During an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, Congressman Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that al Qaeda has changed the way it communicates in light of Edward Snowden’s leaks. Rogers said of Snowden (emphasis added):
“If he wants to come back and open up to the responsibility of the fact that he took and stole information, he violated his oath, he disclosed classified information -- that by the way has allowed three different terrorist organizations, affiliates of al Qaeda to change the way they communicate -- I'd be happy to have that discussion with him.”
Rogers was evidently referring to an intelligence analysis of the impact of Snowden’s leaks. The former contractor leaked to the press, as well as foreign governments, various National Security Agency files, as well as descriptions of the agency’s surveillance programs.
In late September, the New York Times reported that intelligence officials differed in their assessments of the damage done by Snowden, with respect to the fight against al Qaeda. Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, thinks al Qaeda has been adapting to the revelations.
“We have seen, in response to the Snowden leaks, Al Qaeda and affiliated groups seeking to change their tactics, looking to see what they can learn from what is in the press and seek to change how they communicate to avoid detection,” Olsen said during a conference in July.
Other officials think that the disclosure of sensitive communications between al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahri and his subordinates in early August has done more damage. “It was something that was immediate, direct and involved specific people on specific communications about specific events,” an anonymous senior American official told the Times. This same official continued: “The Snowden stuff is layered and layered, and it will take a lot of time to understand it. There wasn’t a sudden drop-off from it. A lot of these guys think that they are not impacted by it, and it is difficult stuff for them to understand.”
Al Qaeda has certainly been tracking the leaks of classified information very closely. Thousands of formerly classified American intelligence reports from the battlefields of Afghanistan were found in Osama bin Laden’s lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.