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Experts: Media Leaks Make Tracking Al Qaeda Terrorists Harder

Security experts are concerned that terrorists are communicating less electronically, after revelations about how the US is tracking them.
By David Lev
First Publish: 9/30/2013, 5:15 PM

AQAP leader Nasser al Wahaishi (center)
AQAP leader Nasser al Wahaishi (center)
Reuters

A report in the New York Times Monday quotes American security experts as saying that recent disclosures about U.S. surveillance of Al Qaeda and other terror groups in the media has caused substantial damage to intelligence-gathering efforts seeking to detect future terror attacks. As a result of the disclosures, terrorists have significantly lowered their use of electronic communications, and as a result the government cannot intercept and analyze their messages.

While some officials attributed at least part of the caution to the revelations by Edward Snowden, who has leaked thousands of sensitive documents to the media – showing how far-reaching the government's surveillance efforts at home and abroad are – a more important factor was the August revelation that the U.S. had intercepted messages between Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In those messages, the two discussed an imminent terror attack, media reports said. Since those reports appeared, officials said, Al Qaeda has used electronic communications on a much less frequent basis.

“The switches weren’t turned off, but there has been a real decrease in quality” of communications, one intelligence official told the Times.

The Snowden leaks are also a factor, Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a security conference in July.

“We have seen, in response to the Snowden leaks, Al Qaeda and affiliated groups seeking to change their tactics, looking to see what they can learn from what is in the press and seek to change how they communicate to avoid detection,” the Times quoted him as saying.

Specifics of the plot have not been revealed, but it appeared that it surrounded a major Al Qaeda plot to blow up oil pipelines in Yemen and seize some of the country's main ports, as well as attack the American Embassy in the country.

As a result, officials said, the sharpest decline in communications between Al Qaeda leaders has been in Yemen, indicating that the revelations about the Yemen plot had more of an impact than the Snowden leaks, which have caused damage in other ways.

“It was something that was immediate, direct and involved specific people on specific communications about specific events,” one senior American official told the Times of the exchange between the Qaeda leaders.

“The Snowden stuff is layered and layered, and it will take a lot of time to understand it. There wasn’t a sudden drop-off from it. A lot of these guys think that they are not impacted by it, and it is difficult stuff for them to understand.”