How the NSA’s High-Tech Surveillance Helped Europeans Catch Terrorists

by Sebastian Rotella

PARIS — In 2007,
Belgian police were keeping close watch on Malika el-Aroud, a fierce al-Qaida ideologue whose dark eyes smoldered above her veil.

The Moroccan-born Aroud had met Osama bin Laden while living in al-Qaida’s
stronghold in Afghanistan. She gained exalted status when her husband posed as
a journalist to blow up the renowned Ahmed Shah Massoud,
the chief of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, just two days before the Sept.
11 attacks.

later returned to Europe, remarried and started an Islamist website that attracted
a group of French and Belgian extremists. Led by her second husband, Moez Garsallaoui, half-a-dozen of them went to Waziristan, where they joined
several thousand al-Qaida fighters, including a Latino convert from Long Island,
learned to make bombs and plotted against the West with terrorist kingpins.

The authorities
— American, Belgian, French, Swiss, Italian, Turkish — were all
over them.

U.S. surveillance had tracked their
radicalization, their emails from Pakistan, even calls made to their mothers
before they trudged through snowy Iranian mountains. An intercepted photo that Garsallaoui sent his wife showed him holding a grenade launcher.
He claimed to have killed U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and described his escape
from a missile strike: “I came close to dying.”

The militants took
precautions, changing laptops and using Internet cafes. But they were no match
for top-secret, real-time NSA intercepts. Some of the monitoring was approved
by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

“We were inside
their computers,” a source said.

As debate rages in the United States about the National Security Agency’s sweeping data-mining
programs, I’ve been on a reporting trip overseas, where I’ve been talking to
sources about the controversy and how differing U.S. and European approaches to
counterterrorism can complement each other.

On Tuesday, NSA
Director Gen. Keith Alexander, told a congressional committee that his agency’s surveillance programs helped stop more
than 50 terror plots in the U.S. and abroad. Five years ago, I was based in
Europe covering terrorism, running from one attack or aborted plot to another. As
the Brussels investigation shows, these cases frequently combined the high-tech
reach of the U.S. counterterror apparatus with the street skills of foreign

In November 2008, Pakistani
and U.S. agents swooped into Kandahar and nabbed Bryant Neal Viñas, the convert from Long Island and al-Qaida militant. He cooperated
with the FBI, admitting that he discussed an attack on the Long Island Rail Road
with top al-Qaida figures.

Days later, a drone strike killed
Rashid Rauf, a Pakistani-British operative who helped plan the
London transport bombings and the “liquid bomb” plot to blow up planes in 2006.
Three Belgian and French militants returned home, where police arrested them
after intercepts picked up menacing chatter.

pleaded guilty. Aroud went to prison, and investigators
believe her second husband Garsallaoui died in the
land of jihad.

Other cases benefited from close
cooperation. In Germany in 2007, U.S. monitoring detected a suspect checking
the draft file of an email box at an Internet cafe in Stuttgart. Armed with
that lead, German security services deployed surveillance at numerous Internet
cafes in the city. The investigation resulted in the dismantling of a
Pakistan-trained group plotting to attack U.S. military targets in Germany.

As several European sources
told me, if an extremist in Marseilles was talking about nefarious activities with
an extremist in Geneva over the Internet, chances were good that U.S.
intelligence agencies would find out and inform the French and Swiss. Not
because of sources on the ground, but because U.S. agencies could detect the
communications through computer servers in the United States.

The reaction here to the U.S. debate has
been bemused.

European terrorist hunters
seem surprised that the revelation of the NSA data-monitoring programs is big
news. The technological capacities of U.S. agencies have been an integral
component of dramatically improved teamwork against terrorism during the past

“In the fight against
terrorism, intelligence-sharing is essential,” said Jean-Louis Bruguière, who served for more than two decades as a top
French antiterror magistrate before retiring in 2007.
(He declined to discuss the NSA’s role in investigations.) “Cooperation with American
services has always been trusting and excellent.”

At the same time, some European
experts see the furor as a sign that the strengths of the American giant
intertwine with its weaknesses. U.S. agencies devote huge resources to
sophisticated technology to the detriment of analysis and human spying, they
say. As a result, they say, U.S. agencies sometimes appear overwhelmed by the
sheer volume of information.

“The problem is not
collecting information, it’s understanding it,” said Alain Bauer, a
well-connected French criminologist who has served as a presidential adviser.
“What is the sense of such programs? They are too big. They will not work. We
are a former colonial empire. We know the value of human intelligence. It is
more efficient and less expensive than technological fetishism. Fortunately, we
do not have enough money to do it the other way.”

Spy agencies such as France’s DCRI
and Britain’s
MI5 have long experience cultivating human
sources. In early 2008, Spain’s Civil Guard broke up a plot to bomb the Barcelona subway thanks to a French
informant. He
was a Pakistani who infiltrated the network in the training camps and traveled
with the would-be bombers to Spain. He sounded the alarm when the attack seemed

I have met many
American agents who are adept at operating in foreign cultures. Diversity adds
value. U.S. agencies can send Pakistani-Americans to work in Islamabad and Mexican-born
officers to Mexico City.

Nonetheless, U.S.
agencies have less experience with Islamic terrorism at home. That’s partly the
result of a good thing: Overall, the United States does a better job than most countries
of integrating immigrants, including those of Muslim heritage.

In Europe, decades of
religious, nationalist and political violence have bred an arsenal of counterterror
tools. The security forces have developed extensive knowledge of large Muslim
populations with subgroups involved in crime, extremism or both. The security
forces recruit informants, interpreters, analysts and investigators from those

As Bruguière
pointed out, France staved off Islamic terrorist violence from 1996 to 2012,
when an extremist named Mohamed Merah killed seven
people in shooting attacks on French soldiers and a Jewish school in Toulouse.

“Gathering intelligence is
the linchpin of the fight against terrorism,” Bruguière
said. “In France, the emphasis is on humint [human
intelligence]. But technological intelligence has not been neglected, in fact
it has been notably reinforced.”

To be sure, the
Europeans have experienced failures. The transport bombings in London in 2005
and Madrid in 2004 took place despite the fact that some of the suspects had
been under surveillance.

Though sectors of the European
media and public complain about the prospect that the NSA might spy on them, at
home they are accustomed to invasive practices. In Italy, electronic
surveillance routinely targets tens of thousands of citizens. Italian law has
made it easy to wiretap and hard to do undercover operations. In 2010, the
Italian justice ministry reported that law enforcement had monitored more than
112,000 phones the previous year.

In France, political
parties across the spectrum accept the existence of a vast grid of domestic
spying. In 2004, I went to see a police intelligence chief in a French city. It
was a Thursday in August. I wanted to know if he was concerned that a newly
announced ban on Islamic headscarves in schools might incite unrest when the academic
year began.

“I don’t expect any
problems,” he said. “But tomorrow is Friday. It’s a good day to gauge the mood
based on the sermons at the mosques, especially the fundamentalist ones. Come
back tomorrow afternoon, and I will have a better idea.”

The next day he
repeated his assessment, which was accurate. It was clear that the police
monitored — presumably with a mix of human and technical methods — Muslim
houses of worship, including the clandestine prayer
rooms in basements and garages frequented by hard-core extremists. Each week, the
intelligence web collected and analyzed Friday sermons and generated a report
that was on the chief’s desk in a few hours.

The U.S. reaction to NSA data mining
strikes my European interlocutors as somewhat academic — a debate about potential
rather than actual abuse. They don’t see a scandal.

“Something that is more dangerous to
individual liberties and data protection than the secret American metadata
programs, such as Echelon or PRISM,” said Bruguière, “is
the insufficiently controlled commercial availability of innovative
technological products such as social networks or the Google Earth and Google
Street programs, which can be easily diverted toward criminal or terrorist ends.”

Some here see quite
another problem: They think the U.S. intelligence community has overreacted to
Islamic terrorism, acting as if the networks have the dimensions and discipline
of Cold War-era state adversaries. That can cause excessive rigidity and secrecy.

A veteran
European police investigator told me an anecdote. He once shared intelligence
with a U.S. counterpart about a terrorism case. Some
time later, he talked to the American official again. The conversation led him
to believe that the U.S. agency had misunderstood or misinterpreted the

The investigator
recalled: “I told him that we needed to go over a couple of points. He said: ‘I
can’t talk to you about it any further.’ I said, ‘But it’s about a lead we gave
you.’ He told me: ‘Sorry, it doesn’t matter. It’s secret now.’”

The European investigator
speaks Arabic and has spent years on the front lines. He says the U.S. emphasis
on technology can be counterproductive, distancing the watchers from their

“In our
work, there is no substitute for this,” he said, gesturing across a cafe table.
“Face-to-face contact. Empathy.”

Before joining ProPublica, Sebastian Rotella worked at the Los Angeles Times, where he was named
a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006 for his coverage of terrorism and Muslim
communities in Europe.

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