Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.


Qaeda 'changing' communication after leaks

26 June 2013, 14:00

Washington - US intelligence agencies are scrambling to salvage their surveillance of al-Qaeda 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.

Two US intelligence officials say members of virtually every terrorist group, including core al-Qaeda, are attempting to change how they communicate, based on what they are reading in the media, to hide from US surveillance - the first time intelligence officials have described which groups are reacting to the leaks.

The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorised 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 cell phone providers or adopting new encryption techniques, but a lawmaker briefed on the matter said al-Qaeda's Yemeni offshoot, al-Qaeda 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 discuss the confidential briefing by name.

Enemies on alert

Shortly after Edward 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 Chairperson Mike Rogers said there are "changes we can already see being made by the folks who wish to do us harm, and our allies harm".

Senator Angus King said on Tuesday that Snowden "has basically alerted people who are enemies of this country ... [like] al-Qaeda, 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".

At the same time, NSA and other counterterrorist analysts have been focusing their attention on the terrorists, watching their electronic communications and logging all changes.

This includes following which Internet sites the terrorist suspects visit and trying to determine what system they might choose to avoid future detection, according to a former senior intelligence official speaking anonymously as a condition of discussing the intelligence operations.

"It's frustrating. You have to start all over again to track the target," said ME "Spike" Bowman, a former intelligence officer and deputy general counsel of the FBI, now a fellow at the University of Virginia's Centre for National Security Law.

But the NSA will catch up eventually, he predicted, because there are only so many ways a terrorist can communicate. "I have every confidence in their ability to regain access."

Terrorist behaviour

Terror groups switching to encrypted communication may slow the NSA, but encryption also flags the communication as something the US agency considers worth listening to, according to a new batch of secret and top-secret NSA documents published last week by The Guardian, a British newspaper.

They show that the NSA considers any encrypted communication between a foreigner they are watching and a US-based person as fair game to gather and keep, for as long as it takes to break the code and examine it.

Documents released last week also show measures the NSA takes to gather foreign intelligence overseas, highlighting the possible fallout of the disclosures on more traditional spying.

Many foreign diplomats use email systems like Hotmail for their personal correspondence. Two foreign diplomats reached this week who use US email systems that the NSA monitors overseas say they plan no changes, because both diplomats said they already assumed the US was able to read that type of correspondence.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss their methods of communication publicly.

The changing terrorist behaviour is part of the fallout of the release of dozens of top-secret documents to the news media by Snowden, aged 30, a former systems analyst on contract to the NSA.


The Office of the Director for National Intelligence and the NSA declined to comment on the fallout, but the NSA's director, General Keith Alexander, told lawmakers that the leaks have caused "irreversible and significant damage to this nation".

"I believe it will hurt us and our allies," Alexander said.

The leaks revealed that the NSA was scanning the worldwide use of nine US-based Internet service providers, including Google, Yahoo, Skype and YouTube.

"After the leak, jihadists posted Arabic news articles about it ... and recommended fellow jihadists to be very cautious, not to give their real phone number and other such information when registering for a website," said Adam Raisman of the Site Intelligence Group, a private analysis firm.

They also gave out specific advice, recommending jihadists use privacy-protecting email systems like TOR, also called The Onion Router, to hide their computer's IP address, and to use encrypted links to access jihadi forums, Raisman said.

While TOR originally was designed to help dissidents communicate in countries where the Internet is censored, it is facing legal difficulties because criminals allegedly have used it as well.

"Criminals are doing well without things like TOR," said Karen Reilly, a spokesperson for TOR. "If TOR disappeared tomorrow they would still have secure, anonymous access to the Internet. ... Their victims would not."

‘Wake-up call’

Other analysts predicted a two-track evolution away from the now-exposed methods of communication: A terrorist who was using Skype to plan an attack might stop using that immediately so as not to expose the imminent operation, said Ben Venzke of the private analysis firm IntelCenter.

But if the jihadi group uses a now-exposed system like YouTube to disseminate information and recruit more followers, they'll make a gradual switch to something else that wasn't revealed by Snowden's leaks - moving slowly in part because they'll be trying to determine whether new systems they are considering aren't also compromised, and they'll have to reach their followers and signal the change. That will take time.

"Overall, for terrorist organisations and other hostile actors, leaks of this nature serve as a wake-up call to look more closely at how they're operating and improve their security," Venzke said.

"If the CIA or the FBI was to learn tomorrow that its communications are being monitored, do you think it would be business as usual or do you think they would implement a series of changes over time?"

The disclosure that intelligence agencies were listening to Osama bin Laden drove him to drop the use of all electronic communications.

"When it leaked that bin Laden was using a Thuraya cellphone, he switched to couriers," said Jane Harman, former member of the House Intelligence Committee and now director of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre. "The more they know, the clearer the road map is for them."

It took more than a decade to track bin Laden down to his hiding place in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by following one of those couriers.

- AP


Read News24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Read more from our Users

Nigeria @ 56: Words to my green f...

A leader’s job is not to dictate, but rather to be respected, admired and be a trustee, of the land we love, with so much potential, a land which should be freer than free. Its still a long way to fufilling our destiny! Read more...

Submitted by
Isaac Asabor263
Recession: An opportunity for Nig...

The recession should be seen as an opportunity for the country’s promotion as long as we all collectively conduct ourselves in a patriotic manner, writes Isaac Asabor.  Read more...

Submitted by
Black and White

We want to imitate the whites in everything because we are ignorant of our inherent originality and content. We spend all our Naira to acquire his inventions because we so oblivious of our natural endowments that we allow him have it for free. Read more...

Submitted by
Nate Nat
Adamawa State University Mubi: A ...

ADSU integrity forum has accused the Sunday Joshua Wugira, a lawyer, of adopting unorthodox tactics by abusing his privilege by attacking the integrity of ADSU Vice Chancellor Dr. Moses Zira Zaruwa, writes a News24 reader. Read more...

Submitted by
Abdulsalam Jubril
My Country Nigeria (Part One)

Poetry by Abdulsalam Jubril.

Submitted by
Abdulsalam Jubril
Recession, dearth in leadership a...

Every leader has the opportunity to become great and making himself immortal in the lives and hearts of people for generations to come. Will Mr. President seize this opportunity?, questions Abdulsalam Jubril. Read more...