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16-Sep-2019 02:35

By staying off the grid, al-Wahishi and other senior al Qaeda leaders in Yemen, such as Qassim al-Rimi and top bomb-maker Ibrahim Al-Asiri, have managed to remain alive.

So frustrated was the CIA at one point, the spy agency considered killing the couriers passing messages in an attempt to disrupt the terrorist group’s plans, a former senior US official said.

Jihadist technology may now be so sophisticated and secretive, experts say, that many communications avoid detection by National Security Agency programs that were designed to uncover terror plots.

“This creates a bit of a cat-and-mouse game between terrorist groups that can buy commercial technology and intelligence agencies that are trying to find ways to continue to monitor,” said Seth Jones, a former adviser to US special operations forces and counterterrorism expert at Rand Corp., a Washington-based think tank that receives US government funding.

The idea was dropped because the couriers were not involved in lethal operations.

Exactly how US spy systems picked up the latest threat is classified, and Shawn Turner, spokesman for National Intelligence Director James Clapper, refused to confirm or deny Katz’s analysis on how it might have happened.

Intelligence officials have suggested that the plot was detected, in part at least, through NSA surveillance programs that have been under harsh worldwide criticism for privacy intrusions in the name of national security.

It’s not clear, however, that even the powerful US spy systems would be able to crack jihadists’ encrypted messages without help from the inside.

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“You can encrypt things in such a way that you can assume that even the NSA can’t undo them — there’s no back door,” said Dan Auerbach, a technology expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is challenging NSA eavesdropping in federal lawsuits.

But the unspecified call to arms by the al Qaeda leaders, using a multilayered subterfuge to pass messages from couriers to tech-savvy underlings to attackers, provoked a quick reaction by the US to protect Americans in far-flung corners of the world where the terror network is evolving into regional hubs.