Al Qaeda Has Changed How It Talks Since the NSA Leaks, but How Much?

Rebecca Greenfield
Al Qaeda Has Changed How It Talks Since the NSA Leaks, but How Much?

Following the Edward Snowden leaks that detailed a large part of the process by which the U.S. government's largest intelligence agency spies on terrorists — and American citizens — Al Qaeda has reportedly (and predictably) started tweaking the way it communicates, but in a way the doesn't necessarily make it harder for the National Security Agency to track them. "[A] lawmaker briefed on the matter said al-Qaida's Yemeni offshoot, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has been among the first to alter how it reaches out to its operatives," reports the Associated Press's Kimberly Dozier, referring to what is thought of as the most active group of the network. The AP sources, of course, cited secrecy in declining to elaborate on how Al Qaeda has shifted its digital tactics: "The officials wouldn't go into details on how they know this, whether it's terrorists switching email accounts or cellphone providers or adopting new encryption techniques," she continues. 

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Making it harder for the NSA or CIA to spy on Al Qaeda would seem help justify programs like PRISM, but it remains unclear whether the terrorists group's ever-evolving communications make it that much harder for the NSA to track anyone. After the leaks, "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," Adam Raisman of the SITE Intelligence Group, a private analysis firm, told Dozier. Were the most dangerous terrorists on earth really posting their home phone numbers online? Or, for that matter, even using Skype anymore? 

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More realistically,  the NSA also expects increased encryption in all communications, which, yes, will slow down spying efforts. But it will also make tracking terrorists simpler in a way, per the AP:

Terror groups switching to encrypted communication may slow the NSA, but encryption also flags the communication as something the U.S. 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 U.S.-based person as fair game to gather and keep, for as long as it takes to break the code and examine it.

Since the leaks began three weeks ago today, intelligence officials have demonized Snowden by claiming that his leaks affected national security efforts by tipping off terror organizations. Really, that's the whole defense of the program: "[Snowden] has basically alerted people who are enemies of this country ... (like) al-Qaida, 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," said U.S. Senator Angus King earlier this week. So far, though, it's unclear how much spying on U.S. citizens has helped anti-terror efforts