U.S. intelligence agencies are scrambling to salvage their surveillance of al-Qaida and other terrorists who are working frantically to change how they communicate after a National Security Agency contractor leaked details of two NSA spying programs. It’s an electronic game of cat-and-mouse that could have deadly consequences if a plot is missed or a terrorist operative manages to drop out of sight.
Terrorist groups had always taken care to avoid detection — from using anonymous email accounts, to multiple cellphones, to avoiding electronic communications at all, in the case of Osama bin Laden. But there were some methods of communication, like the Skype video teleconferencing software that some militants still used, thinking they were safe, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials who follow the groups. They spoke anonymously as a condition of describing their surveillance of the groups. Those militants now know to take care with Skype — one of the 9 U.S.-based Internet servers identified by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks to The Guardian and The Washington Post.
Two U.S. intelligence officials say members of virtually every terrorist group, including core al-Qaida members, are attempting to change how they communicate, based on what they are reading in the media, to hide from U.S. surveillance. It is the first time intelligence officials have described which groups are reacting to the leaks. The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak about the intelligence matters publicly.
The officials wouldn’t go into details on how they know this, whether it’s terrorists switching email accounts or cellphone providers or adopting new encryption techniques, but a lawmaker briefed on the matter said al-Qaida’s Yemeni offshoot, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has been among the first to alter how it reaches out to its operatives.
The lawmaker spoke anonymously because he would not, by name, discuss the confidential briefing.
Shortly after Snowden leaked documents about the secret NSA surveillance programs, chat rooms and websites used by like-minded extremists and would-be recruits advised users how to avoid NSA detection, from telling them not to use their real phone numbers to recommending specific online software programs to keep spies from tracking their computers’ physical locations.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said there are “changes we can already see being made by the folks who wish to do us harm, and our allies harm.”
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said Tuesday that Snowden “has basically alerted people who are enemies of this country … (like) al-Qaida, about what techniques we have been using to monitor their activities and foil plots, and compromised those efforts, and it’s very conceivable that people will die as a result.”
Privacy activists are more skeptical of the claims. “I assume my communication is being monitored,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch. She said that’s why her group joined a lawsuit against the Director of National Intelligence to find out if its communications were being monitored. The case was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court last fall. “I would be shocked if terrorists didn’t also assume that and take steps to protect against it,” she said.