Paris attacks show US surveillance of Islamic State may be ‘going dark’

(From Yahoo News)

Officials contend Snowden disclosures, use of sophisticated encryption and messaging apps are making terrorists harder to track

By Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman

The Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the Paris attacks that killed 129 people — including one American college student — has the potential to dramatically alter U.S. intelligence assessments of the group’s capabilities to carry off well-orchestrated, mass casualty attacks.

rench firemen aiding an injured individual near the Bataclan concert hall

French firemen aiding an injured individual near the Bataclan concert hall

At the same time, the attacks underscore the mounting difficulties U.S. and Western intelligence agencies are having in tracking the terror group, resulting in repeated warnings that their efforts to conduct surveillance of Islamic State suspects were “going dark.”  

Over the past year, current and former intelligence officials tell Yahoo News, IS terror suspects have moved to increasingly sophisticated methods of encrypted communications, using new software such as Tor, that intelligence agencies are having difficulty penetrating — a switch that some officials say was accelerated by the disclosures of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The result played out in deadly fashion in Paris: At least eight terrorists, armed with heavy weaponry and suicide vests, and most likely aided by a support network, plotted and executed a highly elaborate mass casualty attack on multiple targets without the French or any other Western intelligence agency having a clue.

“Absolutely, this was an intelligence failure,” said Ali Soufan, a former top FBI counterterrorism official who now runs an international security firm that has been warning about the dangers posed by IS, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, for over a year.

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Soufan noted that the Paris attack would have required extensive planning, including support from a network of IS sympathizers who would likely have had to assist the terrorist perpetrators in obtaining weapons and explosives as well as casing the targets and conducting countersurveillance. (Police in Belgium today arrested three suspects linked to the attacks after tracing a rental car with a Belgian license plate that was seen at the Bataclan Theatre at the time of the attacks.)

For the past year and a half, Western intelligence and law enforcement officials have highlighted the threat posed by foreign fighters, including as many as 100 Americans and thousands of European passport holders, who have flocked to Syria and Iraq to fight with IS and might return undetected to conduct attacks in the West. (French officials are investigating the possibility that one of the terrorists came to France from Syria as a refugee.)

But until now, U.S. officials have tended to describe the threat as mostly coming from “lone wolves” — what one described as disgruntled “glory seekers.” They have downplayed the idea that IS had either the intention or ability to carry out the sort of spectacular attacks such as 9/11 that had been the hallmark of al-Qaida.

“They had made blustery statements in the past,” said Matthew Olsen, who until last year served as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), about IS.

But the group had not shown they could execute highly sophisticated attacks on Western soil. “We hadn’t seen that,” said Olsen. “They hadn’t proven they could do that.”

While he said the Paris attacks — similar in some ways to the 2008 attack on multiple targets in Mumbai, India, by an al-Qaida allied Pakistani terror group — “shouldn’t be a surprise,” Olsen said U.S. intelligence agencies will now have to reassess their judgment of what IS is capable of. “They’ll have to recalibrate the assessment,” he said. And that inevitably means the prospect of a similar mass casualty strike inside the United States. Read more

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