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The Next Bin Laden

Instead of spectacular attacks on iconic targets, al-Qaida's new leader wants small, opportunistic strikes. In other words, restrain the NSA at your peril.

The replacement killers: Al-Suri and his followers are reshaping al-Qaida.(Courtesy of the U.S. State Department)

photo of Michael Hirsh
November 14, 2013

Ever since the death of Osama bin Laden, President Obama and his senior lieutenants have been telling war-weary Americans that the end of the nation's longest conflict is within sight. "Core al-Qaida is a shell of its former self," Obama said in a speech in May. "This war, like all wars, must end." That was the triumphal tone of last year's reelection campaign, too.

The truth is much grimmer. Intelligence officials and terrorism experts today believe that the death of bin Laden and the decimation of the Qaida "core" in Pakistan only set the stage for a rebirth of al-Qaida as a global threat. Its tactics have morphed into something more insidious and increasingly dangerous as safe havens multiply in war-torn or failed states—at exactly the moment we are talking about curtailing the National Security Agency's monitoring capability. And the jihadist who many terrorism experts believe is al-Qaida's new strategic mastermind, Abu Musab al-Suri (a nom de guerre that means "the Syrian"), has a diametrically different approach that emphasizes quantity over quality. The red-haired, blue-eyed former mechanical engineer was born in Aleppo in 1958 as Mustafa Setmariam Nasar; he has lived in France and Spain. Al-Suri is believed to have helped plan the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 bombings in London—and has been called the "Clausewitz" of the new al-Qaida.

Whereas bin Laden preached big dramatic acts directed by him and senior Qaida leaders, al-Suri urges the creation of self-generating cells of lone terrorists or small groups in his 1,600-page Internet manifesto. They are to keep up attacks, like multiplying fleas on a dog that finds itself endlessly distracted—and ultimately dysfunctional. (A classic Western book on guerrilla warfare called The War of the Flea reportedly influenced al-Suri.) The attacks are to culminate, he hopes, in acts using weapons of mass destruction.

 
"I think al-Qaida's capabilities for a strike into the United States are more dangerous and more numerous than before 9/11."

Recent terrorist attacks against U.S. targets, from the murderous 2009 spree of Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood to the Boston Marathon bombings last year, suggest that al-Suri's philosophy dominates al-Qaida's newly flattened hierarchy. The late Yemeni-American imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who preached this strategy and induced Hasan's attack, is said to have developed his ideas from al-Suri's. Meanwhile, with new refuges in North Africa, Syria, and Yemen, jihadists have much more territory from which to hatch plots unmolested.

Yet the politics at home are changing as the threat abroad is growing. The revelations dribbled out by fugitive leaker Edward Snowden have outraged members of Congress and world leaders, including those of close allies such as Germany and France. They say they are aghast at American overreach. Writing in Der Spiegel, Snowden justified himself this way: "Instead of causing damage, the usefulness of the new public knowledge for society is now clear, because reforms to politics, supervision, and laws are being suggested." Thanks to him, Congress will almost certainly rein in the National Security Agency's data-trolling methods—though it's not yet clear how much.

But the agency's opponents may not realize that the practice they most hope to stop—its seemingly indiscriminate scouring of phone data and emails—is precisely what intelligence officials say they need to detect the kinds of plots al-Suri favors. For the foreseeable future, al-Suri's approach will mean more terrorist attacks against more targets—albeit with a much lower level of organization and competence. "It's harder to track. Future attacks against the homeland will be less sophisticated and less lethal, but there's just going to be more of them," says Michael Hayden, the former NSA director who steered the agency after 9/11 toward deep dives into Internet and telephonic data. Adds Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, "I think al-Qaida's capabilities for a strike into the United States are more dangerous and more numerous than before 9/11." For better or worse, the only hope to track them all is an exceptionally deep, organized, and free-ranging intelligence apparatus, experts say.

Intelligence officials who are well briefed in the technical aspects of NSA surveillance also note that global communications are vastly more complex than they were as recently as 9/11, not just in terms of speed and bandwidth but also in the kinds of digital paths they can take. Messages can travel partly by air and partly by cable, for example, and the NSA must keep up. "If you take the diffuse physical environment [of more failed-state havens] and you layer that with the diffuse communications environment, and then you layer that with the diffuse ideological environment—more lone wolves, for example—that makes for a far more generally dangerous environment," says a knowledgeable U.S. government official who asked to remain anonymous.

All of which means that despite very legitimate questions about whether the National Security Agency is going beyond what the law and Constitution allow, Americans probably need the NSA now more than ever.

THE PERIL

In the early 2000s, the world seemed a lot smaller to Western intel analysts. Qaida leaders had been chased from several countries and could settle only in Afghanistan. Back then, just after 9/11, Washington had a slew of allies in the Muslim world providing regular updates. In the early 2000s, even Syria helped track Sunni Islamists before cooperation ended in 2006, according to an intelligence expert who works on contract with the Pentagon. Syrian intelligence helped avert two major attacks—against the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa and a Navy base in Bahrain, he says. Back then, total information awareness was less essential.

No more. With the exception of Egypt—where the military has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood—the Arab Spring uprisings have opened up huge swaths of ungoverned territory in Muslim nations that once cooperated with Washington against terrorism. The toppling of strong autocratic leaders has led not to secular democracy but to fractionalization, allowing some Islamist groups to seize territory in which they might host terrorists cells in the way the Taliban welcomed bin Laden. "There are at least 25 failed states in the world, an unprecedented number," says Pascal Boniface, head of the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations. They stretch from Yemen and Somalia to Syria and Libya and Iraq.

Beginning with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the attempted "underwear bomber" of 2009, more attacks have emanated from Yemen, home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, than from the "core" in Pakistan. It's only a matter of time before other failed states begin yielding plots as well, intelligence experts say. Even Afghanistan, despite America's 12-year war there, is expected to harbor new threats; NATO officials concede that large sections of that country along the border with Pakistan will remain ungoverned indefinitely.

Al-Suri is out there somewhere. He was said to have been rendered to Syria by the CIA after his 2005 capture in Pakistan, but President Bashar al-Assad reportedly released him. Today his whereabouts remain a mystery. "We don't even know for sure that he was released," says the intelligence expert contracted to the Pentagon, who is privy to classified reports on al-Suri. "The Syrian government announced that they let him go, but there have been no sightings and little chatter about him." With the United States calling for Assad's overthrow—despite signing a pact with him banning chemical weapons—it stands to reason that the Syrian dictator would relish seeing the jihadists he is fighting turning their attention to American targets. Yet even the senior diplomatic, intelligence, and defense officials who run the U.S. government's "Rewards for Justice" program, which offers money for tips leading to top terrorists, are unsure whether al-Suri is at large: A State Department official told National Journal this week that defense and intelligence agencies are still discussing whether to put him back on the wanted list.

Experts and scholars of jihad have been tracking al-Suri's rise for years. A few days after bin Laden's death in 2011, John Arquilla, an intelligence expert at the Naval Postgraduate School, penned a prescient essay in Foreign Policy titled "The New Seeds of Terror." He wrote that the U.S. operation facilitated the Qaida resurrection by settling a doctrinal battle within the organization between the older "sheik" and his upstart critic, al-Suri. Bin Laden's killing only accelerated al-Qaida's transformation from a top-down hierarchy to a looser (and more elusive) network of self-motivated cells. "Bin Laden's death was the bell that sounded the new phase," Arquilla says today. "Abu Musab al-Suri's ideas in his call to global Islamic resistance were just taking root, but bin Laden was deeply opposed to al-Suri's ideas." These ideas don't involve complex, ongoing, multinational plans developed for long periods over international phone and email lines. They often are seat-of-the-pants, Boston Marathon-type plots that are often virtually unknown ahead of time, because the plotters are few and typically self-motivated rather than directed from above. They can occur in random places with almost no forewarning. And the consensus of senior defense and intelligence officials in the U.S. government is that NSA surveillance may well be the only thing that can stop the next terrorist from blowing apart innocent Americans, as happened in Boston last April. "Al-Qaida is far more a problem a dozen years after 9/11 than it was back then," Arquilla says.

The current debate over the NSA's powers has been skewed toward the issue of infringement of Americans' civil liberties. That's an important issue, but it has obscured the little-reported rebirth of al-Qaida and its new, more-difficult-to-track shape. Meanwhile, congressional opposition to "bulk" data collection at home and email surveillance abroad is building. A new bill in the Senate would confine the NSA's monitoring of telephonic data (not the content of the calls, but only the "call data records"—whom they go to and where and when) to ongoing investigations, which completely misses the point about Suri-style attacks. Members may not realize that what they hope to keep from the NSA—the "whole haystack" of phone and email data, as NSA Deputy Director John Inglis has described it—is essential if the government hopes to find the needle of a Suri-style plot. The key part of the USA Patriot Act that congressional opponents want to change, Section 215, which allows for vacuuming of telephonic data, "is best understood as a sort of discovery tool," a Senate Intelligence Committee staffer says. "It is target development, understanding networks. And while it is a great deal of information in aggregate, it is controlled in such a way as not to jeopardize our privacy."

Says Michael Hayden: "People have to understand these actions [against the NSA] will have consequences." He adds that the U.S. intelligence community believes that it is mostly on top of the "big, complicated, multiple-actor, slow-moving plot [like 9/11]. But [the terrorists] are not doing that now. They're into much lower-in-threshold things. Which again demand very good intelligence, very comprehensive intelligence" that casts as wide a net as possible around the world.

The agency's data-collection strategy is also about detecting, tracking, and disrupting the loose but still lethal network of jihadists and the Islamist preachers who inspire or instruct them in what has become, in al-Suri's conception, the biggest safe haven of all: cyberspace. "If we curtail NSA efforts now," Arquilla says, "we give al-Qaida a new lease on life in cyberspace."

Obama administration officials say they know about the mushrooming new threat and insist they did not mislead the American public by claiming success against core al-Qaida. A broad presidential review of intelligence-gathering scheduled to wrap up by the end of the year will acknowledge that the NSA monitoring is too indiscriminate, officials say. (They add that its reach surprised even the president.) The review will seek to assuage critics with some reforms—including ending regular surveillance of friendly heads of state, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel—while preserving most of the program. "That's how you connect the dots," says a senior administration official, noting that the government faced criticism as recently as the Boston Marathon plot for failing to connect various data points that would have exposed the violent radicalization of at least one of the two suspected culprits, the Tsarnaev brothers. "The president has been clear that even as we review our efforts, we will not harm our ability to face global threats," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden tells National Journal.

"If we curtail NSA efforts now, we give al-Qaida a new lease on life in cyberspace."

 

LOCAL VERSUS GLOBAL

Obama administration officials hope many of these new jihadist groups will remain mostly engaged in local fights, as against the Syrian regime. And that if they do attack U.S. interests at home or abroad, they are expected to focus on small-scale terrorist acts, like the Marathon bombings. That's why Obama says the United States should stop calling the conflict with radical Islamists a "war" and view it instead as it was seen pre-9/11, as an inevitable, but manageable, law-enforcement problem. As the president put it in his defining speech at National Defense University, the new threat is "lethal yet less capable al-Qaida affiliates; threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad; homegrown extremists." He added that "the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11."

In a series of speeches over the past year, administration officials have also sought to distinguish "core al-Qaida" or "associated groups" that are "organized" and specifically target Americans—the true enemy, in other words—from other threats. Among the latter are "lone wolves" like the Tsarnaevs or new extremist elements emerging in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which may be focused on local or regional aims rather than directed at America. Defending this argument at a speech to the Oxford Union, former State Department General Counsel Harold Koh sketched out a course that specifically excluded lone terrorists. "To be clear, the United States is not at war with any idea or religion, with mere propagandists or journalists, or even with sad individuals—like the recent Boston bombers—who may become radicalized, inspired by al-Qaida's ideology, but never actually join or become part of al-Qaida," Koh said. "As we have seen, such persons may be exceedingly dangerous, but they should be dealt with through tools of civilian law enforcement, not military action."

This defining-down of the terrorist threat has, on one hand,emboldened the NSA's critics. But the new threat characterized by lone or small groups of terrorists also argues powerfully for keeping the NSA on the front lines. As the "war" ends and the U.S. military and CIA withdraw troops and stand down drones, almost all that's left to protect us is the NSA's electronic fence around America. That hardly satisfies some critics, of course. In an interview, Koh accused intelligence professionals of exaggerating the threat to win more latitude and to justify a renewal of the Authorization for Use of Military Force, in which Congress gave the president wide license to fight terrorists after 9/11. "The fact that they want the total freedom to have a perpetual war doesn't mean it's the best thing for the country," Koh says. He adds that there is an intense debate inside the administration over which Islamist terrorists to consider a strategic threat against U.S. interests, justifying war and drone strikes—rather than arrest. "There is a big debate, for example, over whether al-Shabab [the terrorist group based in Somalia] is actually al-Qaida. Shabab has between 3,000 and 5,000 members. I would guess that only 12 to 15 are al-Qaida members."

Even so, advocates of intensive global surveillance worry that along with al-Qaida, there is a new Islamist concept emerging that again makes America the "near enemy" it was to bin Laden, and turns the idea of Islamist resistance into a global war. "I am concerned that there is a new anti-U.S. jihadi narrative being born, which is that the United States abandoned Syrians to be slaughtered by Bashar al-Assad and gave the green light to the Egyptian military to remove the democratically elected Islamist president in Egypt," says Michele Dunne, a Mideast expert at the Atlantic Council. Koh and others also say that the drone war has only perpetuated the war against terrorists by inspiring new jihadists. "You kill one terrorist, and you create three or four more," Boniface says.

Counterterrorism specialists argue there is no other way than the bulk monitoring of telephone data and the trolling of foreign email to get ahead of such a multiplying and still-mysterious threat. "We have literally thousands of threat streams across Northern Africa, the Middle East, and south and central Asia," says Rogers of the House Intelligence Committee.

Challenged for proof, the government has declassified a few successes. NSA officials and their congressional defenders point to the very real threat picked up against U.S. embassies last summer, which could only be clarified using the Patriot Act's Section 215, which may now be altered. They also cite the case of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-American who was arrested in 2009 and charged with plotting to blow up the New York subway. The NSA contends it identified Zazi overseas using Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—which allows monitoring of email abroad and is another, albeit less controversial, target of anti-NSA efforts—and then used Section 215 to identify Zazi's potential associates in the U.S. before he could act. "Given that we now had reasonable articulable suspicion of a possible plot by al-Qaida into the homeland, we were able to determine further connections in New York and elsewhere," NSA Deputy Director Inglis testified. "The FBI tracked him as he … intended to mount a plot which was described as the most significant terrorist plot since 9/11."

But declassifying and publicizing such supposed successes only tells future bad guys how to avoid exposure. And trying to tie specific intelligence tidbits to specific foiled plots is too simplistic. "Critics always say, 'Show me an attack on the homeland that was stopped by the 215 program,' " says the U.S. government official well versed in NSA practices. "That entirely misses the point. It doesn't account for the reality of how intelligence works. It's not that pods or cells are disrupted by one piece of information from one authority. It's a complex endeavor that puts different pieces together to rule things out."

Inside This Week's Cover Story: The Changing Face of al-Qaida

Officials also say they need more intelligence than ever to determine which of the multifarious new jihadist groups is a true threat. "The really difficult strategic question for us is which one of these groups do we take on," Hayden says. "If you jump too quickly and you put too much of a generic American face on it, then you may make them mad at us when they weren't before. So we are going to need a pretty nuanced and sophisticated understanding of where there these new groups are going and where we need to step up and intervene."

Some officials suggest that to do that—to discriminate carefully between the terrorists who are directly targeting U.S. interests and those who aren't—the United States needs to step up, not slow down, the NSA's monitoring of potential targets. When it comes to the widening jihadist-controlled regions in Syria for example, Rogers says, "we know there's an ongoing rift between al-Qaida in the Levant, al-Qaida in Iraq, and al-Qaida core about whether that safe haven should be used to conduct 'external operations.' " That discussion, and the large numbers of Western jihadists who are flocking to Syria to fight Assad but could someday turn their attention back to America, is what "keeps guys like me up at night."

National security professionals say they expect many such sleepless nights ahead. At a congressional hearing last May, Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said U.S. military operations against al-Qaida and associated forces are "going to go on for quite a while ... beyond the second term of the president.... I think it's at least 10 to 20 years."

NSA, PAST AND FUTURE

The climate of fear in which the NSA first began its data sweeps has all but disappeared, and complacency has returned. Yet, ironically, it was Congress's own outrage over perceived pre-9/11 oversights that propelled the NSA to revolutionize its techniques for monitoring emails and phone data. On Dec. 20, 2002, a Senate Intelligence Committee that included Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.—today one of the loudest critics of the "surveillance state"—concluded in its official report that the NSA had held back U.S. counterterrorism efforts that might have prevented 9/11 because of the agency's "failure to address modern communications technology aggressively."

The NSA's defenders say that its success in finally accomplishing this should not be underestimated. Officials such as former FBI Director Robert Mueller and NSA Director Keith Alexander have made compelling cases that if the NSA had maintained the same kind of searchable database of U.S. call records before 9/11 that it has now, the plot that killed more than 3,000 Americans might have been detected. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified recently that, in the case of the AQAP threat against embassies last summer, a number of phone numbers or emails "emerged from our collection overseas that pointed to the United States." Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and until recently one of the agency's chief champions, wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "Fortunately, the NSA call-records program was used to check those leads and determined that there was no domestic aspect to the plotting." Rogers says he believes the plotters may have only put their planned operation on hold for now.

Feinstein has written a new bill, which passed the Intelligence Committee by 11-4, that would preserve the heart of the NSA's bulk-collection program with additional oversight. Yet even she has called for a broad-based "review of the intelligence framework" to assess priorities. And her legislation may face an uphill climb against support for the rival USA Freedom Act cosponsored by Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the original authors of the USA Patriot Act. The Leahy-Sensenbrenner bill would force the NSA to link any bulk collection to a specific ongoing investigation, preventing it from listening to anyone else. Clapper says the measure would "neuter" Section 215 of the act because the law is used to engender ongoing investigations—or as he put it, to pursue "investigatory leads that could lead to probable cause."

Yes, there is ample reason to think the NSA has overreached in recent years—as even Secretary of State John Kerry has conceded—by prowling for diplomatic and economic information from rival and even friendly powers rather than focusing narrowly on counterterrorism. German Chancellor Merkel's cell phone and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's conversations may be a SIGINT bridge too far, causing unnecessary disruption of diplomatic relations and global stability for meager intelligence returns.

But the very real danger now is that, in seeking to prevent the NSA from conducting such operations in the future, Congress may throw out the baby with the bathwater. And the world of omnipresent terror that Abu Musab al-Suri wants to create could become a far more perilous one for Americans.

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