To refresh your memory, the terror threat that forced the closing of 19 U.S. diplomatic outposts abroad in early August was treated as unusually dire by U.S. counterterrorism because of the people involved in the communications about it. They couldn’t reveal who those people were, though, for fear that the targets would then realize they were being bugged and clam up. But then, on August 4, somebody blabbed to McClatchy:
An official who’d been briefed on the matter in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, told McClatchy that the embassy closings and travel advisory were the result of an intercepted communication between Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri in which Zawahiri gave “clear orders” to al-Wuhaysi, who was recently named al Qaida’s general manager, to carry out an attack.
Result: Yup, they clammed up.
Since news reports in early August revealed that the United States intercepted messages between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of Al Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, discussing an imminent terrorist attack, analysts have detected a sharp drop in the terrorists’ use of a major communications channel that the authorities were monitoring. Since August, senior American officials have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives.
“The switches weren’t turned off, but there has been a real decrease in quality” of communications, said one United States official, who like others quoted spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence programs…
“It was something that was immediate, direct and involved specific people on specific communications about specific events,” one senior American official said 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.”
Other senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials offer a dissenting view, saying that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the impact of the messages between the Qaeda leaders from Mr. Snowden’s overall disclosures, and that the decline is more likely a combination of the two.
That makes me think that my hunch in this post was correct. Weeks after the first leak, U.S. officials started whispering to reporters that they hadn’t intercepted the Zawahiri chat live while it happened but had rather gotten a recording of it off of a storage device held by a captured jihadi courier. That seemed like damage control — a way to reassure Zawahiri and his deputies that we couldn’t listen in real time and therefore it was safe for them to start talking again. No dice. But a nice try.
The Times’s intel sources claim that jihadi chatter doesn’t so much tail off after new Snowden revelations in the press as become temporarily consumed by chitchat about the revelations themselves. Which makes sense: Most of it so far has had to do with the NSA hoovering up communications in the U.S. and allied nations. Whether Snowden’s waging war on the surveillance state in particular or American espionage more broadly, revealing sensitive info about countermeasures against AQ and similar groups would be catastrophic for his cause. All he’s really telling AQ in his leaks is that the feds can access virtually any Internet platform — which AQ seems to have already assumed, given the effort described at the end of the NYT piece that they’ve given to building their own encryption. Of course, the NSA can bust lots of encryption too; my sense from the NYT piece, in fact, is that AQ probably used their “Mujahedeen Secrets” encryption for Zawahiri’s chat about the terror plot not knowing that U.S. intel has (probably) cracked it. Well, now they know. No more chatter.
You would think Obama and the DOJ would want to make a big show of prosecuting this leak, just to prove that they care more about people revealing their spycraft against Al Qaeda than against American citizens. If James Rosen’s e-mails were worth reading, surely McClatchy’s are too, right? I think there’s a simple explanation, though: The official who blabbed to McC wasn’t an American but a Yemeni. McClatchy didn’t identify his nationality in the original leak, but they seemed to the next day in a follow-up story. Frankly, given how Yemen’s likely to handle internal leaks, that guy probably wishes he was in an American jail now.
Update: Interesting theory from Tom Maguire:
As to who might be trying to accomplish what with this latest story, who can tell? Is this meant to be false reassurance to Al Qaeda, a valentine to Snowden and his press enablers, or something else entirely (like, a news story…)? I would say that based purely on the timing the August 2013 details were Administration self-promotion like the Obama 2012 re-election leaks.
I.e. “Darn it, Al Qaeda, we’ve lost our ability to listen in on your conversations!” And meanwhile the NSA’s already cracked whatever platform AQ’s using now.