Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What U.S. learned from listening in on terror group calls

By Peter Bergen and David Sterman
updated 8:49 AM EDT, Wed June 19, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NSA chief offered information on yield from monitoring phone calls
  • Peter Bergen says in two cases, NSA heard of plans to support terror groups overseas
  • Bergen: Hearing offered little to show NSA has done much to stop terror attacks in U.S.
  • Americans will have to decide whether giving up privacy rights is worth it, he says

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and a director at the New America Foundation. David Sterman is a graduate student at Georgetown University's National Security Studies Program.

(CNN) -- Sometime in late 2007, Basaaly Saeed Moalin, a cabdriver living in San Diego, began to have a series of phone conversations with Aden Hashi Ayrow, one of the leaders of Al-Shabaab, a notorious Somali terrorist group.

Moalin had no idea the National Security Agency was listening in.

In one of those phone calls Ayrow urged Moalin to send money to Al-Shabaab, telling him that he urgently needed several thousand dollars.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

At one point Ayrow told Moalin that it was "time to finance the jihad" and at another, "You are running late with the stuff. Send some and something will happen."

Over several months in 2008, Moalin transferred thousands of dollars to Al-Shabaab.

Moalin even told Ayrow that he could use his house in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and "after you bury your stuff deep in the ground, you would, then, plant the trees on top."

U.S. prosecutors later asserted that Moalin was offering his house to Al-Shabaab as a place to hide weapons.

Skepticism over NSA claims
Bush vs. Obama on surveillance

Earlier this year the San Diego cabbie was convicted of conspiracy to provide material support to Al-Shabaab and of money laundering for the terrorist organization.

In 2012, Al-Shabaab ("the Youth" in Arabic) formally announced its merger with al Qaeda. However, there is nothing on the public record to suggest Moalin was planning an attack in the United States.

Another financial supporter of a terrorist group who was detected by NSA surveillance was Khalid Ouazzani, a native of Morocco and a naturalized American living in Kansas City, Missouri.

Sometime in 2008, Ouazzani, who ran Truman Used Auto Parts in Kansas City, swore an oath of allegiance to al Qaeda and, until he was arrested two years later, he sent funds to the terrorist group, providing a total of some $23,000 to al Qaeda.

As revealed Tuesday at a House Intelligence Committee hearing about the NSA's surveillance programs, Ouazzani also had some kind of a "nascent" plan to attack the New York Stock Exchange, according to FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce. Ouazzani's attorney told CNNMoney he had no part in such a plot, and court documents in his case do not mention any plan to attack the stock exchange.

Al-Shabaab's connection to San Diego and al Qaeda's connection to Kansas City were two of the terrorist conspiracies that were uncovered by NSA surveillance that Joyce and other top national security officials, including the NSA's director, Gen. Keith Alexander, pointed to at Tuesday's hearing as examples of how NSA programs have worked to interrupt terrorist plotting.

These officials otherwise gave no new public information to substantiate the claim that Alexander had made last week that "dozens of terrorist events" had been averted by NSA surveillance, both in the United States and abroad.

On Tuesday, Alexander said he would provide members of the House Intelligence Committee additional information about some 50 other terrorists plots that had been averted in the United States and around the world, but this would be behind closed doors as the details of these plots remain classified.

The public record indicates that few of these are likely to have taken place in the United States. That's because traditional law enforcement methods have overwhelmingly played the most significant role in foiling terrorist attacks, according to a survey of all the jihadist terrorist plots in the United States since 9/11 by the New America Foundation.

Jihadist extremists based in the United States have mounted 43 plots to conduct attacks within the United States since 2001. Of those plots, nine involved an actual terrorist act that was not prevented by any type of government action, such as the 2009 shooting spree by Maj. Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas, that killed 13.

Of the remaining 34 plots, the public record shows that at least 30 were uncovered by using standard policing practices such as informants, undercover officers and tips to law enforcement.

At Tuesday's hearing, Joyce also pointed to two other plots averted by NSA's programs; the 2009 plots by Najibullah Zazi to bomb the New York subway and by David Coleman Headley to attack a Danish newspaper that had printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Alexander had previously cited the Zazi and Headley cases as examples of how the NSA surveillance programs have averted terrorist attacks.

Tuesday's hearing did little to reassure the public that the NSA's surveillance programs have done much to stop terrorist attacks at home, with the major exception of the plot by Zazi to attack the New York subway system around the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

As the FBI's Joyce explained at Tuesday's hearing this was "the first core al Qaeda plot since 9/11" that was directed from Pakistan inside the United States.

There is no doubt that it was a serious plot, but if it was the only such serious plot on American soil that the government averted as a result of the NSA's surveillance programs, the public will have to decide whether it justifies the large-scale government surveillance programs -- no matter how carefully they are run so as to respect Americans' civil liberties.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT