How we tracked Awlaki

October 1, 2011

At Big Peace, the Investigative Project on Terrorism (1) provides the inside story of how we tracked down Al Qaeda’s rising star, Anwar al-Awlaki:

Awlaki lived in the southern Yemen province of Shabwa, an area beyond the reach of Yemen’s military and central government. Much of Yemen is like the Wild West, with no central governing authority. The numerous tribes settle disputes among themselves. Awlaki came from the Awalik tribe.

Intelligence gathered last year from Yemeni authorities and from debriefings with several American converts who returned to the United States after training with Awlaki, helped narrow Awlaki’s location to a 100 square mile area. He moved at night, often in convoys of armored SUVs in order to prevent U.S. drones and surveillance from determining which vehicle he was in. But the drones, which have advanced in the ability to recognize faces on the ground, hovered above the area where Awlaki was believed to be. Electronic intelligence – including telephone intercepts –also were used, although Awlaki was said to be careful in limiting his use of electronic communication, aware that he could be tracked that way.

In the past several months, American drone operators were confident they had identified Awlaki as he moved from among a series of underground bunkers. An initial drone missile targeting him was fired at an al-Qaida training camp but missed him.

Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agents collected as much personal data about Awlaki as they could from his extended family living in western countries. For example, he had an ex-wife living in Ireland that no one knew about until a close relative living in the United States identified the family tree for agents in early January. The relative proved to be a goldmine of information about Awlaki’s siblings, parents, wives, and children.

Intelligence officials learned about the American relative in January through other Yemeni expatriates living here who knew her. She agreed to cooperate and provided extensive information about close relatives living either with him, elsewhere in Yemen, or in different parts of the world. Telephone numbers belonging to a close relative living in Yemen’s capital Sanaa that the American relative provided to U.S. intelligence officials proved the most critical.

The relative knew that Awlaki called that number. The National Security Agency (NSA) quickly was able to triangulate the phone numbers and determine almost exactly where Awlaki was when he called the Sanaa number. The American relative also provided information on other Awlaki relatives who apparently had direct contact with Awlaki, either through email or other electronic means. That knowledge helped track other communication and confirm Awlaki’s whereabouts.

I’m not surprised the ex-wife was willing to talk, given this deeply spiritual man’s preferred hobbies.

It really is a fascinating story: once they had a good idea of the area Awlaki was hiding in, they flooded the skies with drones and kept watching. We also had informants on the ground posing as his students. (2) Finally they got word he was moving in a convoy during the day from one bunker to another. The CIA had passed on earlier shots before, out of fear of too many civilian casualties, but this one looked good and so…

Bye-bye, Anwar. (3)

I draw a few lessons from this:

  • I’ve read elsewhere that the investigative work was carried out by the same group that tracked down bin Laden. These guys are good.
  • If you make a name for yourself among jihadists and you take us on, we will find you and you will either take a bullet to the head or go boom. Our choice, not yours.
  • If you’re going to live the life of a terrorist on the run, stop calling family! On second thought, scratch that. Make all the calls you want.

Be sure to read the whole thing.

Footnotes:
(1) The IPT is Steve Emerson‘s outfit. They do great work.
(2) In other words, we have spies in their midst. Your first thought may be to ask why we’re revealing this, but consider: whether fact or disinformation, it plays with AQAP’s minds and throws a heaping helping of doubt and suspicion into their internal operations. Whom can they trust, even among their “brothers?”
(3) Bite me, Glenn Greenwald. (Among others.)

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)


Al Qaeda can watch our military video feeds?

December 17, 2009

This is a mind-boggling breach of security:

Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations.

Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes’ systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber — available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet — to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.

U.S. officials say there is no evidence that militants were able to take control of the drones or otherwise interfere with their flights. Still, the intercepts could give America’s enemies battlefield advantages by removing the element of surprise from certain missions and making it easier for insurgents to determine which roads and buildings are under U.S. surveillance.

And it’s not as if this is some new, unexpected development; the Pentagon has known of this problem since the 1990s, but did nothing about it because they didn’t think the local yo-yos were smart enough to find out about it.

Pardon me, but, um… WTF??

Maybe Abdul in a cave wouldn’t figure it out, but what about their patrons in Iran (who’ve shown themselves to be pretty creative), or their patrons in Moscow and Beijing? Do we really have such stupid and arrogant schmucks in military who thought that no rival could discover this and then pass on the information? Really?

Excuse me while I go find the nearest brick wall to bang my head against.

Threat Matrix gives us the cheery news that the problem isn’t just affecting Iraq, but Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well. And not just our drone feeds, but all air-to-ground transmissions. They outline a worst-case scenario:

…our rivals such as Russia and China, our adversaries such as Iran, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, etc., and our erstwhile allies such as Pakistan have been monitoring our feeds for years, and thus have learned plenty about how the US plans and conducts attacks, as well as the capabilities and limitations of the weapons and observation platforms. The DoD officials downplayed the leaked information and said no US troops were harmed due to the breach. That may be true today, but may not be the case in future conflicts.

The following is purely speculation on my part. Don’t be surprised if you read a story in the next few days or weeks that elements within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency has been monitoring US Predator and Reaper feeds, and relaying targeting information to al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. I have heard far too many stories about how senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders miraculously avoided attacks and left the target sites just minutes before the strikes. The officials repeatedly told me that they believed the anti-US elements in the ISI would tip off the terrorist commanders before the strikes.

This news isn’t just disturbing: that we knew about it for years and did nothing to fix it tells of a nauseating level of incompetence. Several heads need to roll, and then whatever money it takes to fix the problem needs to be spent now. This is just as bad as having a mole in the planning rooms; the repercussions of what our potential and actual enemies may have learned about how we operate could be felt for years from now.

Seriously, why weren’t these transmissions encrypted? Surely there weren’t insuperable obstacles to that.

I’ve often said that no one can beat us if we don’t beat ourselves, and it’s at moments like this I think we’re trying to prove it.

LINKS: More at Hot Air.