THe NSA's Keith Alexander has pointed to the case of Najibullah Zazi, a foiled improvised bomber (peroxide explosives, specifically) who was seized by the FBI in 2009, as evidence its PRISM surveillance program is critical for the safety of Americans. In the case, Zazi quickly reached a plea agreement with the government and was assumed to be cooperating with authorities. Many details in the plot against the NYC subway remain cloudy.
Nevertheless, it was big news at the time. Peroxide bombs were supposedly easy to make, great anxiety over them arising from failed shoe bomber Richard Reid and the infamous "liquid bombs" plot that got so many carry-on containers banned from flying in 2006.
The idea from the latter was that it was easy to mix a bomb in an airplane toilet.
The Guardian investigated the case and came more strongly down on the side of an assertion that the clue that led to Zazi had been found in a British counter-terror operation called Pathway.
In the case of Zazi, an Afghan American who planned to attack the New York subway, the breakthrough appears to have come from Operation Pathway, a British investigation into a suspected terrorism cell in the north-west of England in 2009. That investigation discovered that one of the members of the cell had been in contact with an al-Qaida associate in Pakistan via the email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
British newspaper reports at the time of Zazi's arrest said that UK intelligence passed on the email address to the US. The same email address ... was cited in Zazi's 2011 trial as a crucial piece of evidence. Zazi, the court heard, wrote to email@example.com asking in coded language for the precise quantities to use to make up a bomb.
Eric Jurgenson, an FBI agent involved in investigating Zazi once the link to the Pakistani email address was made, told the court: "My office was in receipt - I was notified, I should say. My office was in receipt of several email messages, email communications. Those email communications, several of them resolved to an individual living in Colorado."
Zazi, living in Aurora with his father, made attempts to purchase an inordinate amount of hydrogen peroxide at beauty parlor supply stores in a plan to concentrate the oxidizer, a necessary step in making a peroxide bomb. Later he holed up at a hotel in Aurora where he attempted to concentrate the material by heating on a stove. An FBI detention memorandum from 2009, here, traces his actions -- he was under surveillance -- and delivers an analysis of their meaning.
It mentions Zazi was observed and his communications with a confidant monitored by the FBI, exchanges in which he continued to ask for better instructions on making peroxide bombs. None of the notes indicate he was successful. Indeed, he may not have solved the problem of making bombs when he set out for New York City. There he had intended to visit a swimming pool supply store to buy hydrocloric acid, another ingredient used to catalyze the production of the final explosive peroxide-derived compound.
Zazi was subsequently arrested.
Another complaint, this against an FBI informant who was charged with making false statements in a terror investigation, shows that Border Patrol and Customs had been aware of Najibullah Zazi when he traveled to Pakistan, ostensibly for terrorism training in August of 2008, returning to NYC in January of 2009.
The complaint against Ahmad Afzali, lodged at Cryptome, is here. In it Najibullah Zazi is represented as "Individual A."
Taken together, most of this points to the old-fashioned assembly of clues, along with a bit of good fortune, in the tip-off to the Zazi plot. There's no conclusive indication that NSA findings were the Holy Grail on the case.
Coincidentally, old DD blog wrote a great deal about Zazi's apprehension because of the hysterical statements that tended to accompany the discovery of peroxide bomb plots. In the US, there have been none successful during the war on terror.
Yesterday, DD commented that whenever would-be peroxide bombing terrorists are in the news, web hits go up. Way up. (This because of an old post that attracted people doing Google search on peroxide bombs entitled, Peroxide Bombs -- Easy to Make.)
Everyone (well not everyone ...) is looking for 'how to make a peroxide bomb. Naturally, after reading about it in the news.
However, in retrospect, DD blog had an unusual spike of searches on how to make peroxide bombs from at least mid-August until yesterday. Some of it was attributed to continued news coverage and fallout from the Airplane Liquid Bomber Plot convictions in early September.
So I decided to drill down a bit and Colorado jumped out and bit me. DD blog almost never has any readers from Colorado. California, New York, northern Virginia, Texas, Pennsylvania and the UK are where most of the regulars phone in from.
Using screen snaps of Google Analytics returns, unusual search results line up from Aurora. Why is Aurora interesting?
Because, according to the US government -- Najibullah Zazi and the Beauty Parlor Supply Store Bomb Gang were there shopping around for ingredients.
For example, from today's Los Angeles Times:
"During July and August 2009 Zazi and others ... purchased unusually large quantities of hydrogen peroxide from beauty supply stores in the Denver area ... Zazi [made purchases] from a supply store in Aurora ... In July, August and September 2009 [individuals associated with Zazi made purchases] from three different beauty supply stores around Aurora."
Colorado logons for peroxide bombs, many in the last few days. (September/Fall 2009) Big circle is Denver. Aurora sticks out on drill down.
The significant number of logons for information on peroxide bombs occurs prior to the permanent detention of Zazi.
Zazi and unknown collaborators were in Aurora from September 6 - 10, at which point he flew to Queens on the 10th, and was back in Denver by the 12th. Are one, two or three hits here from Zazi and/or accomplices surveying the net? Maybe, maybe not. The information does not resolve it.
Continued from the old DD blog post:
At SITREP yesterday, I commented that the government's indictment of Zazi showed the frequently seen al Qaeda poor man's approach -- to ineptly surf the Internet for bomb-making recipes, hoping something will fall into one's lap that makes it as easy as baking a cake.
Despite a lot of media coverage on peroxide bombing being easy in 2006, this is not really the case. If it was, peroxide bombs would have been exploding quite frequently over the past few years.
Nevertheless, it led to a survey using Google Analytics and data-mining on DD blog statistics for search on peroxide bomb instructions, linked to times and countries of origin.
That piece, entitled Trends in Terror Prep Net Surfing from 2009, at GlobalSecurity.Org is here.
The original coverage of Najibullah Zazi was overwhelmingly focused on the peroxide bomb angle. This was because peroxide bomb-making, despite its total lack of success in the US, had become one of the hobby horses of US counter-terrorism and the media, starting in 2006. The script was that peroxide bombs were simple and could be brewed up on the spot.
History has shown this to be untrue, certainly in this country. Peroxide bombs can be made but they're no easier to make than any other kind of improvised explosive. Instructions can be printed on the net, or in an issue of al Qaeda's Inspire magazine, and still they do not spring up like daisies.
It requires an experienced bomb-maker, someone who knows the art and has done it many times, to make peroxide bomb-making, or any other kind of bomb-making, successful.
Zazi traveled to Pakistan for training, of some type, it is assumed. Was the training effective? Evidence in the FBI complaints against him does not paint the picture of an accomplished bomb-maker but rather someone who, up to the last minute, was still seeking advice on it.
Zazi was one of the clear first examples of a growing problem in al Qaeda -- its inability, under US attack, to put dangerous and extremely competent agents into the field. As the war on terror continued it became more obvious. Quality of the personnel means a lot and al Qaeda men, increasingly, did not have it.
The American public has a short attention span. When Keith Alexander went before Congress and mentioned the Zazi bomb plot against the NYC subway hardly anyone would have been expected to remember the details.
On the other hand, it also hurt his testimony. Alexander is not a generalist expert on the war on terror. Up until last week he was a specialist who runs cyberwar and cyber-spying operations at the NSA for the Obama administration. He has been most famously in the press for saying Chinese cyber-espionage is causing "the greatest transfer of wealth in history," congressional testimony on expanding American cyberwar operations and being the first NSA director to go to the DefCon hacker convention to hobnob and pat young people on the back.
So any testimony about the NSA's alleged contribution to uncovering the Zazi plot, back in 2008-2009, was never going to be compelling or persuasive.
It is just an argument from authority. And do you believe such an argument? The Edward Snowden affair is all about not believing arguments from authority.
Even the President had to concede Zazi might have been caught by assemblage of clues:
President Obama: "We might have caught him some other way. We might have disrupted it because a New York cop saw he was suspicious. Maybe he turned out to be incompetent and the bomb didn't go off. But, at the margins, we are increasing our chances of preventing a catastrophe like that through these programs."
The U.S. foiled a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange because of the sweeping surveillance programs at the heart of a debate over national security and personal privacy, officials said Tuesday at a rare open hearing on intelligence led by lawmakers sympathetic to the spying.
The House Intelligence Committee hearing provided a venue for officials to defend the once-secret programs and did little probing of claims that the collection of people's phone records and Internet usage has disrupted dozens of terrorist plots. Few details were volunteered.
Najibullah Zazi -- from the archives.