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
June 19, 2013 -- Updated 1249 GMT (2049 HKT)
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
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT