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The NSA Isn't Foiling Terrorist Plots

There's still no credible evidence that the NSA's massive digital surveillance has disrupted any terrorist plots.
 
 
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The National Security Agency (NSA) is shown on May 31, 2006 in Fort Meade, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC.

 

 

U.S. officials claim that the government’s massive data collection has protected the country from terrorist attacks. After The Guardian’s first revelations about the National Security Agency’s digital surveillance programs, Sen.  Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Rep.  Mike Rogers, head of the House Intelligence Committee, jumped to the NSA’s defense by pointing to two terrorist plots supposedly foiled by the organization’s digital surveillance programs. Lawyers and policemen involved in these cases  disputed these claims, but this did not keep NSA chief Keith Alexander from taking it up a notch by raising the number of foiled attacks to more than  50, and later to  54.

These numbers are crucial for an informed debate about the digital surveillance programs. If the NSA’s digital surveillance indeed prevented 54 terrorist attacks, the public can decide whether these 54 attacks are worth their privacy. This number would suggest that the NSA’s programs are actually keeping the United States and Europe safe from terrorism.

It is far from certain, however, that the NSA is getting its numbers right.

Who Stops Terrorism?

Contrary to what one would expect given the secretive nature of intelligence operations, we actually know quite a bit about how terrorist plots in the United States and Europe are foiled. Several attacks, for instance, were discovered after law enforcement agencies picked up on suspicious (non-digital) behaviors of the plotters.  Samir Azzouz, the most prolific jihadist terrorist in the Netherlands, attracted the attention of the Dutch secret service when he tried to travel to Chechnya to join the jihad against the Russians.

Other plotters gave themselves away by associating with known terrorists. For instance, a 2009 plot to attack the New York Stock Exchange came to light after one of the perpetrators contacted a Yemeni extremist who was under FBI surveillance. The plans of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who was arrested just before he could execute his attack against a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, were detected in a similar manner. The FBI started following Mohamud  after he e-mailed a known terrorist recruiter. Since the FBI does not have mass digital surveillance capabilities, the person Mohamud contacted was likely already under surveillance.

Najibullah Zazi’s plans for an attack against the New York subway were thwarted this way, too. British intelligence informed their U.S. counterparts that Zazi had had  e-mail contact with a Pakistani radical who was being watched for involvement in a British terror plot. A fourth example involves Abdullah Ahmed Ali, the ringleader of the cell that prepared the liquid bomb attacks against transatlantic flights in 2006. He first came to the  attention of MI5 after he was seen interacting with known radicals.

In other cases, the police uncovered terrorist activities after having arrested the perpetrators for unrelated crimes. A cell in London, for instance, attracted the attention of the police after its involvement in  skirmishes with right-wing extremist youths. A more bizarre example concerns Ahmed Ferhani, who, apparently deeply enraged after an arrest for petty crime,  told the police about his ambition to join the jihad. Several months later, he was arrested for planning an attack against a New York synagogue.

Sheer luck sometimes plays a role as well. UK police disrupted a terrorist attack against a rally of the English Defense League, a right-wing extremist organization, after  pulling over the perpetrators because of a problem with their car insurance. Sometimes it’s not even the police that uncover terrorist plots. In the cases of planned attacks against the  Fort Dix Army base in 2009 and against a shopping mall in  Bristol in 2008, alert members of the public tipped off the police.

 
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