The online news site The Intercept said Al Jazeera’s Islamabad bureau chief, Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, was on a terror watch list, and was described in the National Security Agency documents as “a member” of both Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.
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 (NSA) PowerPoint presentation bears his 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 presentation was among the documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
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.
According to The Intercept, Zaidan was cited in the documents to highlight a program called Skynet, which analyzes location and communication data from bulk call records in order to detect suspicious patterns.
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 June 2012 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.”
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.”
Zaidan denies the claim
Zaidan told The Intercept he “absolutely” denied being part of the organizations, while noting that he had through his work conducted interviews with senior Al-Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden.
In a brief phone interview with The Intercept “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”, he added.
Journalists concerned over allegation
Responding to the report, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it was “deeply troubled” by the allegations.
“Coloring the legitimate newsgathering activities of a respected journalist as evidence of international terrorism risks chilling the vital work of the media, especially in Pakistan where journalists routinely interview Taliban and other militant groups as part of their coverage,” said Bob Dietz, the committee’s Asia program coordinator.
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.”
Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst and author of several books on Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, told The Intercept, “I’ve known [Zaidan] for well over a decade, and he’s a first class journalist.”
“He has the contacts and the access that of course no Western journalist has,” said Bergen. “But by that standard any journalist who spent time with Al Qaeda would be suspect.” Bergen himself interviewed bin Laden in 1997. -AFP/ The Intercept