Did NSA leaks help al Qaeda?
June 25th, 2013
06:00 AM ET

Did NSA leaks help al Qaeda?

By Paul Cruickshank

Obama administration officials and congressional lawmakers over the past two weeks have condemned Edward Snowden for admittedly leaking classified information on national security surveillance programs.

Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, spoke of "changes we can already see being made by the folks who wish to do us harm, and our allies harm."

He added the disclosures of surveillance programs may also "make it harder to track bad guys trying to harm U.S. citizens in the United States."

FBI Director Robert Mueller last week testified "these disclosures have caused significant harm to our nation and to our safety."

How should these claims be weighed?

There is little doubt the leaks were damaging to some degree. It is axiomatic that disclosures on the scope of NSA surveillance can be helpful to terrorist groups.

Al Qaeda and its affiliates do pay attention to such things because nothing is more important to terrorist groups than operational security.

However, some analysts also rightly point out that al Qaeda and like-minded groups were already aware of the enormous capabilities of the NSA to snoop on their communications, and had already taken measures to try to evade detection.

Al Qaeda can hardly have failed to notice that U.S. intelligence intercepts helped thwart a significant number of its plots since 9/11. This was well documented long before Snowden's leaks this month to the Guardian and the Washington Post.

Some of these plots included the 2009 Najibullah Zazi plan to bomb New York subway system; a potential plot in Belgium in 2008; a plot by al Qaeda affiliated militants to bomb U.S. soldiers in Germany in 2007; and the 2006 plot to bomb nine airliners bound for North America simultaneously above the Atlantic (by far the most serious plot since 9/11).

Al Qaeda and its affiliates responded to the string of plots thwarted by the NSA by being more careful in the way they communicated.

By 2008, al Qaeda had banned electronic communications inside the tribal areas of Pakistan, instead requiring messages be exchanged through couriers, according to the testimony of Western al Qaeda recruits.

Militants sympathetic to al Qaeda developed encryption software to help it mask its communications with operatives overseas.

A group of German militants recruited into an al Qaeda plot to attack Europe in 2010 were provided hands-on instruction in encrypting their communications using a program called Mujahideen Secrets in the tribal areas of Pakistan by Younes al Mauretani, a senior al Qaeda operative, according to German intelligence officials.

An internal al Qaeda strategy document called "Future Works" authored in 2009, which was subsequently recovered by German authorities from an al Qaeda operative in Berlin, spoke of the need to instruct Western recruits in ways to secretly communicate with their handlers.

German intelligence officials told CNN that militants in Germany had by 2011 developed ways to communicate in secret over the Internet with terrorist operatives in Pakistan.

The most prominent adopter of the Mujahideen Secrets software was Anwar al Awlaki, an American-Yemeni cleric who orchestrated several plots against the United States for al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen before his death in a U.S drone strike in September 2011.

In 2009, Awlaki personally instructed at least one European militant in Yemen how to use the software so they could communicate without their e-mails being intercepted. CNN has seen copies of the encrypted emails.

By the following year al Awlaki had developed a sophisticated multi-layered method to encrypt communications with operatives overseas.

Significant detail about it was revealed in the 2011 trial of Rajib Karim a British-Bangladeshi-British terrorist operative who had communicated with Awlaki the previous year.

The court heard how in early 2010 Karim, then working in a British Airways call center in Newcastle, communicated in coded phrases from the UK with Awlaki in Yemen through deeply-encrypted word documents that were stealthily digitally compressed and then uploaded to pages of Web hosting sites with addresses only known to the parties in question.

The messages appear not to have been intercepted by the NSA or any other Western intelligence agency.

Even after finding the communications, it took British investigators significant time to decipher the communications, only succeeding after they found the cipher codes and passwords in a file on his the computer, it was revealed at trial. This illustrated how difficult it would be to track such messages in real time.

It was not just al Qaeda that was able to evade detection by the NSA.

On May 1 2010, Faisal Shahzad, an American recruited by the Pakistani Taliban, tried but failed to blow up a car bomb at New York's Times Square.

Court documents revealed that rather than stay off the grid, Shahzad had been in regular touch over the Internet with his handler in Pakistan to get bomb-making guidance in the run up to the attack.

"Using software programs that were installed on his laptop while he was in Pakistan, Shahzad and the Pakistani Taliban were able to exchange information about the bomb he was building," court documents stated.

These communications were obviously not detected by the NSA, otherwise Shahzad would have been arrested before trying to carry out an attack.

soundoff (42 Responses)
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  5. basm

    the leaks did not effect alqaeda they already aware of US spying on them so they created the tools and methods to avoid detection

    March 5, 2014 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  6. Assur

    NSA Leaks didn't help al Qaeda.
    Our administration does though by supplying them with arms.

    June 25, 2013 at 9:51 pm | Reply
    • Rorshach

      Yeah you're so right. Because terrorists have absolutely no interest in our internal security.

      June 26, 2013 at 12:34 am | Reply
      • Helmut

        Of course they're interested, and learned of it long before Snowden.

        June 26, 2013 at 6:41 am |
  7. Aseged99

    Reblogged this on yabedew / ያ – በደው.

    June 25, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  8. California

    We do know that this administration did help the Taliban in Libya though.

    June 25, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Reply
    • Rorshach

      Yes, but it's all right when Obama does it.

      June 26, 2013 at 12:34 am | Reply
  9. thelegaleagle2013

    Reblogged this on The Legal Eagle and commented:
    Probably not!

    June 25, 2013 at 11:37 am | Reply
  10. tony

    I hear a lot of American sticking up for this Edward Snowden but let’s look at his actions.
    Why did he go to China and Russian? Why not go to Ecuador, Iceland before the link is release.
    Mr Snowden actions does not fall in line with someone that is looking out for the US people. He flys to the two counties that have been trying to steal all our information. With fours computer of US secret files And I will bet that China and Russian has advise him to tell them everything and made copies of the files. Now you have China and Russian with information that will allow them to build the same systems. So instant of having the US have access to your email and phone calls you have the china and Russian listening to your calls and email. Do you really think other counties care about us ? No they care about making the US look like fools and the American people who jump on their own government is helping them if US American that hate the government, who do you think protect you every night? Not Russian and china. Have some kind of loyalty.

    June 25, 2013 at 10:54 am | Reply
    • Rick_Buggy

      Tony, don't trust the government, especially a socialist government. They have a track record of spying on their own people. I think you need to read more about the former Soviet block and how they spied on their own people. China, which your writing form would indicate you are familiar with. Snowden went where he knew he would be safe first and foremost. Where would you go if you knew that someone was going to put a bullet in the back of your head?

      June 25, 2013 at 11:01 am | Reply
      • DeDeDee

        Certainly not two country that are very well known for doing it like China and Russia.

        June 25, 2013 at 11:08 am |
      • tony

        I would never become a trader , I may not like some of the thing the US does. but everyday I can wake up and know some other counties will not try to invade us. or I can tell the president to kiss my ass and know am not going to jail. How could so many of you turn your back on your country the same country s that will fight to keep us safe and the same county that said that who every was responsible for 911 will pay. American people stop allow outside people to let you turn your back on your!!! country . Just because there country is mess up do not allow them to break us

        together we stand !!!!

        June 25, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • Michael


      Are you living in a bubble? The NSA got their bag of tricks FROM China and Russia. Why do you think the President was praising China on how they handled internet security? This was just a year ago man, pay attention.

      June 25, 2013 at 11:34 am | Reply
      • tony

        It does not matter !
        Do you leave in China and Russian ? do you put your hand across your chest for a Russian Flag or China Flag. Does china or Russian protect you everyday, wake up American. stop dogging the US

        June 25, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • HK Chinese

      It appears that you do not know much about Hong Kong, which was a former British Colony and was established as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on July 1, 1997.

      Under the principle of “One Country, Two Systems”, Hong Kong’s previous capitalist system and
      way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years and the SAR will be run by Hong Kong people. The SAR
      enjoys a high degree of autonomy except for the foreign and defence affairs. The laws of the SAR do not have much differences to those used during the colonial years.

      We, Hong Kong people, have freedom comparable to those of the States but, unfortunately, do not have the same degree of patriotism as americans. Moroever, we have a strong anti-China press.

      June 25, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Reply
    • Rorshach

      So you don't notice how terrorist activity has been on the rise pretty consistently since 2009?
      The current U.S. government cannot effectively fight terror because it has an active stake in
      the continued operations of terrorists. Say what you want about Bush: The Boston Bombing
      would NOT have happened during his watch, and no terrorist would have dared unplug their
      noses in our direction while Reagan was in office. The Democrats lack a belief in imperatives,
      and so they will never take a strong stance on terror unless they see an increase in approval
      in it. However, these comments will undoubtedly earn me some manner of insult very likely
      written by an Obama supporter. That's what I get for not kowtowing.

      June 26, 2013 at 12:46 am | Reply
  11. Rick_Buggy

    Did the NSA leaks help AQ? No! It's been an open secret since at least the mid 2000's that the NSA has been actively "listening" into communications from certain countries. Those big geodesic domes in SE England have been listening to the Russians for years too. OBL didn't communicate on the web, or cell/sat phone for that same reason. So this guy Snowden hasn't really released anything new that William Binney hadn't already explained years ago.

    June 25, 2013 at 10:46 am | Reply
  12. Samuel R. Kephart

    Tired of your rights being exploited by the NSA?

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    Please pass this onto your friends, family, and business associates.

    June 25, 2013 at 10:23 am | Reply
  13. The MIC

    The GOP/MIC thinks so. How about we start another unfunded, "off the books", war somewhere.

    June 25, 2013 at 9:25 am | Reply
    • Grumpy2012

      Obama is working on it. It's in a little country called Syria.

      And BTW, if we just cut the military budget by 10% and can't afford to keep the White House open for children's tours, where is John Kerry getting the BILLIONS he is spending in the Middle East?

      June 25, 2013 at 9:52 am | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        That's easy to answer, Grumpy2012. He receives kickbacks from the all powerful M.I.C. in Washington to promote their agenda overseas!

        June 26, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  14. George Patton

    Here go the right-wing thugs in Washington again, trying to needlessly scare the public! Did NSA leaks really help Al Qaeda? Somehow, I don't think so!!!

    June 25, 2013 at 8:03 am | Reply
    • DeDeDee

      Then you are an idiot. Having an edge is what keeps us safe.

      June 25, 2013 at 8:45 am | Reply
    • tony

      so when you or your family is on a plane or somewhere and it blow up , will you have the same thinking

      June 25, 2013 at 10:26 am | Reply
    • Joe

      It is shameful the way the sheep follow their masters, this Regime of Nazis must be iradicated.

      June 25, 2013 at 10:40 am | Reply
      • Joe M.

        Well said, Joe. You nailed it good!

        June 25, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  15. FIghtTheLastWar

    Jeffrey Scahill must hate that his misunderstood, innocent "hero" Awlaki is being painted as the communications mastermind behind militant networks. Glad he was sent to hell's fire by a hellfire...should have been sooner.

    June 25, 2013 at 7:57 am | Reply

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