Remember when the AP reported that the NSA was not responsible for flushing out the initial tip about the big Yemen terror plot? Per Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, they were right. The NSA didn’t tap into the online “conference call.” Al Qaeda itself recorded the session, presumably with an eye to wider distribution within the network, and U.S. intel sniffed out a courier who had the file.
Two obvious questions. One: Does this mean the initial leak about the “conference call” was less damaging than thought? The fear at the time was that U.S. intel, by babbling to reporters about what happened, had tipped Al Qaeda off to the fact that we’re tapping their virtual phones and listening in real time. Apparently we’re not doing that. If AQ hadn’t saved the file, it seems we’d never have known. Two: What kind of signal-to-noise ratio are we looking at here if the NSA’s capable of hoovering up billions of innocent American digital communications but not capable of sniffing out a giant terrorist powwow from the group responsible for 9/11 while it’s happening live on the Web?
Earlier this summer, the al Qaeda courier began uploading messages to a series of encrypted accounts containing minutes of what appeared to be have been an important meeting. A U.S. intelligence agency was able to exploit a flaw in the courier’s operational security, intercepting the digital packets and locating the courier, according to two U.S. intelligence officials and one U.S. official who reviewed the intelligence. All three officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
The courier remains in Yemeni custody. According to the three U.S. officials, Yemeni intelligence discovered a treasure trove of information in the courier’s possession, including not only meeting minutes but an actual web recording of the seven-hour, Internet-based al Qaeda conference between the organization’s top leaders and representatives of its many affiliates and aspiring affiliates…
Since the September 11 attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies have monitored a series of password-protected websites, Internet forums and other kinds of communications. But al Qaeda has developed advanced encryption methods and a proprietary technology allowing the group to conduct remote meetings, including video, voice, and chat capabilities.
“The technology is there for al Qaeda to have an encrypted cyber web conference that exists over instant message software with each other in a one time only chat room that disappears as soon as the conference is over,” said Laith al-Khouri, a senior consultant at Flashpoint Global Partners, an intelligence-consulting group. “This can also carry video from the participants if they are using instant messaging software that has the functionality of a video teleconference. I believe al Qaeda has that capability.”
Al Qaeda’s developed its own software for encrypted communications that the NSA evidently can’t penetrate? What? But wait — if the courier had a copy of the web recording, that must mean he knows how to decrypt it. And if he knows, Yemeni intel — and U.S. intel — probably know now too. In which case, why are they publicizing the means by which they got a copy of the recording? This might not be *as* damaging as the earlier leak, but it’s still a tip-off.
Here’s a theory (which may be wishcasting on my part): Maybe this is all a subterfuge. Assume that U.S. intel, be it the NSA or someone else, did tap AQ’s phones and listen to the big conference call while it happened, and now they’re panicked that the initial leak will scare Al Qaeda away from using that technology anymore. The story about the courier would rebuild jihadi confidence that the technology hasn’t been compromised. We couldn’t break their code, we just happened to stumble onto the courier who had a copy of the recording. It’s still safe to use QaedaChat! Marc Ambinder speculated after the initial leak that maybe the feds had leaked their knowledge of the “conference call” deliberately, to spook AQ into using a different technology that could be more easily penetrated. This new leak undermines that, though. Having supposedly deliberately created the impression that we’ve infiltrated Al Qaeda’s web chats, there’d be no reason to turn around now and suggest that we didn’t. That sort of backtracking makes it sound like the initial leak had more truth in it than U.S. intel felt should have been revealed and now they’re trying to put the genie back in the bottle. But as I say, maybe this is wishcasting.
Exit question: Did the metadata in the web recording provide any clues as to where these guys are hiding out? There must have been quite a scramble after the initial leak.
Update: What was I just saying about location?
A major Al Qaeda technical hub used to distribute video and communications from the terror group’s leadership was raided by Pakistani law enforcement on Tuesday, leading to the arrest of four women and two men, according to unconfirmed Pakistani media reports.
The hub, located in Lahore, Pakistan, is believed to have been used by the same group connected to the threats against U.S. diplomats. Lahore is the same city where the U.S. consulate was shut down several weeks ago after “specific threats” were intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies…
“The content of what was found in the computers could be significant and valuable to our intelligence agencies,” Stalinsky told TheBlaze. “It will be interesting to see if they share that with the U.S. Although, I believe it’s highly unlikely.”