Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

NSA's cyberespionage found al-Qaida official later killed in drone attack

It was an innocuous email, one of millions sent every day by spouses with updates on the situation at home. But this one was of particular interest to the National Security Agency, and contained clues that put the sender's husband in the cross hairs of a CIA drone.

Days later, Hassan Ghul — an associate of Osama bin Laden who provided a critical piece of intelligence that helped the CIA find the al-Qaida leader — was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan's tribal belt.

The U.S. government has never publicly acknowledged killing Ghul. But documents provided to the Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden confirm his demise in October 2012 and reveal the agency's extensive involvement in the targeted killing program that has served as a centerpiece of President Barack Obama's counterterrorism strategy.

An al-Qaida operative who had a knack for surfacing at dramatic moments in the post-Sept. 11 story line, Ghul was an emissary to Iraq for the terrorist group at the height of that war. He was captured in 2004 and helped expose bin Laden's courier network before spending two years at a secret CIA prison. Then, in 2006, the United States delivered him to his native Pakistan, where he was released and returned to the al-Qaida fold.

But beyond filling in gaps about Ghul, the documents provide the most detailed account of the collaboration between the CIA and the NSA in the drone campaign.

The NSA is "focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets," an NSA spokeswoman said in a statement provided to the Washington Post on Wednesday, adding that the agency's operations "protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

In the search for targets, the NSA has draped a surveillance blanket over dozens of square miles of northwest Pakistan. In Ghul's case, the agency deployed an arsenal of cyberespionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages, and tracking radio transmissions to determine where Ghul might "bed down."

The email from Ghul's wife "about her current living conditions" contained enough detail to confirm the coordinates of that household, according to a document summarizing the mission. "This information enabled a capture/kill operation against an individual believed to be Hassan Ghul on October 1," it said.

The file is part of a collection of records in the Snowden trove that make clear that the drone campaign relies heavily on the NSA's ability to vacuum up enormous quantities of emails, phone calls and other fragments of signals intelligence.

To handle the expanding workload, the NSA created a secret unit known as the Counter-Terrorism Mission Aligned Cell to concentrate the agency's vast resources on hard-to-find terrorism targets. The unit spent a year tracking Ghul and his courier network, tunneling into an array of systems and devices, before he was killed. Without those penetrations, the document concluded, "this opportunity would not have been possible."

NSA's cyberespionage found al-Qaida official later killed in drone attack 10/16/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 11:05pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Washington Post.
    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Busy start has Florida Hospital Center Ice dreaming big

    Tourism

    WESLEY CHAPEL — Opening day brought 600 doctors, administrators and their families from Florida Hospital. Soon after that, the facility hosted its first junior league game and a collegiate showdown. A few weeks later, 200 kids, ages 4 to 9, participated in national Learn to Play Hockey Day.

    Alex Senushkin and his grandson, Styopa Kulshyn, 3, of Lakeland, skate at the Florida Hospital Center Ice rink in Wesley Chapel.
[CHARLIE KAIJO   |   Times]

  2. Charlie Crist calls for national day of civility

    Blogs

    WASHINGTON – A week after a gunman opened fire on a group of Republicans, Rep. Charlie Crist this morning called for the establishment of a national day of civility, saying “the need for action could not be more urgent.”

    A note from Rep. Charlie Crist
  3. NBA draft: Jonathan Isaac could make FSU history tonight

    Blogs

    Florida State forward Jonathan Isaac will probably hear his name called early in tonight's NBA draft.

  4. Qatar Airways seeks to buy a stake in American Airlines

    Airlines

    NEW YORK — State-owned Qatar Airways is attempting to buy a 10 percent stake in American Airlines, triggering U.S. antitrust oversight of deals that size.

    In this file photo, a new Qatar Airways Airbus A350 approaches the gate at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. Qatar Airways is attempting to buy a 10 percent stake in American Airlines, triggering U.S. antitrust oversight over deals of such size. 
[AP file photo]
  5. In Iowa, the president channels his inner candidate Trump (w/video)

    National

    CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Struggling to advance his agenda in Washington, President Donald Trump traveled to the Midwest for a raucous rally with his loyal supporters — the kind of event he relished before winning the White House.

    President Donald Trump arrives to speak at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Wednesday, June 21, 2017. This is Trump's first visit to Iowa since the election. [Associated Press]