(WASHINGTON) — Top U.S. security officials have revealed that the government’s recently exposed surveillance programs led them to an al Qaeda cell that plotted and scouted, but ultimately abandoned, a plan to bomb Wall Street in 2008.
“We found through electronic surveillance that they were actually in the initial stages of plotting to bomb the New York Stock Exchange,” FBI Assistant Director Sean Joyce told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Joyce was testifying alongside high-level U.S. officials, including National Security Agency head Gen. Keith Alexander, before the House Intelligence Committee to defend the NSA’s practice of collecting vast amounts of telephone and Internet usage data – programs recently revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden, who is in hiding in Hong Kong after confessing to the leaks, called the reach of the programs “horrifying.” The U.S. officials who testified Tuesday claimed they helped put a stop to more than 50 terror plots in 20 countries – four of which were discussed publicly.
The NYSE plot, which had until Tuesday been unknown to the public, was centered around an auto parts dealer in Kansas City, Mo., named Khalid Ouazzani, who pleaded guilty in 2010 for his role in a conspiracy to provide funding to al Qaeda. At the time of his plea, the complex case against Ouazzani seemed to have little to do with the famous NYSE headquarters on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan, except for a vague reference in his plea agreement that said, “Over a period of years, [Ouazzani] and others discussed various ways they could support al Qaeda.”
The FBI now says Ouazzani was talking to an extremist in Yemen about a terror plot that would strike at the symbolic heart of America’s capitalist system – an attack on Wall Street.
Ouazzani was never charged with planning any attacks, and a federal law enforcement official told ABC News it was Ouazzani’s role as a cooperating witness, after he was identified with the help of NSA programs, that helped authorities uncover the plot in the first place.
A senior law enforcement official told ABC News that “overseas intel” connected Ouazzani to two U.S. citizen extremists, Sabirhan Hasanoff and Wesam el-Hanafi. Court documents unsealed on Tuesday showed that all three swore their allegiance to al Qaeda, but it was Hasanoff who traveled to New York in 2008 to conduct a scouting mission for a possible bombing attack on the Stock Exchange.
Hasanoff wrote a “rudimentary report” to a “senior terrorist leader” in an email about the security situation there, the court documents say. However, the leader decided that while the information “could be used by someone who wanted to do an operation, he was not satisfied with the report, and he accordingly disposed of it.”
Ouazzani’s crew and the plot never “went operational,” a counter-terrorism official in New York said.
Hasanoff and el-Hanafi both later pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges in June 2012, but again the Department of Justice omitted any mention of the Stock Exchange in their announcement at the time.
The plot was left out of the public record apparently because it was discovered in part from intelligence gathered through surveillance authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) in Washington, DC. Though there are ways to use such evidence at trial, the Justice Department tries to instead attempt to secure convictions on more typical varieties of crimes like fraud and money-laundering. That was the path chosen in case of the NYSE bomb plot that never was.
The Stock Exchange, at 11 Wall Street, is just a half-mile away from the site of the World Trade Center towers that were destroyed during the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks by al Qaeda. Nicknamed the “Big Board,” the Exchange is the world’s largest stock market with the total value of the companies it lists hovering at more than $16.6 trillion.
Though an attack on the building would be a colossal symbolic blow to the country, the market itself would remain largely intact because the vast majority of trading is now done online, and the market’s computer network was relocated to off-site locations in the wake of the 2001 attacks.
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