During his years in hiding, Osama bin Laden urged followers to concentrate on attacking Americans and wrote bittersweet letters to one of his wives and his children, according to documents released Wednesday by U.S. intelligence officials.
The documents were seized in the al-Qaida leader’s compound during the raid in which bin Laden was killed. More than 100 were declassified and published at http://www.dni.gov/index.php/resources/bin-laden-bookshelf?start=1
The documents include a fill-in-the-blanks job application for terrorist candidates that ranges from typical questions about education and hobbies to “Do you wish to execute a suicide operation?”
Altogether, the 103 papers and videos add new texture to the world’s picture of the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, much of it in his own words. They include videos and images of letters in Arabic, with the English translations by intelligence officials.
The material was recovered in the May 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said. It said it was being made public after a rigorous review by government agencies, as required by a 2014 law.
U.S. officials had said at the time of his death that they believed bin Laden had become so isolated in his hideout that he no longer exercised the level of control over al-Qaida operations that he had in the past.
In one letter, bin Laden urges one of his deputies to inform “our brothers” they must keep their focus on fighting Americans. Their “job is to uproot the obnoxious tree by concentrating on its American trunk, and to avoid being occupied with the local security forces,” bin Laden writes.
Another bin Laden letter mocks President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” saying it had not achieved stability in Iraq or Afghanistan and questioning why U.S. troops were “searching for the lost phantom” — weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. No date is included on the U.S. translation.
In a video letter to one of his wives, also described as bin Laden’s “last will,” he says, “Know that you do fill my heart with love, beautiful memories, and your longsuffering of tense situations in order to appease me and be kind to me.”
Among the documents is an al-Qaida job application that begins with the mundane, asking applicants to “please write clearly and legibly.”
It asks conventional questions, such as has the applicant ever been convicted of a crime, before veering into more chilling territory, including: “What objectives would you like to accomplish on your jihad path?”
It then asks whether the applicant wishes to execute a suicide mission.
It ends: “Who should we contact in case you become a martyr?”
A Navy official says the service is investigating an allegation that the former Navy SEAL who claims he shot and killed Osama bin Laden may have revealed classified information to those not authorized to receive it.
Robert O’Neill has given numerous interviews since coming forward to say he was part of the operation that culminated in the death of the al-Qaida leader. O’Neill told The Associated Press last month that he has taken pains not to divulge classified information or compromise SEAL tactics.
On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Navy, Cdr. Ryan Perry, said in a statement that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service had received an allegation that O’Neill may have revealed classified information to persons not authorized to receive such information. “In response, NCIS has initiated an investigation to determine the merit of the allegations,” Perry said.
A call to a spokeswoman for O’Neill was not immediately returned Tuesday night.
The revelations by O’Neill, who joined the Navy in 1995 and won two Silver and five Bronze Stars during his service, has generated discord among some current and former SEALs for breaking a code of silence regarding their missions. O’Neill has said that he believes the public has a right to know more details of the 2011 mission to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Pentagon officials have said that it’s not clear whose shots actually killed bin Laden. Another SEAL, Matt Bissonnette, has suggested that the point man who led the way to bin Laden’s bedroom fired the fatal shots, and that bin Laden was already down when he and a second SEAL, presumably O’Neill, shot bin Laden.
After Navy SEALs killed Osama bin laden in Pakistan in May 2011, top CIA officials secretly told lawmakers that information gleaned from brutal interrogations played a key role in what was one of the spy agency’s greatest successes.
Then-CIA Director Leon Panetta repeated that assertion in public, and it found its way into a critically acclaimed movie about the operation, “Zero Dark Thirty,” which depicts a detainee offering up the identity of bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, after being tortured at a secret CIA interrogation site. As it turned out, bin Laden was living in al-Kuwaiti’s walled family compound, so tracking the courier was the key to finding the al-Qaida leader.
But the CIA’s story, like the Hollywood one, is just not true, the Senate report on CIA interrogations concludes in a 14,000-word section of the report’s public summary.
“A review of CIA records found that the initial intelligence obtained, as well as the information the CIA identified as the most critical or the most valuable on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, was not related to the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques,” the Senate investigation found.
CIA officials disagree, and maintain that detainees subjected to coercive tactics provided crucial details.
“It is impossible to know in hindsight whether we could have obtained … the same information that helped us find bin Laden without using enhanced techniques,” the agency said in its written response.
The Senate report, released Tuesday, attempts to methodically debunk the CIA’s case. Investigators found that the CIA repeatedly mischaracterized to congressional oversight committees what information about al-Kuwaiti and bin Laden came from detainees after they were brutally interrogated, and that in many cases, they discussed the courier before being subjected to rough treatment.
The report also points out that the CIA didn’t receive any information from CIA detainees on al-Kuwaiti until 2003. Yet by the end of 2002, the CIA had gathered significant information about al-Kuwaiti and his close links to bin Laden, including:
— His phone number: In March 2002, his phone number was in al-Qaida detainee Abu Zubaydah’s address book under the heading “Abu Ahmad K.” In June 2002, a person using the identified phone number and believed at the time to be “al-Kuwaiti” called a number associated with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind.
— His email address: In September 2002, the CIA received reporting on al-Kuwaiti’s email address from a detainee in foreign custody. When Mohammed was captured in March 2003, an email address associated with al-Kuwaiti was found on his laptop.
— His age, physical description and family information.
— His association with bin Laden: In April 2002, the CIA linked al-Kuwaiti to a phone number associated with one of bin Laden’s sons. And on June 25, 2002, the CIA received reporting from another detainee in the custody of a foreign government, known as Riyadh the Facilitator, that al-Kuwaiti may have served as a bin Laden courier.
In its response, the CIA said the intelligence “was insufficient to distinguish al-Kuwaiti from many other bin Laden associates until additional information from detainees put it into context and allowed CIA to better understand his true role and potential in the hunt for bin Laden. As such, the information CIA obtained from these detainees did play a role — in combination with other streams of intelligence — in finding the al-Qaida leader.”
The CIA also said that two detainees, Ammar al-Baluchi and Hassan Ghul, provided crucial information. Al-Baluchi, after undergoing enhanced interrogation techniques, “was the first detainee to reveal what apparently was a carefully guarded al-Qaida secret — that Abu Ahmad served as a courier for messages to and from bin Laden,” the CIA said.
Ghul, after brutal interrogations, stated that Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti passed a letter from bin Laden to another operative in late 2003, the CIA said.
Senate investigators counter that al-Baluchi recanted information he gave after underdoing harsh interrogations, then went back and forth about whether al-Kuwaiti was a bin Laden courier.
As for Ghul, he offered “the most detailed and accurate intelligence collected from a CIA detainee” on al-Kuwaiti’s links to bin Laden before the agency began using harsh techniques against him, investigators found.
Before he was roughed up, the report says, Ghul speculated to a CIA interrogator that bin Laden “likely has maintained a small security signature of circa one or two persons,” and that “Abu Ahmed likely handled all of UBL’s needs, including moving messages out.”
That turned out to be accurate. Bin Laden was living with his wife and two other families, including al-Kuwaiti’s.
The next day, Ghul was “shaved and barbered, stripped and placed in the standing position against the wall” with “his hands above his head” for forty minutes.
He then was subjected to 59 hours of sleep deprivation, which led him to begin hallucinating. He also experienced “mild paralysis” from the stress positions.
He provided “no actionable intelligence” during or after the treatment, the report says.
Former Navy SEAL Robert O’Neill, who says he fired the shots that killed Osama bin Laden, played a role in some of the most consequential combat missions of the post-9/11 era, including three depicted in Hollywood movies. And now he’s telling the world about them.
By doing so, O’Neill has almost certainly increased his earning power on the speaking circuit. He also may have put himself and his family at greater risk. And he has earned the enmity of some current and former SEALs by violating their code of silence.
But O’Neill, winner of two Silver and five Bronze Stars, makes no apologies for any of that. In a wide-ranging interview Friday with The Associated Press, he said he believes the American public has a right to more details about the operation that killed the al-Qaida leader and other important military adventures. And he insisted he is taking pains not to divulge classified information or compromise the tactics SEALs use to get the drop on their enemies.
“The last thing I want to do is endanger anybody,” he said. “I think the good (of going public) outweighs the bad.”
O’Neill, who last week began discussing his role in the bin Laden mission, was in Washington for a round of television and media appearances that drew both praise and criticism.
After helicoptering to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, assaulting the house and killing three men and a woman, some of the SEALs reached the third floor, where a CIA analyst had told O’Neill that bin Laden would be. O’Neill followed an unnamed point man into bin Laden’s bedroom, he told the AP, and the point man tackled two women, believing they had a bomb, in what O’Neill calls an incredibly selfless act.
“A few feet in front of me, on two feet, was Osama bin Laden,” O’Neill said. “I shot him three times in the head and I killed him.”
Many are impressed by the deed, but not everyone is impressed with the telling.
“We work in secret and we pride ourselves on that, so if somebody comes out and spills this much, it angers the rest of us,” Jonathan Gilliam, a former SEAL, said in an interview.
But Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles Burlingame was the pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon, has said that O’Neill’s descriptions were gratifying to the relatives of victims at a 9/11 museum ceremony where he donated the uniform he was wearing.
O’Neill’s key role in the 2011 bin Laden raid was hardly his only brush with a high-profile mission. He was on the 2009 mission to rescue the captain of the merchant ship Maersk Alabama, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates. That episode was featured in the Tom Hanks movie “Captain Phillips.”
And he was part of the group that helped retrieve Marcus Luttrell, the sole survivor of a four-man team attacked in 2005 while tracking a Taliban leader in Afghanistan. The Luttrell episode was featured in the 2013 film “Lone Survivor.”
Long before those operations, O’Neill came to embody the dramatic transformation of the role of U.S. special operations over the last 13 years.
O’Neill joined the Navy in 1995, and in those pre-9/11 days, the SEALs did a lot of training with foreign militaries. High-risk operations in remote locations, let alone gun fights, were few and far between.
After the U.S. went to war against al-Qaida, the SEALs and other elite units were called upon for one combat mission after another — in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. O’Neill believes he killed more than 30 people.
His most fulfilling time as a SEAL, he said, came in Iraq in 2007, when he was going on multiple combat missions a night, stalking and killing insurgents and bomb-makers.
One current and two former SEALs, declining to be quoted talking about a sensitive matter, say it is not disputed that O’Neill shot at bin Laden. But Pentagon officials say it’s not clear whose shots were the lethal ones.
Another SEAL, Matt Bissonnette, wrote a book about the raid, “No Easy Day.” Bissonnette’s account suggests the point man fired the fatal shots, and that he and a second SEAL, presumably O’Neill, shot bin Laden when he was already down.
O’Neill disputed the account of his former teammate, whom he calls a hero. Everyone who was a part of the bin Laden operation and others like it deserve recognition, he said.
“I got there because amazing men did amazing things,” he said. “These are real people that have real families — that mow their lawns, can barely pay their mortgages and then they get called.”
Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law was due in court to face a possible life sentence for his role as the spokesman for al-Qaida following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith — the highest-ranking al-Qaida figure to face trial on U.S. soil since the attacks — was convicted in March on conspiracy charges that he answered Osama bin Laden’s request in the hours after the attacks to speak on the widely circulated videos used to recruit new followers willing to go on suicide missions like the 19 who hijacked four commercial jets on Sept. 11.
“The storm of airplanes will not stop,” the Kuwaiti imam warned in an October 2001 video that was played for the jury.
Also shown repeatedly to jurors were frames of a video made Sept. 12, 2001, that showed Abu Ghaith seated next to bin Laden and two other top al-Qaida leaders as they tried to justify the attacks.
Taking the witness stand in his own defense, Abu Ghaith calmly denied he was an al-Qaida recruiter and claimed his role was a religious one aimed at encouraging all Muslims to rise up against their oppressors. He insisted he agreed to meet with bin Laden in a cave on the night of Sept. 11 out of respect for bin Laden’s standing as a sheik.
“I didn’t go to meet with him to bless if he had killed hundreds of Americans or not. I went to meet with him to know what he wanted,” Abu Ghaith said.
The defense argued in court papers that Abu Ghaith deserves no more than 15 years behind bars because he wasn’t convicted of any acts of violence.
Abu Gaith, 48, “faces the harshest of penalties for talk — and only talk — which is at times zealous, pious and devout; at other times intemperate; at still others, offensive to core values of humanity,” the defense papers said. “In this sense, he was not unlike an outrageous daytime shock-radio host.”
In a submission seeking a life sentence, the government responded by calling the comparison to a radio host “as absurd as it is offensive” and accused the defense of trying to minimize Abu Ghaith’s role in promoting al-Qaida’s deadly agenda.
“Abu Ghaith was a terrorist who sat alongside bin Laden on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, celebrating the murder of nearly 3,000 innocent, men, women and children the day before,” prosecutors wrote.
Abu Ghaith was scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan.
Republicans on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee will soon release a report asserting the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation techniques helped bring down Osama bin Laden and disrupt terrorist plots, the panel’s top Republican said on Sunday.
“Information gleaned from these interrogations was in fact used to interrupt and disrupt terrorist plots, including some information that took down bin Laden,” Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Democrats who control the Senate Intelligence Committee are expected to issue their own report that alleges the CIA techniques, such as “waterboarding,” did not help yield valuable intelligence and were not necessary.
The two reports will come five years after the committee authorized a probe into the CIA’s possible use of torture after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
It is unclear when the Democrats’ report will be released because Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the committee, has said she may challenge some redactions made by the Obama administration.
President Barack Obama, who banned the practices after taking office in 2009, said on Friday the CIA had “tortured some folks” during former President George W. Bush’s administration.
“We did some things that were contrary to our values,” Obama said.
Republicans on the committee have long disagreed with Democrats about the use of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, and they largely boycotted the committee’s probe.
“I thought it was a mistake then. I still think it is a mistake,” Chambliss said on CBS.
The investigation has been plagued with difficulties. The CIA conceded last week it had improperly monitored computers used by committee investigators looking into the torture allegations.
The revelation prompted two Democratic senators to call for the resignation of CIA Director John Brennan, who took over the spy agency last year.
Senate committee members appearing on Sunday television news shows did not call for Brennan’s resignation, but said the CIA had committed a breach of trust that needed to be addressed.
Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, a survivor of torture, said on the Fox News program “Sunday Morning Futures” he was in some ways more concerned about the CIA spying on Senate staffers than the torture issue, and he called for an independent investigation.
U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, warned against overreacting.
“I don’t think this is some conspiracy notion that they wanted to spy on either of our committees. That would of course be intolerable. I think it would be a crime,” Rogers said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
But these were CIA computers at a CIA facility, he said. “That’s a little bit different than spying on Congress.”
Senator Angus King, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the CIA’s biggest mistake on the interrogations was not being able to admit a mistake.
“They’re still trying to justify it and argue it wasn’t torture, which is nonsense,” the Maine independent said on CNN. “I think we could put this behind us. But they keep, they keep trying to justify it. And it’s unjustifiable.”
Osama bin Laden’s hours in a dark Afghanistan cave the evening of the Sept. 11 attacks were brought to light when his son-in-law testified in his own defense at his terrorism trial, portraying the al-Qaida leader as worried and apprehensive as he contemplated how America would respond.
The son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, said the al-Qaida leader asked him hours after the attacks what he thought would happen next.
“Politically, I said, America, if it was proven that you were the one who did this, will not settle until it accomplishes two things: to kill you and topple the state of the Taliban,” Abu Ghaith said he told him.
Bin Laden responded: “You’re being too pessimistic,” Abu Ghaith recalled in a discussion that he said went late into the night.
He said bin Laden had sent a messenger to pick him up earlier on Sept. 11 from a house in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he had watched the news unfold on television. He said bin Laden told him: “We are the ones who did it.”
He said he had met bin Laden only six or seven times previously before he was brought to the cave in a rough mountainous area.
The surprise testimony Wednesday by Abu Ghaith seemed to soften the image of the one-time Kuwaiti teacher and preacher known for fiery anti-American rhetoric on widely circulated post-attack videos until a prosecutor took his turn, eliciting damaging admissions from the 48-year-old defendant before showing a videotape on which Abu Ghaith spoke and included a hijacked plane slamming into a World Trade Center tower.
Questioned by defense lawyer Stanley Cohen and later by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara, the bearded Abu Ghaith testified that bin Laden seemed worried that night.
The next morning, Abu Ghaith said, he saw bin Laden with an al-Qaida military leader, Abu Hafs al-Masri, and current al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri at breakfast, and bin Laden invited him to join them.
He said bin Laden told him: “Now, after these events … it’s a no-brainer to predict what is going to happen. What you expected may actually happen. And I want to deliver a message to the world. And Dr. Ayman also wants to deliver a message. I want you to deliver that message.”
Within two hours, the four men were posing in front of a rocky backdrop as Abu Ghaith spoke using what he said were “bullet points” provided by bin Laden that mixed verses from the Quran with justification for the terrorist attacks.
It was a position that would bring the onetime imam infamy as well as a place in the inner circle of the world’s most wanted terrorists and eventually to federal court in Manhattan, where he was brought after his capture last year in Jordan.
Abu Ghaith was the final witness in his trial on charges he conspired to kill Americans and aid al-Qaida as a spokesman for the terrorist group. Closing arguments were scheduled for Monday.
The testimony was a rare gambit by the defense, a last-ditch effort to counter a mountain of evidence against Abu Ghaith, including an alleged confession and the video showing him sitting beside bin Laden on Sept. 12, 2001, and another in which he warned Americans that “the storm of airplanes will not abate.” The defense has never disputed that Abu Ghaith associated with bin Laden after 9/11, but it contends he was recruited as a religious teacher and orator, and had no role in plotting more attacks.
On cross-examination, though, Abu Ghaith admitted that he sent his pregnant wife, six daughters and a son to Kuwait while he went to Afghanistan on Sept. 7, 2001, after hearing inside and outside al-Qaida training camps that something big was going to happen soon.
Ferrera mocked Abu Ghaith’s statement that he stayed and helped bin Laden for two weeks after Sept. 11 because the conditions in Afghanistan were tense and he had no way to travel.
“You are telling this jury that you made a speech in which you called on people to terrorize the infidels because you didn’t have a personal car?” he said, drawing from one juror a smile and a nod to a fellow juror.
“I don’t understand the question,” Abu Ghaith responded.
Testifying through an Arabic interpreter, the Kuwaiti-born defendant seemed relaxed, wearing a blue shirt, open at the collar, beneath a charcoal-colored jacket.
He testified he first met bin Laden when the al-Qaida leader, who was living in Kandahar, Afghanistan, summoned him in June 2001 after hearing he was a preacher from Kuwait. He took bin Laden’s daughter as an additional wife years after 9/11.
The defendant said that videos he made warning of more attacks on Americans were based on “quotes and points by Sheik Osama.” He testified his videotaped sermons were religious in nature, and meant to encourage Muslims to fight oppression.
Abu Ghaith said he wasn’t involved in recruiting aspiring terrorists and denied allegations he had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks or the failed shoe-bomb airline attack by Richard Reid in December 2001.
“My intention was to deliver a message, a message I believed in,” he said. “I was hoping the United States would say, ‘Let’s sit down and talk and solve these problems,’ but America was going on and doing what I expected them to do.”
His lawyers said they were hopeful that another part of Abu Ghaith’s testimony, that he had met self-professed Sept. 11 architect Khalid Sheik Mohammed, would cause the federal judge overseeing the trial to reconsider his decision to exclude Mohammed from testifying via videotape from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Ferrera zeroed in on Abu Ghaith’s testimony that he accepted an invitation to meet with bin Laden on Sept. 11 because the al-Qaida leader was a sheik who deserved respect, along with his admission that he was aware bin Laden’s organization was behind earlier terrorist attacks against Americans abroad.
“Despite knowing that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans,” the prosecutor asked, “you met with him to be polite?”
Twelve years later, haunting memories of Sept. 11 are shaping the debate over what to do about Syria.
As Americans mark the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, the nation again is wrestling with painful questions about al-Qaida, weapons of mass destruction and the risks of American inaction. At the center of the debate is President Barack Obama, who has sought to move the U.S. away from what he has called the “perpetual wartime footing” it found itself on in the years after 9/11.
“America is not the world’s policeman,” Obama said Tuesday evening as he addressed the nation about the Syria conflict. “Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.”
Some people worry that a U.S. strike in Syria would embroil the American military in an extended and unwinnable conflict in the Middle East, evoking emotions many felt in the years after 9/11 as they watched America’s sons and daughters go back for second and third tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Others see Syria through a broader Mideast prism involving Iran. They fear that if the U.S. doesn’t assert itself now, America will start from a position of weakness if and when it confronts future threats in the region.
When Obama and the first lady stand on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday morning to commemorate 9/11 victims with a moment of silence, there’s a good chance at least some of these themes will be weighing on the president.
AL-QAIDA AS TOP THREAT
The international terrorist organization headed by Osama bin Laden became synonymous with “America’s enemy” in the days after 9/11. More than a decade later, bin Laden is dead and Obama says the group’s core is on the path to defeat. But blows to al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan have come amid growing concerns about al-Qaida’s strength in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and even Syria.
That foreign jihadi fighters, many linked to al-Qaida, are growing in ranks among rebels fighting Assad’s regime is a major concern for lawmakers and the U.S. Assad and his forces have sought to exploit that concern, arguing, in short, that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Assad said of a potential U.S. strike in an interview Sunday with American journalist Charlie Rose, “This is the war that is going to support al-Qaida and the same people that kill Americans in the 11th of September.”
STATE OF ALERT
Although Americans are far less jittery about the threat of terrorism than they were in the aftermath of 9/11, they’re still keenly aware of turmoil in the Middle East and its challenges for the U.S.
Nearly all Americans — 94 percent — say the war on terrorism has not yet been won, according to a new Associated Press poll. Just 14 percent of those Americans say it’s likely the U.S. will win it during the next 10 years.
Such sentiments were punctuated Tuesday when Obama, hours before his national address on Syria, signed a notice extending the national emergency for another year.
“The terrorist threat that led to the declaration on Sept. 14, 2001, of a national emergency continues,” Obama wrote to Congress.
Compounding concerns have been new threats to America’s embassies and consulates. A threat from Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula led to the closing of 19 diplomatic posts across the Mideast and in Africa last month. And as Obama considered a strike in Syria last week, the State Department was ordering nonessential American diplomats to leave the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Lebanon because of the potential for retaliation from Iran-backed Hezbollah, a group allied with Assad.
IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN
With the U.S. military struggling to absorb deep automatic spending cuts, few Americans are eager for the U.S. to get involved in a civil war already raging for more than two years, with no end in sight.
Obama, who ran for president as a critic of the Iraq war, ended it as president and is winding down the U.S. war in Afghanistan, is of similar mind.
“I know how tired the American people are of war generally, and particularly war in the Middle East. And so I don’t take these decisions lightly,” Obama said in an NBC interview Monday.
Obama and his aides know many Americans reflexively resist anything that calls to mind the aggressive stance President George W. Bush took after 9/11. They’re insisting any U.S. action will be limited and won’t involve troops on the ground.
“This is not Iraq or Afghanistan,” Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said repeatedly Sunday on political talk shows.
But Republicans are hearing a slightly different message. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., arranged for Republican congressional staffers to hear from Stephen Hadley, Bush’s former national security adviser, and Eric Edelman, once a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. Both played major roles in the Iraq war and are now selling leery Republicans on a strike in Syria.
WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION
“The lesson of September the 11th is take threats before they fully materialize,” Bush said in August 2006.
Those days, it was erroneous intelligence claiming Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that incensed many Americans as civilian deaths hit record highs three years into the war in Iraq.
Today, there are few doubts chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Assad’s regime even acknowledged publicly this week that it possesses the weapons when it agreed to give them up as part of a budding diplomatic deal to avert a U.S. strike.
Obama acknowledges that Syria poses no direct or imminent threat to the U.S. But his pitch to Congress, the public and U.S. allies is rooted in the belief that if the world doesn’t act now to uphold a global norm against chemical weapons use, we all could be at risk down the line.
“Sometimes wars have started later because people didn’t do things that might have prevented them earlier,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday.
AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
The nature of terrorism has changed in Robert Mueller‘s dozen years as FBI director, but his concerns for the future are much the same as when terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, merely a week after he’d taken over the bureau. As he wraps up his FBI tenure, Mueller worries that terrorists will once again target planes or finally pull off an attack using a weapon of mass destruction.
Mueller sees terrorism as a shifting landscape, evolving from Osama bin Laden‘s global brand in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks to the splintering threats arising in the fallout from the Arab Spring across the Middle East.
“Every one of these countries now has cadres of individuals who you would put in the category of extremists, violent extremists, and that will present threats down the road,” Mueller said.
Mueller, the architect of the bureau’s transformation into a terrorism-fighting agency, spoke to reporters at FBI headquarters this week.
The director’s last day on the job is Sept. 4. His successor, former Justice Department official James Comey, will be on hand next week for the transition.
During Mueller’s tenure, terrorists were thwarted in their efforts to bring down a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001, a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas in 2009 and U.S.-bound cargo planes carrying printer cartridge bombs. But the Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people and injured hundreds in April and the 2009 shooting that killed 13 and injured more than 30 at Fort Hood, Texas, are powerful reminders that the protective net against terrorism is not infallible.
“I always say my biggest worry is … an attack on a plane,” Mueller said. “And secondly, it’s a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist and that includes a cyber-capability that trumps the defenses that we have.”
He also sees the risk of a cyberattack on a financial institution or on a sector such as energy “where we do not have sufficient barricades or preventive capabilities.”
Mueller’s initial foray into the world of counter-terrorism came more than two decades ago with the attack on Pan Am Flight 103, which was blown up over Scotland in 1988.
“I spent lot of time on that investigation over at the Department of Justice” and “still spend time with the survivors of that horrible, horrible disaster,” said the director.
“I am fairly comfortable and confident that we are doing things the way the American public would expect us to,” said Mueller. He said the NSA programs are “tremendously important to the protection, not only from terrorist attacks, but from other threats to the United States.”
Regarding the disclosures of classified information by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden, Mueller said “they have impacted” criminal investigations and are “in the process of impacting capabilities around the world.” He declined to give any details.
Mueller made the comments the same day that a new round of revelations about the surveillance showed that the NSA scooped up as many as 56,000 emails and other communications annually over three years by Americans not connected to terrorism. He spoke to reporters before those details were made public.
In the interview, he declined to comment on prospects that Congress might restrict the surveillance programs or require greater disclosure about the details of the programs.
Looking back, Mueller says he didn’t expect to be focused on terrorism when he took the job that has consumed the past 12 years of his life in law enforcement.
Mueller says he thought he would be overseeing the kinds of cases he had worked on as a federal prosecutor — organized crime, narcotics, public corruption and white-collar crime.
“I had in my own mind some ideas about where the bureau needed to go and then a week later we had Sept. 11,” Mueller said. “I did not expect I would be spending my time preventing terrorist attacks.” For the FBI, “it’s not what we want to do, or like doing, it’s what the American public expects us to do.”
The FBI often succeeded in that goal but not always.
“I would say you feel the most pain from what happened at some place like Fort Hood or what happened up in Boston,” Mueller said. “That’s not to say that you could have prevented it, that’s speculation. But the fact of the matter is, you sit down with victims’ families, you see the pain they go through and you always wonder whether there isn’t something more” that could have been done.
Al-Qaida fighters have been using secretive chat rooms and encrypted Internet message boards for planning and coordinating attacks — including the threatened if vague plot that U.S. officials say closed 19 diplomatic posts across Africa and the Middle East for more than a week.
It’s highly unlikely that al-Qaida’s top leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, or his chief lieutenant in Yemen, Nasser al-Wahishi, were personally part of the Internet chatter or, given the intense manhunt for both by U.S. spy agencies, that they ever go online or pick up the phone to discuss terror plots, experts say.
But the unspecified call to arms by the al-Qaida leaders, using a multi-layered subterfuge to pass messages from couriers to tech-savvy underlings to attackers, provoked a quick reaction by the U.S. to protect Americans in far-flung corners of the world where the terror network is evolving into regional hubs.
For years, extremists have used online forums to share information and drum up support, and over the past decade they have developed systems that blend encryption programs with anonymity software to hide their tracks. Jihadist technology may now be so sophisticated and secretive, experts say, that many communications avoid detection by National Security Agency programs that were specifically designed to uncover terror plots.
A U.S. intelligence official said the unspecified threat was discussed in an online forum joined by so many jihadist groups that it included a representative from Boko Haram, the Nigerian insurgency that has loose and informal ties to al-Qaida. Two other intelligence officials characterized the threat as more of an alert to get ready to launch potential attacks than a discussion of specific targets.
One of the officials said the threat began with a message from al-Wahishi, head of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, to al-Zawahri, who replaced Osama bin Laden as the core al-Qaida leader. The message essentially sought out al-Zawahri’s blessing to launch attacks. Al-Zawahri, in turn, sent out a response that was shared on the secretive online jihadi forum.
All three intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the threat.
Rita Katz, director of the Washington-based SITE Intelligence Group that monitors jihadist websites, said it’s all but certain that neither al-Zawahri nor al-Wahishi would communicate directly online or on the phone.
Al-Zawahri’s location is unknown, but he was last believed to be in Pakistan, and al-Wahishi is said to be in Yemen. Given the nearly 2,000 miles between the two men, Katz said it’s most likely they separately composed encrypted messages, saved them on thumb drives, and handed them off to couriers who disseminated them on secure websites.
Bin Laden, who was killed in May 2011, issued his messages in much the same way.
“These guys are not living in a bubble,” said Katz, who has been watching al-Qaida and other jihadi communications for years. “They live in a reality that is facing the American intelligence interception with the best, most advanced technology that can be created. So they always try to find ways to get away from these interceptions to be able to deliver messages.”
She added: “I am sure they are delivering messages, through the message boards or by sending emails that are encrypted. But there is no way in my mind that Zawahri or Wahishi have access to the Internet, and I think Wahishi, at this stage of his life, is even afraid of going outside.”
Tracking and eliminating al-Qaida operatives in Yemen hasn’t been easy for the U.S. It took years for the CIA finally to kill the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike after an intense manhunt. By staying off the grid, al-Wahishi and other senior al-Qaida leaders in Yemen such as Qassim al-Rimi and top bomb-maker Ibrahim Al-Asiri have managed to remain alive. So frustrated was the CIA at one point, the spy agency considered killing the couriers passing messages in an attempt to disrupt the terrorist group’s plans, said a former senior U.S. official.
The idea was dropped because the couriers were not involved in lethal operations.
Exactly how U.S. spy systems picked up the latest threat is classified, and Shawn Turner, spokesman for U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper, refused to confirm or deny Katz’s analysis on how it might have happened. Intelligence officials have suggested that the plot was detected, in part at least, through NSA surveillance programs that have been under harsh worldwide criticism for privacy intrusions in the name of national security.
It’s not clear, however, that even the powerful U.S. spy systems would be able to crack jihadists’ encrypted messages without help from the inside.
Earlier this year, an al-Qaida-linked extremist propaganda organization known as the Global Islamic Media Front released an encrypted instant-messaging system known as “Asrar al-Dardashah,” or “Secrets of the Chat.” It was a texting version of the organization’s end-to-end encryption program that followers had been using for years. End-to-end encryption means messages are put into code so that only senders and receivers can access the content with secure “keys.”
After the NSA programs were revealed in June, jihadi websites began urging followers to also use software that would hide their Internet protocol addresses and, essentially, prevent them from being tracked online. That aimed to add another layer of security to the online traffic.
An Aug. 5 discussion about the U.S. embassy closings on a jihadi forum that is directly linked to al-Qaida underscored the need for “complete secrecy” in plotting attacks even while jeering the American response to the message between al-Zawahri and al-Wahishi.
In a post on the Shumukh al-Islam online forum, a writer who identified himself as Sayyed al-Mawqif noted American news reports that said the terror threat possibly was intercepted though phone calls or surveillance of jihadist chat rooms or message boards. Shumukh al-Islam is not an encrypted site, but it requires a password to access and does not frequently accept new visitors.
“Even if there will not be a jihadi operation, it is sufficient that the mujahideen brothers succeeded in putting fear in the hearts of the disbelievers and the human devils,” al-Mawqif wrote, according to a SITE translation of the transcript. “We hope to hear more about psychological wars like this one if there are no actual jihadi operations on the ground.”
Encryption technology was once regulated by the U.S. for national security purposes, but it has been available to the public and used globally since the 1990s, including by human rights and free speech advocates.
“You can encrypt things in such a way that you can assume that even the NSA can’t undo them — there’s no back door,” said Dan Auerbach, a technology expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is challenging NSA eavesdropping in federal lawsuits.
“We think it is very important to have tools for privacy,” Auerbach said. But “when you develop a strong privacy-enhancing tool, it will help everyone — and this may include people considered by many to be ‘bad guys.'”
Other technology experts believe the government could access encrypted messages — with the help of Internet providers.
Depending on what software is used, Internet providers theoretically could be compelled to send the coded messages and their decryption keys to the government instead of to the intended recipient. Unknown vulnerabilities in software may also make it possible for hackers to break into computers and obtain messages.
It’s also possible that U.S. intelligence officials used a decidedly low-tech method to intercept the message between al-Zawahri and al-Wahishi — by planting a spy in the online forum. That has happened in the past, according to intelligence experts, most recently in a case now in federal court in Miami in which prosecutors say an undercover FBI agent snared two alleged terrorist recruiters in an online chat room by posing as a financial middleman.
Either way, and given al-Qaida’s global sprawl and attempts to fly under the radar, it’s certain that encrypted chat rooms and online sites are a mainstay for jihadi messages.
“This creates a bit of a cat-and-mouse game between terrorist groups that can buy commercial technology and intelligence agencies that are trying to find ways to continue to monitor,” said Seth Jones, a former adviser to U.S. special operations forces and counterterrorism expert at Rand Corp., a Washington-based think tank that receives U.S. funding. “Some of the technology you can buy is pretty good, and it evolves, and it is a game that is constantly evolving.”
Associated Press Writer Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report. On Twitter: Lara Jakes: https://twitter.com/larajakesAP and Adam Goldman: https://twitter.com/adamgoldmanap