Terrorism trial divides Somalis in Minneapolis

The New York Times reports: The day after his oldest son was convicted of conspiring to join and kill for the Islamic State in Syria, Abdihamid Yusuf just wanted to go home and rest. But bills were stacking up, so on Saturday morning he and his wife visited the jail and then reopened Hooyo’s Kitchen, the small Somali restaurant where they serve plates of chicken, rice and bananas.

“We try to survive,” Mr. Yusuf said.

The trial of his son and two other young Somali-American men splintered families and opinions here in the country’s largest Somali community. Former friends testified against one another, describing how they had watched propaganda videos, bought fake passports and plotted their paths to Syria. Family members squabbled in the halls of the courthouse. Some said they had been threatened or shunned.

When the jury came back on Friday afternoon, Mr. Yusuf did not even get word in time to reach the courtroom to see his 22-year-old son, Mohamed Farah, and the two other defendants, Guled Omar, 21, and Abdirahman Daud, 22, declared guilty. A total of nine men — including another of Mr. Yusuf’s sons, Adnan — have been convicted in the case.

Federal prosecutors say the case shined a light on the persistent problem of terrorist recruiting here. Law enforcement authorities have said that more than 20 young men from Minnesota have left to join the Shabab militant group in Somalia and that more than 15 have tried or succeeded in leaving to join the Islamic State.

But it also opened wounds among families, and at the end of the trial, some in the community praised justice served, while others pointed to what they called another injustice. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: The F.B.I. has significantly increased its use of stings in terrorism cases, employing agents and informants to pose as jihadists, bomb makers, gun dealers or online “friends” in hundreds of investigations into Americans suspected of supporting the Islamic State, records and interviews show.

Undercover operations, once seen as a last resort, are now used in about two of every three prosecutions involving people suspected of supporting the Islamic State, a sharp rise in the span of just two years, according to a New York Times analysis. Charges have been brought against nearly 90 Americans believed to be linked to the group.

The increase in the number of these secret operations, which put operatives in the middle of purported plots, has come with little public or congressional scrutiny, and the stings rely on F.B.I. guidelines that predate the rise of the Islamic State.

While F.B.I. officials say they are careful to avoid illegally entrapping suspects, their undercover operatives are far from bystanders. In recent investigations from Florida to California, agents have helped people suspected of being extremists acquire weapons, scope out bombing targets and find the best routes to Syria to join the Islamic State, records show.

Officials said in interviews that because social media had given extremists a cloak of anonymity, these undercover stings — online and in person — had become increasingly vital to gathering evidence and deterring possible attacks in the United States.

“We’re not going to wait for the person to mobilize on his own time line,” said Michael B. Steinbach, who leads the F.B.I.’s national security branch. He added that the F.B.I. could not afford to “just sit and wait knowing the individual is actively plotting.”

Counterterrorism officials said the Islamic State had inspired loyalists to strike quickly, even within days or weeks of their radicalization. Unlike wiretaps or searches, undercover operations do not require a judge to sign a warrant. They are overseen by F.B.I. supervisors and Justice Department prosecutors, and so can usually be started more quickly.

But defense lawyers, Muslim leaders and civil liberties advocates say that F.B.I. operatives coax suspects into saying and doing things that they might not otherwise do — the essence of entrapment. [Continue reading…]

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FBI wants access to Internet browser history without a warrant in terrorism and spy cases

The Washington Post reports: The Obama administration is seeking to amend surveillance law to give the FBI explicit authority to access a person’s Internet browser history and other electronic data without a warrant in terrorism and spy cases.

The administration made a similar effort six years ago but dropped it after concerns were raised by privacy advocates and the tech industry.

FBI Director James B. Comey has characterized the legislation as a fix to “a typo” in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which he says has led some tech firms to refuse to provide data that Congress intended them to provide.

But tech firms and privacy advocates say the bureau is seeking an expansion of surveillance powers that infringes on Americans’ privacy. [Continue reading…]

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The FBI is keeping 80,000 secret files on the Saudis and 9/11

The Daily Beast reports: The Obama administration may soon release 28 classified pages from a congressional investigation that allegedly links Saudis in the United States to the 9/11 attackers. A former Republican member of the 9/11 Commission alleged Thursday that there was “clear evidence” of support for the hijackers from Saudi officials.

But in Florida, a federal judge is weighing whether to declassify portions of some 80,000 classified pages that could reveal far more about the hijackers’ Saudis connections and their activities in the weeks preceding the worst attack on U.S. soil.

The still-secret files speak to one of the strangest and most enduring mysteries of the 9/11 attacks. Why did the Saudi occupants of a posh house in gated community in Sarasota, Florida, suddenly vanish in the two weeks prior to the attacks? And had they been in touch with the leader of the operation, Mohamed Atta, and two of his co-conspirators?

No way, the FBI says, even though the bureau’s own agents did initially suspect the family was linked to some of the hijackers. On further scrutiny, those connections proved unfounded, officials now say.

But a team of lawyers and investigative journalists has found what they say is hard evidence pointing in the other direction. Atta did visit the family before he led 18 men to their deaths and murdered 3,000 people, they say, and phone records connect the house to members of the 9/11 conspiracy. [Continue reading…]

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Released emails show use of unclassified systems was routine

The New York Times reports: On the morning of March 13, 2011, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey D. Feltman, wrote an urgent email to more than two dozen colleagues informing them that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were sending troops into Bahrain to put down antigovernment protests there.

Mr. Feltman’s email prompted a string of 10 replies and forwards over the next 24 hours, including to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as the Obama administration debated what was happening and how to respond.

The chain contained information now declared classified, including portions of messages written by Mr. Feltman; the former ambassador in Kuwait, Deborah K. Jones; and the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John O. Brennan.

The top administration officials discussed the Bahrain situation on unclassified government computer networks, except for Mrs. Clinton, who used a private email server while serving as secretary of state.

Her server is now the subject of an F.B.I. investigation, which is likely to conclude in the next month, about whether classified information was mishandled.

Whatever the disposition of the investigation, the discussion of troops to Bahrain reveals how routinely sensitive information is emailed on unclassified government servers, reflecting what many officials describe as diplomacy in the age of the Internet, especially in urgent, fast-developing situations. [Continue reading…]

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An amateur vs. ISIS (and the FBI): A car salesman investigates and ends up in prison

The New York Times reports: By his own account, Toby Lopez was a supremely ordinary guy. He sold Toyotas and lived with his mother in a tidy rancher here with a cherry tree out front. He was proud that he could connect with customers — anyone from a Superior Court judge to, as he put it, “Redneck Bill from down on the farm.” What passed for excitement was the time his young niece won a beauty contest and he chauffeured her in a red Corvette in a local parade.

Then a high school friend was killed in Afghanistan, and the Islamic State began beheading American journalists. Horrified, Mr. Lopez heard on CNN one day in the fall of 2014 that the Islamic State was active on Twitter, and he went online to see what he could find. “I was intrigued,” said Mr. Lopez, 42. “What could they possibly be saying on Twitter?”

What followed was a radical break from his humdrum life. He was pulled into the murky world of Internet jihadists, sparring with them from his office at the car dealership and late into the night at home. Before long, he was talking for hours on Skype with a man who claimed — falsely, as it would turn out — to be a top ISIS military commander, trying to negotiate the release of hostages. Mr. Lopez contacted the F.B.I. and began a testy relationship with counterterrorism agents who came to believe he might pose a danger. In the end, he landed in federal prison, where he was held for nearly 14 months without trial.

The story of one man’s deepening obsession with a terrorist group is a reminder of how the Internet provides easy portals to distant, sometimes dangerous worlds. It shows the complications for law enforcement agents who confront an overeager amateur encroaching on their turf. [Continue reading…]

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FBI director suggests bill for iPhone hacking topped $1.3 million

The New York Times reports: The director of the F.B.I. suggested Thursday that his agency paid at least $1.3 million to an undisclosed group to help hack into the encrypted iPhone used by an attacker in the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

At a technology conference in London, a moderator asked James B. Comey Jr., the F.B.I. chief, how much bureau officials had to pay the undisclosed outside group to demonstrate how to bypass the phone’s encryption.

“A lot,” Mr. Comey said, as audience members at the Aspen Institute event laughed.

He continued: “Let’s see, more than I will make in the remainder of this job, which is seven years and four months, for sure.”

The F.B.I. had been unwilling to say anything at all until Thursday about how much it paid for what has become one of the world’s most publicized hacking jobs, so Mr. Comey’s cryptic comments about his own wages and the bounty quickly sent listeners scurrying in search of their calculators.

The F.B.I. director makes about $185,100 a year — so Mr. Comey stands to earn at least $1.35 million at that base rate of pay for the remainder of his 10-year term. [Continue reading…]

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Well-known ISIS operative instructed Americans to kill Pamela Geller, prosecutors reveal

The Washington Post reports: The Justice Department on Thursday revealed that a well-known Islamic State operative instructed a Boston-area man to kill Pamela Geller, the organizer of a controversial Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas last year.

In court documents, prosecutors said that Junaid Hussain, a British militant, had been communicating with Usaamah Abdullah Rahim, 26, who along with two friends discussed beheading Geller.

Rahim, however, changed his mind and instead decided to target a police officer. He was shot and killed in June 2015 in Roslindale, Mass., after he attacked members of an FBI-led surveillance team while wielding a large knife, officials said. [Continue reading…]

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FBI says it needs hackers to keep up with tech companies

The New York Times reports: The F.B.I. defended its hiring of a third party to break into an iPhone used by a gunman in last year’s San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting, telling some skeptical lawmakers on Tuesday that it needed to join with partners in the rarefied world of for-profit hackers as technology companies increasingly resist their demands for consumer information.

Amy Hess, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s executive assistant director for science and technology, made the comments at a hearing by members of Congress who are debating potential legislation on encryption. The lawmakers gathered law enforcement authorities and Silicon Valley company executives to discuss the issue, which has divided technology companies and officials in recent months and spurred a debate over privacy and security.

The hearing follows a recent standoff between the F.B.I. and Apple over a court order to force the company to help unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino attackers. Apple opposed the order, citing harm to the privacy of its users. The F.B.I. later dropped its demand for Apple’s help when it found a third-party alternative to hack the device. [Continue reading…]

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FBI used hacking software decade before iPhone fight

The New York Times reports: In early 2003, F.B.I. agents hit a roadblock in a secret investigation, called Operation Trail Mix. For months, agents had been intercepting phone calls and emails belonging to members of an animal welfare group that was believed to be sabotaging operations of a company that was using animals to test drugs. But encryption software had made the emails unreadable.

So investigators tried something new. They persuaded a judge to let them remotely, and secretly, install software on the group’s computers to help get around the encryption.

That effort, revealed in newly declassified and released records, shows in new detail how F.B.I. hackers worked to defeat encryption more than a decade before the agency’s recent fight with Apple over access to a locked iPhone. The Trail Mix case was, in some ways, a precursor to the Apple dispute. In both cases, the agents could not decode the data themselves, but found a clever workaround.

The Trail Mix records also reveal what is believed to be the first example of the F.B.I. remotely installing surveillance software, known as spyware or malware, as part of a criminal wiretap.

“This was the first time that the Department of Justice had ever approved such an intercept of this type,” an F.B.I. agent wrote in a 2005 document summing up the case.

The next year, six activists were convicted of conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act in the case. An appeals court upheld the convictions in 2009, and said that the use of encryption, among other things, was “circumstantial evidence of their agreement to participate in illegal activity.”

Ryan Shapiro, a national security researcher and animal welfare advocate, provided the documents in the case to The New York Times after obtaining them in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Several important details remain secret, including whether the tactic worked. The wiretap was disclosed at trial but the software hacking was not, said Lauren Gazzola, one of the defendants, who now works for the Center for Constitutional Rights. [Continue reading…]

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Apple iPhone unlocking manoeuvre likely to remain secret

Reuters reports: The company that helped the FBI unlock a San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone to get data has sole legal ownership of the method, making it highly unlikely the technique will be disclosed by the government to Apple or any other entity, Obama administration sources said this week.

The White House has a procedure for reviewing technology security flaws and deciding which ones should be made public. But it is not set up to handle or reveal flaws that are discovered and owned by private companies, the sources said, raising questions about the effectiveness of the so-called Vulnerabilities Equities Process.

The secretive process was created to let various government interests debate about what should be done with a given technology flaw, rather than leaving it to agencies like the National Security Agency, which generally prefers to keep vulnerabilities secret so they can use them. [Continue reading…]

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FBI paid professional hackers one-time fee to crack San Bernardino iPhone

The Washington Post reports: The FBI cracked a San Bernardino terrorist’s phone with the help of professional hackers who discovered and brought to the bureau at least one previously unknown software flaw, according to people familiar with the matter.

The new information was then used to create a piece of hardware that helped the FBI to crack the iPhone’s four-digit personal identification number without triggering a security feature that would have erased all the data, the individuals said.

The researchers, who typically keep a low profile, specialize in hunting for vulnerabilities in software and then in some cases selling them to the U.S. government. They were paid a one-time flat fee for the solution. [Continue reading…]

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FBI’s ‘shared responsibility committees’ to identify ‘radicalized’ Muslims raise alarms

The Intercept reports: The FBI’s plan to enlist community leaders in “Shared Responsibility Committees” all across the country with the goal of identifying “radicalized” individuals is raising alarm among civil rights activists.

The Shared Responsibility Committees, known as SRCs, “are expanding the informant program under the guise of an intervention program, which it is not,” said Abed Ayoub, legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

The FBI’s ideas is to have social service workers, teachers, mental health professionals, religious figures, and others interdict young people they believe are on a path towards radicalization. The program was first revealed last November, and while details remain scant, it is widely believed to have been developed along the lines of similar “anti-radicalization” programs in the United Kingdom.

The FBI did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Experts acknowledge the need to have options beyond sending young people to jail for making threatening statements. The committees purport to offer such an option, by allowing members to offer non-binding recommendations to law enforcement about whether certain individuals should be arrested or offered rehabilitation for their alleged radicalization.

But critics say that despite the FBI’s benign characterization of the SRCs, the proposal amounts to nothing more than an expansion of already existing FBI informant programs. The committees “would be doing the work of the FBI, gathering information. This initiative failed in the U.K., it’s not like this is a new idea,” said Ayoub.

The U.K. program called “Channel” has been widely blamed for alienating the communities it targeted while inflaming attitudes towards authorities. Arun Kundnani, an adjunct professor at New York University and expert on U.K. counterterrorism policy, said he worries that the U.S. program would “suffer from the same problems, such as drawing non-policing professionals into becoming the eyes and ears of counter-terrorism surveillance, and thereby undermining professional norms and relationships of trust among educators, health workers and others.” [Continue reading…]

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