Are We to Believe Samir Khan’s Communications Were Used as a Tripwire, but Awlaki’s Weren’t?

You should read both the AP and OregonLive accounts of yesterday’s Mohamed Osman Mohamud trial for their description of the problems surrounding the FBI’s account of its early investigations of the teenager (not to mention its choice, when Mohamud’s drinking suggested he was abandoning his radicalism, they nudged him back into extreme views).

But for now I’d like to look at the account FBI Agent Issac DeLong gave of how they first started tracking Mohamud. From the AP.

DeLong’s testimony also revealed that FBI agents in the Charlotte, N.C., office tracking now-deceased al-Qaida operative Samir Khan were the first to identify Mohamud as a potential threat because of communication between the two.

The FBI was tracking Khan – who was killed in a drone strike with then-al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki – when they came across Mohamud’s emails to him in early 2009. They tracked down Mohamud’s IP address to a Portland suburb and identified him. When he cropped up on the bureau’s radar again, DeLong said he was able to rely on that information to identify Mohamud.

DeLong also said that a team of FBI agents followed Mohamud during his freshman year of college, monitoring his phone calls, text messages and emails, along with video and photo surveillance.

And from OregonLive:

Agents in Charlotte, N.C., picked up on Mohamud’s name in early 2009 while intercepting email traffic of then-U.S. based al-Qaida propagandist Samir Khan.

That August, FBI Special Agent Isaac DeLong was assigned to interview Mohamud’s father, Osman Barre, who feared Muslim extremists were radicalizing his son. Barre had read about Somali youths from Minnesota who were heading overseas to fight, and he worried his own son was trying to fly to Yemen to fight against the West, DeLong testified.

Barre agreed to speak to Mohamud and try to make sure he wouldn’t fly overseas. He took his son’s passport and reported back to the FBI that they had a chat.

“His father said that his son was not hiding anything,” DeLong said, “and there was nothing to worry about.”

But Barre followed up by forwarding to the FBI an email link he had received, DeLong said. It concerned a school in Yemen that his son hoped to attend. The correspondence contained the email address [email protected], which Mohamud had created in the United Kingdom, DeLong said.

The agent combed through the FBI’s storehouses of electronic data, finding that the address had been tied to the investigation of Samir Khan. He would learn that Mohamud had traded more than 100 emails with Khan beginning in February 2009 and that Mohamud had written articles for Khan under a pen name while a student at Beaverton’s Westview High School.

There are things that still don’t make sense about this narrative. At least from these accounts, it’s unclear whether the Charlotte discovery led to the Portland investigation, or whether the preliminary investigation out of Charlotte just served to make Mohamud’s father’s concerns more alarming.

And note this account still doesn’t jive with Hesham Abu Zubaydah’s claim that he had been told to track Mohamud at his mosque as early as 2008 (though we’re close enough in timeline that it’s possible they had Hesham track Mohamud after the Khan discovery, but before the formal investigation).

Moreover, note that the FBI delayed the Khan admissions until after the US had killed him, and turned over details of DeLong’s communications just weeks before the trial. The government tried to hide all of this earlier part of the narrative for a long time.

Mostly, though, I’m interested in how the FBI’s treatment of emails to Khan in early 2009 compared with its treatment of emails to Anwar al-Awlaki in that same period and earlier. From the Webster report, we know the FBI wasn’t prioritizing Awlaki emails in this period.

In fact, potentially radicalized people communicating with Awlaki were only incidentally tracked until after the [Nidal Hasan] attack(s) in 2009; the wiretap on Awlaki was not considered primarily a source of leads.

The report explains that when the Nidal Hasan emails were first intercepted the wiretap (which appears to have started on March 16, 2008) occasionally served as a “trip wire” identifying persons of potential interest. (Remember that bracketed comments are substitutions for redactions provided in the report itself.)

The Aulaqi [investigation] [redacted] also served as an occasional “trip wire” for identifying [redacted] persons of potential interest [redacted]. When SD-Agent or SD-Analyst identified such a person, their typical first step was to search DWS-EDMS [their database of intercepts] and other FBI databases for additional information [redacted]. If the [redacted] [person] was a U.S. Person or located in the U.S., SD-Agent might set a lead to the relevant FBI Field Office. If the information was believed valuable to the greater intelligence community and met one of the FBI’s intelligence-collection requirements, SD-Analyst would disseminate it outside the FBI in an IIR.


On December 17, 2008, Nidal Hasan tripped the wire. (40-41)

But all of the “trip wire” leads that came from this wiretap up to this point were set as “Routine Discretionary Action” leads. (44) That’s how Hasan’s initial emails were also treated.

Now it’s possible that Mohamud’s emails were treated in the same way: the FBI went through the effort of identifying his IP, but once they had identified him they dropped the investigation. Though it doesn’t make sense that Mohamud’s writings for Khan would merit a big alarm later if they didn’t when they were written.

In other words, to the degree that the FBI’s story about Mohamud’s communication with Khan doesn’t make sense, it suggests the possibility that Khan’s communications were used a Tripwire in a way that Awlakis, during the same period, were not.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

4 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    It’s hard to believe that, considering how much they hyped Awlaki as a Big Dangerous Terr’rist.

  2. Jeff Kaye says:

    Only slightly O/T, but very appropriate nevertheless, given your FDL book Salon with Trevor Aaronson, did you see Ali Soufan’s riposte in the Wall Street Journal to Aaronson’s book, The Terror Factory?

    Of course, Soufan is terribly disingenuous. He says the FBI is doing a great job hunting down the (wanna be) terrorists. He even cites the “Iranian regime’s 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., which was uncovered thanks to a Drug Enforcement Administration informant…”

    Someone should answer Soufan on this. I’d do it myself if I had more time. In any case, I kind of am in the process of doing this as I continue to research charges of torture by the FBI in the Uganda World Cup bombing investigation. But, gee, someone shd answer Soufan on this. Perhaps Aaronson himself cando this if you, bmaz or Jim are unable.

  3. P J Evans says:

    @Jeff Kaye: @Jeff Kaye:
    Yes, the FBI does do a great job hunting down the wanna-be terrorists. The hard part is finding people who are willing to go along with them without noticing that the FBI is doing everything to get them arrested.

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