 19, 2013 at 5:15 am | Reply
    • Sprt

      Is the whistleblower a criminal or a hero. He's both and now he is a major liability on other information he knows. What a Paradox.

      June 19, 2013 at 5:55 am | Reply
  11. ?

    people are crazy to say their program is a bad thing, trust me when i say we need it, we undertook a righteous war (911) in the world's eyes and did things that were the exact opposite of what was needed, we gave the terrorist one big playground to operate out of, and in some cases even put them in power, we have made so many more enemies in the world by bombing iraqi neighborhoods and taking away their law and order and leaving a bloody civil war for the majority (the innocents who still love their dead wives and children), there are more people in the world now (over a decade later) that hate us than on 911

    June 19, 2013 at 12:01 am | Reply
    • poltergiest

      So why are they in Belgium plotting instead of here?

      June 19, 2013 at 5:37 am | Reply
      • TXPatriot

        Are they?

        June 21, 2013 at 9:59 am |
  12. lance

    why is the nsa letting all these muslem immigrants slip through the cracks in the u.s. if their doing such a good spy job ? stop immigration to the u.s. if we really want safty from terrorist attacks.

    June 18, 2013 at 8:58 pm | Reply
  13. George Patton-2

    Did this truly happen or is this just more right-wing propaganda out of Washington D.C.? Either way, the public will fall for it!

    June 18, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Reply
    • George Patton-2

      Sorry folks, I never posted the above. Some jerk is trying to make me look terrorist sympathiser. Phunnie boy's at it again so just ignore the above!!! I strongly support NSA continue collecting data on terrorist wannabe groups or people, or countries harboring terrorist groups.

      June 19, 2013 at 10:11 am | Reply
      • Killer O'Bama

        Well said, Phunnie boy. Thank you!

        June 19, 2013 at 7:19 pm |

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