The U.S. government labeled a prominent journalist as a member of Al Qaeda and placed him on a watch list of suspected terrorists, according to a top-secret document that details U.S. intelligence efforts to track Al Qaeda couriers by analyzing metadata.
The briefing singles out Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, Al Jazeera’s longtime Islamabad bureau chief, as a member of the terrorist group. A Syrian national, Zaidan has focused his reporting throughout his career on the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and has conducted several high-profile interviews with senior Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden.
A slide dated June 2012 from a National Security Agency PowerPoint presentation provided by Edward Snowden, bears Zaidan’s photo, name, and a terror watch list identification number, and labels him a “member of Al-Qa’ida” as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. It also notes that he “works for Al Jazeera.”
The document cites Zaidan as an example to demonstrate the powers of SKYNET, a program that analyzes location and communication data (or “metadata”) from bulk call records in order to detect suspicious patterns.
In the Terminator movies, SKYNET is a self-aware military computer system that launches a nuclear war to exterminate the human race, and then systematically kills the survivors.
According to the presentation, the NSA uses its version of SKYNET to identify people that it believes move like couriers used by Al Qaeda’s senior leadership.
The document poses the question: “Given a handful of courier selectors, can we find others that ‘behave similarly’” by analyzing cell phone metadata? “We are looking for different people using phones in similar ways,” the presentation continues, and measuring “pattern of life, social network, and travel behavior.”
For the experiment, the analysts fed 55 million cell phone records from Pakistan into the system, the document states.
The results identified someone who is “PROB” — which appears to mean probably — Zaidan as the “highest scoring selector” traveling between Peshawar and Lahore.
The following slide appears to show other top hits, noting that 21 of the top 500 were previously tasked for surveillance, indicating that the program is “on the right track” to finding people of interest. A portion of that list visible on the slide includes individuals supposedly affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as members of Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence. But sometimes the descriptions are vague. One selector is identified simply as “Sikh Extremist.”
It appears, however, that Zaidan had already been identified as an Al Qaeda member before he showed up on SKYNET’s radar. That he was already assigned a watch list number would seem to indicate that the government had a prior intelligence file on him. The Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, is a U.S. government database of over one million names suspected of a connection to terrorism, which is shared across the U.S. intelligence community.
The presentation contains no evidence to explain the designation.
According to another 2012 presentation describing SKYNET, the program looks for terrorist connections based on questions such as “who has traveled from Peshawar to Faisalabad or Lahore (and back) in the past month? Who does the traveler call when he arrives?” and behaviors such as “excessive SIM or handset swapping,” “incoming calls only,” “visits to airports,” and “overnight trips.”
That presentation states that the call data is acquired from major Pakistani telecom providers, though it does not specify the technical means by which the data is obtained.
The program assessing Zaidan as a likely match, raises troubling questions about the U.S. government’s method of identifying terrorist targets based on metadata.
As other documents from Snowden revealed, drone targets are often identified in part based on metadata analysis and cell phone tracking. Former NSA director Michael Hayden famously put it more bluntly in May 2014, when he said, “we kill people based on metadata.”
Metadata also played a key role in locating and killing Osama bin Laden. The CIA used cell phone calling patterns to track an Al Qaeda courier and identify bin Laden’s hiding place in Pakistan.
Yet U.S. drone strikes have killed many hundreds of civilians and unidentified alleged “militants” who may have been marked based on the patterns their cell phones gave up.
People whose work requires contact with extremists and groups that the U.S. government regards as terrorists have long worried that they themselves could look suspicious in metadata analysis.
In a brief phone interview with The Intercept, Zaidan “absolutely” denied that he is a member of Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood. In a statement provided through Al Jazeera, Zaidan noted that his career has spanned many years of dangerous work in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and required interviewing key people in the region — a normal part of any journalist’s job.
“For us to be able to inform the world, we have to be able to freely contact relevant figures in the public discourse, speak with people on the ground, and gather critical information. Any hint of government surveillance that hinders this process is a violation of press freedom and harms the public’s right to know,” he wrote. “To assert that myself, or any journalist, has any affiliation with any group on account of their contact book, phone call logs, or sources is an absurd distortion of the truth and a complete violation of the profession of journalism.”
A spokesman for Al Jazeera, a global news service funded by the government of Qatar, cited a long list of instances in which its journalists have been targeted by governments on which it reports, and described the labeling and surveillance of Zaidan as “yet another attempt at using questionable techniques to target our journalists, and in doing so, enforce a gross breach of press freedom.”