Al-Qaeda computer geek nearly overthrew US

A close shave, the Bushies claim

Update A White House with a clear determination to draw paranoid conclusions from ambiguous data has finally gone over the top. It has now implied that the al-Qaeda computer geek arrested last month in Pakistan was involved in a plot to destabilize the USA around election time.

Two and two is five

As we reported here and here, so-called al-Qaeda "computer expert" Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, a Pakistani, was arrested on 13 July in possession of detailed but rather old surveillance documents related to major financial institutions in New York, Newark, and Washington.

Since that time, other intelligence has led the US security apparatus to imagine that a plot to attack the USA might be in the works. (No doubt there are scores of plots in the works, but we digress.) Therefore, last week, the ever-paranoid Bush Administration decided that Khan's building surveillance documents, and the hints of imminent danger, had to be connected. Indeed, if al Qaeda is to strike at all, it is most likely to strike the targets mentioned in Khan's documents, as opposed to thousands of others, the Bushies reasoned.

New York, Newark and Washington were immediately put on high alert, at great expense, and to the inconvenience of millions of residents. The sites mentioned in the Khan documents have received extraordinary attention, while thousands of other potential targets remain exposed to easy attack. (Anyone doubting this should look at the photos of unguarded access and control points to a Manhattan gas pipeline over forty inches in diameter, photographed without difficulty by Cryptome's John Young.)

But government panic over dubious intelligence was not enough. Another Bush Administration hobby horse is a notion that foreign evildoers intend to disrupt the November elections. We've been hearing about this ever since it was assumed that a terrorist attack determined the Spanish elections back in March.

So it did not take long for Bush security apparatchiks to begin leaking to the press strong hints that this is precisely what's behind the Administration's current terrorist hysteria.

According to an article in the New York Times, Khan the cyberterrorist "was also communicating with al Qaeda operatives who the authorities say are plotting to carry out an attack intended to disrupt the fall elections, a senior intelligence official said Saturday."

Given the amount of skepticism the Administration has had to confront over its most recent Chicken Little act, and its hammerheaded aversion to acknowledging even the tiniest of mistakes, perhaps it was inevitable that the terror hype of last week could only be hyped further. It was impossible to retreat.

It has now got every citizen and law enforcement officer obsessing on a handful of targets that, thanks to the news cycle, al Qaeda knows not to mess with.

Missed opportunities

Meanwhile, back in Britain, UK Home Secretary David Blunkett - in a rare moment of common sense, if not lucidity - upbraided the Bush Administration for "feed[ing] the news frenzy."

The information on which the Bushies decided to raise the terror alert level is "of dubious worth," Blunkett said, adding that such information should be published "only if it would prove useful in preventing injury and loss of life," which he obviously believes the Bush hysteria would not do.

"There has been column inch after column inch devoted to the fact that in the United States there is often high-profile commentary, followed - as in the most current case - by detailed scrutiny with the potential risk of inviting ridicule," Blunkett said, inelegantly but rightly.

Blunkett is spot on in that critique, and still it gets worse. According to wire reports, Kahn the geek had been cooperating with Pakistani security forces, until the Bush Administration's insistence that he be arrested immediately, and their leaking of his name, ended his cooperation, and stuffed up several terror investigations in various countries, the UK included.

Pakistani intelligence forces have complained that several high-profile al Qaeda suspects they'd been keeping an eye on have gone to earth and now can't be found, merely because Khan was named. The twelve suspects suddenly rounded up in Britain last week were almost certainly nabbed in haste for the same reason.

But Khan is clearly a small-fry player, one whose continuing cooperation would have yielded more fruit than his arrest. Indeed, his arrest has signaled to scores of other al-Qaeda players that they should shift their plans. ®

Thomas C Greene is the author of Computer Security for the Home and Small Office, a comprehensive guide to system hardening, malware protection, online anonymity, encryption, and data hygiene for Windows and Linux.

Related stories US terror alert becomes political football Al-Qaeda cyber terrorist panics US

Sponsored: Today’s most dangerous security threats